I’m writing this from the front hallway. Steve’s reading, and I’m typing on my laptop. We can hear people snoring in the Great Hall. This is our third time hosting Safe Ground this week. We normally don’t do more than two, but it’s a cold night; and we had willing volunteers and lots of leftovers. We put the logistics together this morning, and opened the building this afternoon. About 70 people are sleeping here, warm and dry and safe.
[Note: People came in late into the night, after we’d gone to bed. The morning’s count was 95.]
It’s a quiet night, which is fine. It feels like everything’s running like clockwork. We know how to do this, now. Safe Ground knows how to give people the basics: sleeping bags and a sense of security. We know how to feed them, and to make them feel welcome.
I went to part of the Catechumenate last night, after our Community Dinner. I got there just in time to introduce myself in the circle, then we broke for lectio. The reading was the Gospel for this coming Sunday, Luke 4:14-21. Jesus returns to Nazareth, and reads the scroll in his hometown synagogue:
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
I couldn’t let go of that last sentence. Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Today. Now. As we’re sitting here at this table. That day in Nazareth. Every “now” that there ever has been. And always.
I really enjoy the Catechumenate group. Because I organize Thursday night dinners, I’m here anyway. And though I’m so involved, I’ve only been part of Trinity for about five months. I get a chance to get to know people, talking about what makes me tick. And this gave me a context for something I’d been thinking about all week.
We hosted Safe Ground on Monday and Tuesday. Monday, we had 86 people in the Great Hall and upstairs classrooms. Tuesday, the count was 122. That’s a lot. The energy was more frenetic. But everything that needed to be done, was done. People were visited with, fed a hot dinner, put to bed safely, awakened and given breakfast. And it amazed me, as it always does, to watch how Safe Ground creates community. They all sign a very simple covenant: no drugs, no alcohol, no violence or threats of violence. The elders enforce that—and encourage the spirit of the law, as well. People take care of each other; they protect each other. A few times I’ve seen an old-timer connect with a newly homeless person, and show them the ropes. They taught me how to be present with newcomers—how not to be so afraid for them that I made the situation harder. They taught me how to help someone find the slightest bit of calm, strength, and peace on their first night out.
I have never felt threatened in this church under any circumstances—and I’m pretty hard to scare—but when they are here, this is the safest place in the city. Yes, I know that I’m here every time we do this. I know that people have gotten to know me, as well as everyone else whom they so often see. But it takes so shockingly little. We feed them, and we give them a safe place to sleep. In between we sit with someone who wants company, or get someone a cup of water, or laugh with a new friend. All we do is treat them like people. And we get so much love in return.
People ask me how I am—and they’re curious about the truth. I get so many hugs. Old, toothless men joke with me. They’re hysterically funny, and we laugh. I ask naïve questions at dinner, and I am answered with real respect. People tell me their stories, because I ask them to. I got to cheer for someone tonight, who just started a new job.
This is easy. It’s joyful and loving and wonderful. This is just fun. And sometimes it breaks my heart.
Wednesday at breakfast, I was passing out napkins at the front of the line. I wasn’t even fully awake yet. I was rolling spoons inside of napkins, offering them, and saying hi, or asking how someone slept; that sort of thing. Without the slightest bit of consciousness of how my behavior might affect anybody.
I gave someone a spoon and a napkin. I have no idea what I said to him. He asked me, “Why are you always so nice to us?”
I answered with the first thing that came to my head: “Because we’re all human beings. And because you guys deserve it.” I was thinking, “My God, what did you expect me to be?”
That’s what it does to someone’s soul when everywhere they go, they’re trespassing.
The homeless people that we host come here because they know that they can. They know that we will welcome them. We offer them food, company, community. We invite them into church—we explicitly do not compel them. They are free to be themselves here. We laugh with them. We listen to them. We love them. And they love us.
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
On these cold, wet nights, “inbreaking” is too weak a word. Time and time and time again, we witness the reign of God crashing into the space we walk around in. There is so much love here.
I’m thinking of Brian’s baptism sermon a few weeks ago, with the line about “Birmingham force.” This love is no fire hose aimed to move people along. This pours just as strongly into us, through us, around and between us. This love creates connection. This love gives birth to trust. This work is simply love, and this love is all about relationship. All of us are equal in the sight of God. All of us are worthy, simply because we are breathing. All of us are created by the One who loves us all.
We are very aware that when our friends aren’t here with us, they’re outside. We can only help them a couple of nights a week. If you attend another church, please consider volunteering. Can you offer your space one night or two a week? Can you send people to Trinity to cook dinner? Would you like to come visit us on a night when we’re hosting? Contact Steve Skiffington. He coordinates the volunteer e-list; he can also help orient a new church to this work.
Come and see.