Jesus Has Already Done It

It was a Tuesday morning before our monthly board meeting, and I’d arrived at Connections Shelter to find that one of our families had again used abusive language toward staff, the fifth time in as many days. They had been warned that they had only one more chance, but I really didn’t want to be the one to say they were losing their shelter and would have to go back to sleeping in their car while they looked for an apartment. While I waited for calls back from the school social worker and staff members who’d borne the brunt of their insults, I looked at the staffing schedule and realized that we were once again short a weekend overnight person, and the person we’d hired had sent an email saying she couldn’t start until the next weekend.

Again, a flurry of texts and calls went out to see who would cover, and I turned to the financial reports for our board meeting, so could compare to where we were last year. The result piled more discouragement on: $12,000 behind in our giving compared to the previous year. And just as I finished lamenting this with my colleague, Pastor Erica, my phone rang.

“Your son just threw up at school. You’ve got to come pick him up.”

Breathing out a tear-filled sigh, I said to Pastor Erica, “I’m going to get him settled in at home and then I’ll be back so we can figure out how to face this garbage pile.”

All the way to the middle school, I prayed. As I tucked my son in his bed with water and his iPad, I prayed. As I waited in the Arby’s drive through, I prayed. “Jesus, we just can’t.  It’s too much. You’ve got to fix it.”

Armed with curly fries and caffeinated beverages, I walk back into our shelter office ready to battle our circumstances. But before we could even start eating to fuel up, the phone rang. 

“We got an apartment!” Our beloved and challenging family crowed. “And we are coming to the shelter to get our stuff because we can move in today!” It was the middle of the month, and they were using rental assistance, so those of you who know public housing know how impossible this scenario should’ve been. Erica set down the phone and we just stared at each other open-mouthed. Thank you, Jesus.

While we were still awestruck at this housing miracle, my phone buzzed. It was a text from our newly hired staff person: “I can actually start this weekend. Can I come in for training tomorrow?” Absolutely. Yes please. Again, thank you Jesus.

With two problems solved, and my son still doing fine in his bed at home, I said, “Okay, let’s check the mail and see if maybe we can get a few more checks to make our financial picture look less bleak”. When I got downstairs to the mailbox, it was jammed so full it took pulling and wiggling to get the whole pile out.

Every single envelope contained a check. 

As I opened each one, I added the number on its check to the calculator on my phone. When I was done, I just held it up for Erica to see, unable to speak. $12,200. Just a little more than exactly how much we’d been behind that morning.

As we laughed and cried and breathed a bit of new life in, we realized that every one of these miracles that had come to us within an hour had been in the works for days previous. Before we’d ever prayed those desperate prayers, Jesus was at work on what only he knew we’d need. While we were still thinking maybe we had this all together, Jesus was putting together a rescue plan that would be ready when everything fell apart.

“Ok, Jesus” we prayed with laughter, “we get it. You’ve already got this. You’ve already done it. We will try to trust you better tomorrow.”

In the Still of the Night

I happen to be working the overnight shift at the shelter tonight.  It’s not something I usually do as one of the pastors, but this season, with a pandemic and short staffing- we do what we need to, to keep the doors open.  

I am used to different rhythms in this space.  The mornings where the sun streams in the stained glass windows in the office and the silence is broken by the doorbell chimes and the ringing of the phone.  We bounce between big dreams and the minute details of daily shelter life, talking, laughing, occasionally crying and often swearing.  The day moves quickly and our lists seem to grow instead of shrink.

 In the evenings, the space is alive with noise and chaos.  Conversations, food, volunteers, raised voices, laughter, and doors slamming shut on their hinges.  Staff and volunteers hustle down the halls, meeting one need and then the next.  On good nights, the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly.  On harder nights there is tension and a sense of caution.  The evening moves along quickly- there isn’t ever time to stop and reflect. 

At 2:30 am in the shelter, the pace is uniquely its own.  The halls are quiet.  The automatic lights  all turn off as there is no one there to trigger their sensors.  Every so often the quiet is interrupted with the soft click of a door closing and someone will amble their way to the bathroom or stop to check out what remains on the snack table.  There is a peace in this space that is palpable and tonight, in all the chaos of this season, it reminds me of one of the reasons we do what we do.  

As I look at the “bed board” with the names of those sleeping in each room, I pray. I pray for the  restoration that sleep can bring.  I give thanks that each of them has found this place, this respite, this quiet.  I pray for the things that keep them up at night and the things that bring them peace.  I pray for this sense of stillness and middle of the night calm to gentle their trauma, heal their pain, restore their hope.   I pray for the work of this place.  I pray for our stamina and our patience as we ride out our most difficult season yet.  The deepest part of the night is truly holy…. -Pastor Erica

Sometimes, it doesn’t work

We preach dignity. We stake our deep belief on the fact that Jesus names and claims every one of us a beloved child of God. We live out our call to love our neighbor as ourselves in a million big and little ways day in and day out in our work. Most of the time, we see fruit. We see the beginnings of healing and trust and growth. These are the stories that are easy to share. The stories that make this work make sense. The stories that fuel my passion. But sometimes, sometimes the brokenness is so deep and so fierce that no amount of seeing or empathizing or listening will scratch the surface. These are the times when this work brings me to my knees and wracks my body with deep sobs because I know that what I have to offer will never be enough.

Oppressive systems have taken the very spirit from these beloveds. Poverty, mental illness, physical pain, racism, homophobia, addiction, childhood trauma- all of it tossed in a cauldron and held to the fire of daily life. It simmers and stews and melds together and just like a pot that begins to boil over, all that brokenness spills over and burns those in its path. If only I were made of teflon, so the brokenness would slide off rather than stick and burn. But it does stick and the burns leave a mark.

There is no pretty way to tell these stories, to see the plus side, to find the positive. We can hold the space, we can continue to try, we can love, we can pray- but sometimes the most loving thing we can do is say no. And create boundaries and make choices that feel counter intuitive to what we believe, but that remind us that sometimes the mending isn’t ours to do. – Pastor Erica

I See You

One of the very first opportunities we get to sit down with people is during intake at the shelter. Ideally, we are able to do this before everyone comes in for the night. It is less rushed and we are able to take our time and hold space for whatever our guest needs in that moment. It doesn’t always work this way- often we will have several people show up at the door when we open and then they quickly get swept up into the organized chaos of the first hour or two of the shelter night. Regardless of how or when intake happens, it is often the first place we infuse a dose of dignity dna- and if we do it right, it sets the tone for the rest of a guests stay with us.

Happily accepting my offer of a cold gatorade, our first intake of the season sat warily across from me at the small table in the pastoral care office. He wore a long trench coat and his face held lines of weariness peeking out from a scruffy beard. I was immediately drawn to his eyes- which shined with kindness on first glance, but with a closer look held deep pain and trauma. As I gathered the necessary paperwork, I asked him if he was from the area. “I came from the west coast. I have a friend here and she told me this is a good community to get a new start in. I was hoping to stay with her. That didn’t work out so here I am. I have been homeless for more years than I care to count.”

It was what I had seen behind the kindness in his eyes- long years of lived experience on the margins. We began to go through the paperwork. We intentionally ask for the bare minimum of information; just enough to know how to contact them, who we can call in an emergency, and if there are medical issues we should be aware of. As we began to talk about case management and the help we as the pastors could provide I looked up and saw a tear slowly making it’s way through the stubble on his cheek. “Do you need a minute?” I asked. “No,” he said, “this is just the first time anyone has really cared about what I want and is willing to help me get there with no strings attached.” “It’s probably a little overwhelming” I said. “We will just take things one step at a time, but know that this can be your home for now, a place to rest, to reset, a safe space.” More tears tracked down his cheek. He quickly swiped them away . “Thanks. It’s just nice to finally be seen.”

To be seen. It is a basic human right and one so many of us take for granted. For those that we walk with, to be seen, to be called by name, to be treated just like anyone else- slowly begins to weave a thread of dignity back into a story that all too often is frayed at both ends. And we do that weaving with great intention- knowing each person needs a slightly different thread and each tapestry tells it’s own story. – Pastor Erica

Dignity DNA

Dignity. Webster defines it as “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect”. Dignity is a basic human right and it lies at the very core of who we are as Parking Lot Pastors. The very first tattoo I ever got was the word beloved. It is a reminder to me that I am a beloved child of God and equally important it is a reminder that all who I encounter carry the divine with in them as named and claimed children of God. Beyond their choices, their living situations, their appearance, their mental illness, their addiction, they are a living breathing testament to God’s creation. So much of our work involves reminding people of this truth, of seeing them for who they are, and treating them with dignity.

On a cool. cloudy morning last week, we brewed an airpot full of coffee and headed out to do some street outreach. There were a few of our friends that we had not seen for awhile and we wanted to check in. We hadn’t even gotten a block away from the shelter when we spotted her sitting on the bench at the little town square park. We hadn’t seen her in weeks and the rumors had been flying about where she was and how she was doing. Her social worker had reached out to us wondering if we had seen her during outreach. We quickly parked the car and grabbed the coffee pot, an insulated cup and cream and sugar. She looked rough. Her eyes were gaunt and her clothes hung off her tiny frame. She looked at us wearily and gave a guarded hello. “Do you want some coffee?” we asked? “I suppose” she said. We assured her that we just wanted to check in on her and make sure she was okay. For the next several minutes she caught us up on her life. Her addiction to meth continued to encompass her life with a steal grip that seemed impossible to break. She told us stories of how she was constantly seen as a problem, as less then, as her addiction by law enforcement, crisis care providers and people she encountered on the street. “I’m human, ya know?” We know. We see you. We see how addiction speaks to you with a narrative that you are not enough, how deep trauma informs your every move. Yes, you are human, yes you deserve dignity, you are more than your trauma, your addiction, your life on the street. You are beloved. We try to convey all of this in a cup of hot coffee and a willingness to listen. After a little bit, she ready to be left alone to drink her coffee. We remind her that anytime she needs us we are there for her with no agenda other than to see her and to listen. Then it’s back in the car, coffee pot in hand. Looking for another lost friend.