Hard to House: Addiction

The second in our July series about why some individuals are harder to move to housing than others, this is a post about substance use disorders, especially alcohol and drug addiction.

We make it a policy to avoid calling the police at the shelter, since most of our guests have already had enough trouble with law enforcement to last them several lifetimes. When we do have to call, however, it is almost always because we have a guest who shows up so drunk or high that we cannot safely keep them in shelter. Public safety officers come and administer a breathalyzer or other sobriety test, and then whisk these guests off to detox for 48 hours (the nearest detox facility is in New Ulm, 30 minutes from shelter). Many of them repeat this pattern again and again over the course of a season.

Addiction is such a complicated disease, and often begins as self-medication for undiagnosed mental health issues or as a coping mechanism for the stress that comes with being unhoused, un- or underemployed, and unsupported. There are genetic predispositions as well, and environmental factors, such as exposure to drugs and alcohol at very young ages. For most of our beloved users, the reasons they have become so deeply enmeshed in their addiction are layered as deep as the ocean, and most of them are fearful of diving in, knowing those depths are full of creatures they’d rather not confront.

Our folks with chronic substance use disorders are among the hardest to house. They’ve burned bridges with case workers across the county by failing to show up for appointments, or promising to go to treatment then changing their minds at the last moment, or flunking out of program after program. They have criminal records, especially if their substance of choice is illegal, and in Mankato there is literally one landlord (really, a slumlord) who can be counted on to rent to those with drug offenses. Even for those who go to treatment, who put in the terrible and painful work toward recovery, their pasts follow them closely in a small community like this one, and they are constantly surrounded by those who knew them only as users, and who tempt them regularly to relapse.

True to our name, Connections Ministry strives to bring community and relationships back to the lives of our beloved addicted neighbors, because it is often said that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, but connection. We have intentionally set our barriers to obtain shelter low, so that we have a chance to love those whose addiction has lied to them and told them they are unloveable. We continue to maintain relationships even when we have to send people to detox, or temporarily ban them after a substance-fueled disrespectful night at shelter. We know that our chronic users are just as beloved as we are by God, and we also know their belovedness is not often communicated to them by the systems they encounter daily.

Every season, we see some returning folks who remain unhoused largely because of their addiction. Our community lacks resources to treat such deep addiction, and most of what they receive in detox or short jail stints actually worsens their isolation and sense of defeat. Despite these odds, we also see every season folks who do the brave work of deciding to go to treatment, committing to the daily work of recovery, and building new sober lives in this community and elsewhere. All of these neighbors, those seeking recovery and those not there yet, deserve our compassion and connection to adequate resources, love and support. And most of all, they deserve housing, which is foundational to anyone’s ability to find a stable and secure life. –Pastor Collette

Hard to House: Mental Health

This is the first in a series on what can stand in the way of getting those experiencing homelessness housed.

I have known ‘Ben’ for 10 years.  He is one of my favorites.  I know it may seem odd to have a favorite, but Ben will forever be one of mine.  I knew him before we had a shelter.  He attended the breakfast ministry I ran at Centenary every morning and he often slept outside the doors at night. If you could find him a hot cup of black coffee (day or night)  you were treated to his huge smile and generous thanks.  He was usually the first person I saw in the morning and often the last person I would see at the end of the day.  He never asked for much- only what was needed for survival. 

 When we opened the shelter for our initial season, he was our first guest and he stayed with us every night we were open for the next 3 years.  Ben has schizophrenia.  He isn’t under any medical care, managing his mental health by keeping to himself.  He is fearful of government control, he hears voices the rest of us don’t, and he believes that to stay safe he has to rely on himself and very few others.  Each year as the season began to wrap up, we would ask him about trying to get an apartment and he would tell us he was just fine.  That began to shift during his 4th year with us.  He was feeling his age and on several occasions before the season opened told me that he didn’t know how much longer he could sleep outside.  I remember telling a colleague that if I could figure out how to get him housed, it would be one of the best accomplishments of my life.  By season 4, I had earned enough trust with him that he was willing to entertain the idea of housing.

There are many, many steps to getting supportive housing (housing with case management and a little more TLC than regular housing).  We had to begin with getting an ID.  To get an ID, you need a birth certificate and a social security card.  To get a social security card, you need a birth certificate. Ben had no documentation of either.  Makes it kind of tricky.  Throw in a pandemic, government office closures, and huge anxiety around anything related to the government and you can see how difficult it is to get a basic ID.  We took lots of baby steps and I cashed in years of work building trust.  We went together to the government offices.  We sat together to fill out the forms.  I reassured him each step of the way that at the end of all of this, there was housing.  

To be a candidate for supportive housing, you have to have been homeless for at least 3 years and have a documented disability.  We could easily verify the homelessness but documenting his disability was another challenge.  Ben didn’t perceive himself as having a mental health disability and he had no interest in talking to a professional about it.  To those of us that knew him, we knew all it would take was 30 minutes with a psychiatrist and we would have that documentation.  I started reaching out to all of our connections.  Between the county social worker, a helpful psychiatrist,  Colette and myself, we were able to get an appointment.  In talking with Ben, I reassured him that we just needed to document his preference for sleeping outside and his wariness of the government.  The doctor wasn’t going to give him any medicine or treatments, but that this was the only thing standing between him and his own apartment.   I promised that I would go with him if that made him feel better.  

On a sunny spring morning, we went to his appointment.  I was keeping up a constant dialogue with Jesus.  Please let this go well, please don’t let this be the thing that breaks his trust in me.  Please help get this wonderful man housed.  Sure enough, within a few minutes of gentle conversation, we had what we needed and Ben could move to housing.  A few short months later I stopped by his apartment with some coffee and kitchen items.  He was so happy, so at peace, and so grateful not to be sleeping outside.  He proudly showed me around his spotless apartment.  As I left I couldn’t stop the tears from running down my cheeks.  Tears of joy that he was home, tears of frustration at how hard it is for someone with a mental illness to overcome systemic barriers to get housing, and tears of relief that with trust, courage, and a village of connections it can be done. – Pr. Erica

The Story of Stuff: We Don’t Want Your Stuff

We get lots of calls at the shelter.  Many calls are asking about space and resources, but many people call  asking if they can donate their stuff to the shelter.  These are the calls that often leave me a little salty.  Let me explain…

When a guest arrives at the shelter,  one of the first questions is “what do you need?” Sometimes people arrive with bags and bags of their personal items, but even among all of their stuff, they may not have clean underwear, a warm enough coat, or shoes and socks warm enough for winter.   More often,  guests arrive with just what they are wearing and carrying in their pockets.  They need a toothbrush and toothpaste, deodorant, socks, and something to sleep in.  Our bottom line at the shelter is to treat all people with dignity.   For our people, dignity isn’t always easy to come by and so we dole it out in heaping spoonfuls and that moment when we can offer new socks and underwear, a fresh toothbrush, sweats to sleep in – we see a little of that dignity restored. 

And this is where I get a little salty about donations.  We are incredibly lucky at Connections in that when we have a need, we can put the word out and 9 times out of 10, that need is met.  From mitten and coat drives, to calls for pajamas and underwear, our community is great at rallying to meet the need.  We need people to answer that call and to step up in abundance.  However,  we have to be picky about what we take.  In the early years of doing this work, I said yes to any donation that was offered.  Yes, I will take your toiletries.  Yes, we will take clothes you are cleaning out of your grandma’s closet.  Yes, we will take all the winter lost and found items from your business.  As more and more things came  through the door, I realized that I needed to say NO more often.  As I started saying no, people would become rather put out.  “But it is decent stuff!  For those people, it’s good enough!”   “It’s a perfectly good___________, it just has some stains.”  “But if you don’t take it, what am I supposed to do with it?” (this is my favorite one- how exactly did your giveaways become my problem??)  

Imagine coming into a shelter and being given the left-overs, the ½ empty bottles of lotion or shampoo.  The sweats that are ratty on the edges and the elastic stretched out- but good enough.  The winter jacket that is better than what you have, but doesn’t actually zip. Giving in this way reinforces the societal commentary that because you are experiencing homeless, you don’t deserve anything but the scraps.  After you have heard this in words and through actions time and time again, you believe it deep in your soul and it is pretty hard to change the narrative.  

So all this to say- we don’t want your stuff.  Your stuff that is good enough, that ‘those’ people should be grateful to have, that you pass off to us because you don’t know what to do with it.  If it isn’t good enough for you, it isn’t good enough for me to pass along to our guests. Yes- we still need donations, but we need ones that are a blessing and not a curse. 

 As I make a graceful dismount from my soap box- 🙂 I want you to try to reframe your thoughts about donations.  Think of them as little donations of dignity.  Buy the new set of sweats from Walmart, fill an order from the amazon wish list, do a new underwear drive at your place of work.  Restore dignity with stuff that says you matter, you are worthy, someone cares.  I promise you- it makes a lasting difference. – Pr. Erica

The Story of Stuff: Magic and Unicorns

While we never like to see families need the shelter, staff and volunteers usually love having kids around.  Even most guests enjoy the shift in energy that kids bring.  This past season, we were blessed to walk with a sweet family made up of a mom, a teenage son and young daughter.  B had a zest for life and a contagious smile.  She quickly charmed the staff and volunteers with her 6 year old sass, her love of coloring and games, and  her endless desire to bake cookies with a willing volunteer.  Her giggle would drift down the hallways in the evening, often breaking the tension or the weariness of the day.   She loved pretending she worked at the shelter, putting up sticky notes with smiley faces and scribbles throughout the staff office.  She was a wonder wrapped in glitter and pink and spunk.  

As her family waited in the shelter for an apartment to open, B’s birthday approached.  She made sure to tell staff, volunteers, and other guests that her BIRTHDAY was coming, so none of us would forget. Birthday’s can be tricky in the shelter.  We don’t want to overwhelm families with an outpouring of gifts but we also want to celebrate those milestones and bring a little sense of normalcy.  Birthday celebrations bring fun and break the monotony of long winter nights. 

We were lucky to have a volunteer who was gifted with the ability to ‘find’ things- often in the dumpsters of big retail establishments.  As B’s birthday month approached, this amazing volunteer presented us with her latest find.  A local party store had recently purged much of their inventory and one of the tossed items was a full set of unicorn birthday party supplies.  B had told us she desperately wanted a unicorn birthday party.  It seemed to be fate.  We hid the supplies in the hidey hole in our office- ready and waiting for birthday day.  Another volunteer called and asked if they could provide some cupcakes for the night of her birthday and our finder of all things volunteer was planning to make a unicorn cake with her daughter.  This party was going to be well sugared! 

The day of B’s birthday arrived.  During the day while the shelter was closed, we gathered the items from their hiding space and began to decorate the shelter.  We hung unicorn streamers from the door to her room and pinned up a giant unicorn poster by the  beverage station.  There were unicorn napkins and pink unicorn confetti for the food table.  Pink, sparkly, unicorn magic exploded all over the space.   Another volunteer had created a beautiful gift bag full of things she and B had enjoyed together at the shelter including special snacks, games, and coloring books.  One of the guests, who often thought of himself as the shelter grandpa, even got her a gift card.  B was a little shocked and maybe a little overwhelmed by it all.  Her normal boisterous personality was a little subdued as she took it all in. Some dreams do come true in the most unexpected ways.  Items pulled from a dumpster, cakes baked in family kitchens, gift cards bought with spare change, all coming together to create a magical 7 year old birthday party.   The story of stuff that creates a special kind of shelter magic, giving everyone a little reprieve from the daily grind- celebrating the mystery of unicorns, the wonder of birthdays, and the joy of a little girl. 

 – Pr. Erica

The Story of Stuff: DVDs and Rotten Oranges

In our first two seasons, when we were still rotating among our partner congregations’ buildings, we developed a serious stuff issue. Knowing virtually nothing about homelessness when I started, this was a problem I hadn’t anticipated. I mean, how much stuff could people with no place to put it actually have?!

The answer is A LOT. And constantly collecting more. One of the trauma responses to losing your home, often repeatedly, is a tighter attachment to the stuff you do have. Almost weekly when the shelter is in season, we have conflicts with guests over their stuff: how to store it, who can move it, and how much they can actually have on hand in the shelter.

The guest who taught me the most in those early seasons about the complicated relationships our people have with their stuff was J. If you think of a stereotypical homeless man, the picture you conjure up would be very close to his. A middle-aged man with matted hair and powerful body odor, a military vet with PTSD and a drinking problem, J wore layer over layer of clothing. He always topped it off with a long brown trench coat, full of inner and outer pockets.

Wherever J went he collected more stuff, filling the pockets of his clothing like a chipmunk preparing for a long winter. What he couldn’t fit in his pockets, he put in plastic grocery bags, often pulled from his pockets. Day after day, J would come into shelter larger than the day before, his form literally growing in front of us as he packed his collected items around his body.

For safety reasons, we do nightly bag checks when people come into shelter, and our staff and volunteers would fight over who DIDN’T have to do J’s check each night. We don’t do searches of guests’ bodies, thankfully, or we would’ve need an extra staff person just for J. Each night, our intake team would comb through his bags to find half-rotten food clearly pulled from dumpsters, an assortment of brochures and free pens from non-profits around town, and always a DVD or two to add to the collection under his cot.

At the end of each week, when it was time to pack up the cots and bedding to move to the next hosting congregation, J would inevitably have collected more than he could physically carry, no matter how many pockets or bags he had. He would ask if we could hold onto it at that church just for a few days until he could sort it and take what he needed. We were less hardened in saying no in those days, so often church volunteers or pastors (myself and Erica included) would agree.

A week or two later, after repeated asks to come back for his stuff, someone would notice the smell, coming from whatever closet or corner his pile occupied, and we would get a call. The first few times this happened, we would dutifully go to pick up his belongings and return them to him wherever we found him sleeping. When we could not find him, or the hosting church flatly refused to have anymore of his stuff in their building, Erica or I would take his things to a storage space in our churches, thinking we’d still convince him to come back and sort it.

Fast forward to the end of our second season, after the shelter had closed in April, and staff at both our churches were pushing for those storage spaces to be emptied out. Most of what was left behind belonged to people who had disappeared, so we sorted and donated and threw things away. Then there was J’s stuff. I had repeatedly reminded him that we couldn’t keep holding his stuff and told him when I would be there to help him sort and carry it, but he never came.

Feeling still an obligation to his dignity, and knowing he’d ask for what belonged to him someday, I opened the multitude of bags in his pile, thinking I’d sort at least the DVDs out from among the trash. The smell and the ooze and the bugs that greeted me when I opened the bags is an experience I will never forget. It became clear that everything needed to go to the dumpster if I wanted to keep my breakfast inside my body. Even as I held my breath and filled giant trash bags, I knew the trust that I’d gained of his was about to be broken when I put everything in the alley dumpster.

J has been housed, by a miracle worked between Jesus and his county social worker, for over three years now. He still asks both Erica and I for his DVDs. He’s stopped being angry when we tell him that we had to get rid of them though. And in fact, he stopped into Shelter Church for dinner a couple weeks ago, and Erica was treated to a big stinky hug and a smile that still breaks our hearts wide open.

The story of stuff in our shelter is more complicated that we will ever know for most of our guests, and setting boundaries around it continues to be the hardest part of the job. But we also know more certainly as each season passes that the relationships we build with our guests transcend even their most precious belongings. We give them a place to BELONG, even if we have to throw their stuff away.

ALL are welcome

Jolly, Princess, Bailey, Tala- these are the names of some of my favorite congregants.  Upon meeting them, you might be a bit surprised by their appearance, they are a little jumpy and are known to eat food that has fallen on the ground.   They are the dogs and cats of shelter church and they are beloved.  

Tala the cat was our first four-legged member.  Her people were experiencing homelessness, but she was their beloved cat and they were not going to be without her.  She attended our very first service.  She rode around in style- her cat carrier attached to a stroller, with her litter box neatly tucked in the basket underneath the stroller.  A  big orange and white cat with the softest fur- she charmed many a two legged church member and they would bring her little cans of food and sneak her treats.  When she inevitably would run away from her people- exploring a moment of freedom- and get lost, we would all search for her and watch the lost pet listings.  We had to post bail for her a couple of times to spring her from the pound.  As our fledgling congregation worked to figure out who we were and how we would be in community together, it was obvious that animals were an integral part of our family.  

Jolly and Princess, both some kind of chihuahua mix, are weekly attenders.  Princess lives up to her name and often comes to church in fancy outfits.  She serves as a great greeter- meeting people, giving them a welcome sniff.  When church moved from the parking lot to the fellowship hall for the winter, Princess sported adorable tiny diapers so she wouldn’t “christen” the church carpet.   When Jolly first joined us, she was so scared and timid.  She had recently been rescued by her person and she was afraid of everything.  She would snuggle, huddled in her person’s arms through the service.  She didn’t want to be approached, but carefully watched all that was going on.  One night, Jolly escaped while on a walk.  Her person was devastated.  Our little church community helped hang fliers and search and we prayed fervently for her return.  Days became weeks and we refused to lose hope that Jolly would be found and she was!  We celebrated the power of prayer, the thought of not losing hope, and the gifts of coming home.  

Bailey is a newer addition; a fluffy, energetic puppy that her person got shortly after her son died of cancer.  As a pastor, I was a little leary of our member taking on the care of a dog, especially a puppy,  but she assured us that Bailey was going to give her a reason to get up and out of bed in the morning and would provide that unconditional love that pets have an amazing way of doing.  She was right.  Bailey is a gift.  She is still 100% puppy and often provides some comic relief during the service, but she also extends love to anyone who will greet her. 

I am not sure why more churches don’t allow dogs and cats in the doors.  They serve as a beautiful reminder of unconditional love, the wonder of God’s creation, and the need to give and receive love.  I guess the same could be said for some of our two leggers, not always welcomed in other church settings, but always a reminder of God’s love.  All are truly welcome at shelter church. – Pastor Erica

Goodbyes are Hard

In this work, we say a lot of goodbyes.  Goodbyes wrapped in mystery or confusion.  Goodbyes that were full of celebration and the promise of new things to come.   See you later, quick hug goodbyes and don’t let the door hit you in the ass goodbyes.  Each one leaves a mark on our hearts, sometimes sparkly and sometimes bruised, but every so often a goodbye leaves us gutted. 

His name was Doug.  He showed up about a month before the season began in 2021 with his little dog Paco.  He had an infectious smile that quickly drew you in.  At first he was a little wary of our quick welcome and hospitality, but soon Doug and Paco became a fixture every morning at the breakfast ministry where we did outreach.  He was working to start fresh.  He was fairly new to homelessness and had lived a full and fairly “normal” life before things took a turn and he found himself without a place to live and only Paco by his side.  

Over the course of the season, he became one of our favorites.  He was so thankful for a place to be (Paco was being fostered by a volunteer and they met several times a week) and his positive attitude rubbed off on all the guys around him.  We all celebrated when he got a place to live just a few blocks from the shelter.  We told him not to be a stranger and to stop by for a visit.  He promised he would and he stayed true to his word, popping by on his walks with Paco to say hi and to catch up.  His apartment became an extension of the room he had in the shelter and several of his shelter roommates would spend their days there playing video games and watching movies.  

In June of that same year, I got a call from the hospital chaplain.  Doug was in the emergency room and the prognosis wasn’t good.  I was listed as his emergency contact.  He told them, “call pastor Erica.”  I was driving back from a family vacation in Colorado.  I was too far away to be of much help, but promised I would try to figure out who could take the dog and I would keep tabs on how he was doing.  He was transferred to Mayo in Rochester and we lost him.  No one was sure where he had gone and no one would release any information to us.  It was so frustrating.  Eventually, he called.  He was going into a nursing rehab facility to build up his strength,  but he would be local and could we bring his dog by?   

I walked into his room and hardly recognized the shell of a man he had become.  He looked drawn and pale and the eyes that used to sparkle were dim.  At the same time,his social worker called us to say he was going to lose his apartment because while he was gone, some local drug dealers had started operating out of his apartment and it was trashed.   He could keep it IF it could get cleaned up and the locks were changed.  Because sometimes there is no one else, we went to clean the apartment.  Suffice it to say, we learned a lot about drug paraphernalia that afternoon.  We loaded bags of trash, cleaned out all the residual drug items, and reclaimed the space for Doug and Paco. 

Doug eventually made a solid recovery and was able to return to his apartment.  We picked him up outside the nursing home, stopping for groceries before taking him home and reuniting him with Paco.  We all had tears in our eyes as he settled finally at home.  From that time on, we kept tabs on Doug, checking in occasionally, keeping track of  his health.  Then the  21/22 shelter season started with COVID outbreaks, staffing shortages, and an overflowing shelter.  As I took a brisk walk outside one afternoon, I glanced over at Doug’s apartment building and thought, I should really check in on him.  Not more than a few days later, his social worker called to say he was heading to the hospital and it didn’t look good.  He had COVID and was having heart problems.  His next call was to tell me that Doug had died.  I sobbed at my desk- for Doug, for Paco, and for the fact that he died alone.  

Over the course of the next many weeks, word of his death spread among our community.  There was no obituary, no funeral or memorial service. We celebrated him in little moments together- every single person wanting to make sure Paco was being cared for.   When we journey with people who are homeless, when their lives end, often families don’t know that we have walked with their loved one on part of their journey; that they are a part of our strange and beautiful family as well.  So we mourn and say goodbye in our own special ways- with a picture in the office, a whispered promise to figure out how to have dogs with their people in shelter,  and holding close the lessons they taught us, shaping our hearts for the work we will continue to do and the goodbyes yet to come. -Pr. Erica

The Story of Stuff: (C)remains

This is the first in a series of shelter stories, based on the stuff that gets left behind, guest belongings that sometimes remain unclaimed, and sometimes draw guests back in ways and with stories we couldn’t predict.

She danced, child-like and joyful, not quite present to the world, but fully in her body. Skipping from one parking barrier to the next, like a gymnast on a balance beam, laughing as she went, R couldn’t help but move. Mostly away from us, as we tried to assess her and figure out how to help. 

She had a son, who was either in Iowa or Nebraska, with his father, who didn’t have custody and had fled across state lines knowing it would be harder to enforce legal documents that way. R had a car, but it wasn’t working, and was impounded, so we finally decided to rent her a car for a week so she could go find her son and return with him to the shelter. The week came and went, and though she answered our phone calls, there was no clear answer on where she was or what she was doing. When she finally returned the rental car, the agent told us she’d gone thousands of miles in that week to who knows where, and there was no child in tow.

She’s seen him briefly and spoken to the father, but he had evaded her requests for visits and conversation and law enforcement had refused to help. She danced less when she returned, her mind wandering farther and farther from her body, sometimes all the way down the street during smoke break, so staff had to holler her back inside. Her car got fixed, and she seemed to be working with a lawyer on the child custody issue, but we couldn’t get a full answer out of her.

Then one morning, after performing her regular parking lot gymnastics routine at Breakfast Church, she disappeared.

Camera footage showed her in the company of another shelter guest we knew to be dangerous, and we prayed and worried over her safety. When the shelter closed for the season, she was still missing, and we began to assume the worst. We reached out to police contacts with her license plate info, hoping she’d ended up in jail somewhere, a better option than a found body. We did a cursory search of her belongings hoping to find an emergency contact, or her lawyer’s number, but turned up only her personal documents and a box containing her mother’s ashes. 

The cremains were the part that haunted our staff, because no one leaves such a thing behind if they are in their right mind. Her disappearance worried our staff enough that they spent overnight hours combing the internet for clues. Finally, her name turned up on a jail roster in Omaha, and we let out our collective breath, relieved that she was alive, even if that was all we knew.

A month later, a doctor called from a mental health facility in Omaha, asking if we knew a woman named R. “She’s had a mental break, and she doesn’t know her last name or anything about herself. All she could tell us was that she’d come from Connections Shelter. I found this number on your website.”

With R’s permission, we pulled her bagged belongings from the storage closet we call the Hidey Hole and began to uncover her identity for the doctor. With that information, the doctor helped R come back into her right mind and found medication that would keep her there. She came back to Mankato and claimed her belongings, reunited at last with her ashen mother. She located her son and tried to reunite with his father, hoping at least to co-parent and share custody.

Unsuccessful, R returned to the shelter months later, because out of all the places she’d been, ours was the one she knew would be safe. She’d remembered that when she literally couldn’t remember her own name, and she remembered it when she was fleeing the abuse and emotional manipulation of her child’s father. And when she needed it, her stuff told us the story of her life, enabling us to help her piece herself back together and try again. 

R doesn’t dance anymore, at least not in that eerie child-like way, but instead stands up for herself and her fellow shelter guests, demanding apologies from those who mistreat them. She is working, and working toward housing, after which she can hopefully gain partial custody of her son. And this time, when she left shelter, the only things that remains is her story of a safe haven helping to knit a broken mind back together. 

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