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. 

Published by parkinglotpastors

Pastors Erica Koser and Collette Broady Grund live and work in Mankato, Minnesota. In 2017, the birthed Connections Ministry, an ecumenical organization which operates a seasonal homeless shelter. On Easter 2021, they launched Shelter Church, a new worshipping community of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) which meets outdoors around a free community meal every Sunday evening.

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