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Spiritual Molestation In Chick-fil-A

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Maybe you have seen the story. It goes like this:

Photo: JoeynKaren Mustain/Facebook

Photo: JoeynKaren Mustain/Facebook

Joey and his daughter were in Chick-fil-A in Murfreesboro, TN. A man who appeared to be homeless came in the restaurant and asked if he could have any extra food. The store manager said he would give the man a full meal if he would allow the manger to pray over him. Joey said he was so glad his daughter witnessed this, as “I love teaching my daughter life lessons, and I also love being there to watch other Christians teach her life lessons.”

The original Facebook post is here, and a news summary (with pictures) is here.

Let’s break the story down into its component parts.

  • A man asks for food because he is hungry.
  • The manager of the store has the power to give him food, but says he will only do it if the man lets him pray for him.
  • In the middle of the store, the manager puts his arm around the hungry man and prays for him.
  • Joey takes a picture of this and puts it on Facebook
  • Joey is so happy his daughter watched this, so she can learn what Christianity looks like.

As of this writing, the story has been shared more than 121,000 times. It was picked up by several newspapers. The hundreds of comments on the original post say how powerful and beautiful this story is.

It is none of that. It is abusive. It is wrong. It is spiritual molestation. And speaking as a Christian minister, it undermines and contradicts the entirety of the message and teachings of Jesus. This is not what Christianity looks like.

This is a story of power and control.

One man needed food. He needed it badly enough to risk censure, to risk embarrassment, to risk being thrown out of the restaurant. He knew he was dirty, knew he didn’t fit in, but risked ridicule anyway because he was hungry.

The store’s manager hears the man’s request and offers the man food on the condition that the man let the manager pray over him.

That sounds not so bad, really, until you realize what the manager is really saying: I will help you, hungry person, if you will do what I want you to do. I will help you if you will put yourself in my power.

Imagine if my employee came to me and said, “My kid got sick, and I need to buy her some medicine. Can you advance me $250 against my next check?” and I said, “Sure thing, as long as you will go out with me.” We call that sexual harassment. If I demanded she sleep with me in order to get the money, we would call that rape.

It’s exactly the same scenario. She asks for help, and it is in my power to help her, but I will only do it if she does what I want her to do. It is not “giving.”

It is blackmail and coercion.

That the hungry man benefited from it is not the point, nor does it matter if he was grateful for the food. My employee would likely be thankful for the ability to pay for her daughter’s medication, regardless of what she had to endure to get the money.

In this story, the manager has all of the power. The hungry man has no power. The manager is “giving” nothing away here – he is trading it.

Imagine your wife breaks down in a parking lot and has no options for getting home. I offer to give her a ride, but only if she will accompany me to a bar for a drink first. Then my buddy takes a picture of us and posts it to Facebook, telling everyone to check out the hot chick I am at the bar with.

That is exactly the same scenario.

The hungry man is only a prop in this story.

The man in the story is identified only by his circumstances. It is assumed he is homeless, but as the story is told, we don’t hear that from him. He is only identified by his lack. And it really doesn’t matter who he is, the way the story is told. We only know this man by his poverty and his filth. Any poor, dirty man would work just as well in this story.

In other words, he is replaceable. He is not seen as a human, made in the image of God, but as a prop. He is an extra in a story about the manager and Chic-fil-A and exists to provide a lesson for the daughter of a housed man.

This is spiritual abuse.

The Gospel of John tells us that before Jesus came, God loved the world. God loves the world – in its mess, in its rebellion, and in its chaos. In other words, God loves the world exactly as it is. This is a given to the writer of John’s Gospel.

There are no preconditions to the Love of God. No prayer is needed, no act of supplication, no demands for public piety. As it is right now, in all its mess, God loves the world.

To demand that someone do something that makes you happy before you will give them food is not to show the love of God, nor is it loving like God does. It abuses people in the name of God and bears witness to the idea that God is abusive and power-hungry to someone who has good reason to doubt God’s love in the first place. It is, instead, to work against the love of God and the message of Jesus. It is anti-gospel and, in fact, anti-Christ.

I don’t know any of these people. I don’t know their hearts, and I doubt the manager was a bad man, bent on bending this hungry man to his will. In fact, the manager was probably just repeating what he had seen someone else do, and when he saw it, he was told it was a good thing.

Which is why when we see spiritual abuse, we have to call it out.

Joey shared this story because he wanted his daughter to know what Christianity looks like. I want that for Joey’s daughter, too.

But this ain’t it.

Related Content: On Power And Control, Helping Is Not About You

 

Plod On

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It was January of 2008. I had been doing this work for about five months or so, and I was already burnt out. I had no money. None. I was surrounded and overwhelmed by the immense amount of need I was confronted with daily. There was nothing I could do to fix any of it.

Most days, my response was to weep.

I was sinking, and fast. I had only been in Raleigh a short time and had no real network of friends or relationships. There was no one I could talk to about my work or my despair – at least, no one who had also experienced it.

There were several people whose writing had inspired me to do this work, so I figured that maybe, just maybe, they knew what I was feeling. I wrote a couple of emails, asking for help. Only one of them replied.

But his email saved my life, or at the very least, made the life I have now possible.

From his email:

“I hope you are able to pace yourself and develop enough of an outside life to sustain you over a long ministry in one place. The real fruit of this stuff doesn’t start to appear for years, and too often people burn themselves out early trying to prove how committed they are. Take days off. Keep your own living area sane and comfortable. Establish boundaries. Read good books about stuff other than the inner city. Exercise.  Eat as healthy as you can. Remember, the people you are working with mostly don’t change that much, so ministering to them isn’t about ‘getting things done’ but rather accompanying people on their hard journeys, and that is an endurance sport that favors the plodder.

So plod on.”

The writer was Bart Campolo, a former inner-city youth minister with a famous dad and no illusions about the difficulty of this work. And he is one of the people most responsible for my ability to continue this work.

Because his response meant so much to me, I tear up a bit when I get similar emails now from fellow pot-stirrers and justice workers. They read something I wrote once that makes them think I would understand, so they write me. The emails that say, “I am doing similar work to you, but I am struggling because no one understands the work I am doing, and no one is changing.”

Because Bart’s email meant so much to me, I almost always respond to those emails when I receive them. And like Bart’s email to me, my advice is seldom what they are looking for, but most often what they need.

I ask questions like, “Who is your team? Who are you talking about this stuff with? What do you do to enjoy yourself? Do you want to do this in 10 years? When was the last time you saw the sunset? Who does this with you? What books are you reading that have nothing to do with this work?

They want me to tell them the magic words to fix the relationships they have with people who are desperately poor, or to show them the strategy that will make bitter, jaded people have hope, or the way to get their church to embrace people who live outside. Instead, I want to tell them how to live.

Because if you want to do this work long term, you have to learn how to live. You need to immerse yourself in beautiful things. You need to learn boundaries. You need to have friends who have nothing whatsoever to do with your work, and you need friends who do the work with you.

Most importantly, you have to realize that loving people is a team sport, and that whatever positive outcome you will see as a result of that loving takes years to measure. It is, like Bart said, an endurance sport best suited to the plodder.

So plod on.

Related Content: Doing the Work, Sometimes This Stuff Works

Nine Years of Love Wins. It’s Still Worth It.

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Yesterday, it hit me: here at Love Wins, we are now in our 9th year. I just wrote our 9th end-of- the-year letter. We are approaching our 9th winter.

Nine years is a long time. It is the longest I have done anything, in fact.

And in nine years, a lot of things have changed. And some things haven’t. Several people have said I should write a bit about the early days – back before we had a hospitality house and Love Wins was just Hugh and some volunteers.

What you have to understand is that when I started this work, I had zero qualifications to do any of it. I studied English in college, and my longest held job had been as a salesman of one sort or another. What I did have was a deep seated belief that community and human connection hold the solutions to the world’s deepest problems.

Luckily, that was enough.

I pretty much starved those first few years, so I did creative things to keep food on my table while I waited for the rest of the world to see the value in what I was doing. I did some freelance writing of the cheapest sort (for example, I once wrote fifty pages of PG-13 web content about nude beaches in the US, despite never having been to a nude beach anywhere). I sold hot dogs on the sidewalk in front of a leather bar and across the street from a hardcore porn video shop. I worked the overnight shift at a 24-hour gym, where my job was to hand people towels and say, “Have a good workout!” in a cheerful voice.

In the beginning, I was dating Renee (who I later married) and again, I didn’t have any money. I remember dates where we would go to the grocery store, sitting at the tables on the sidewalk and split a sub sandwich from the grocery deli and a diet coke.

I couldn’t afford a car, but luckily a local church bought me a red motor scooter. I rode the 2319867625_fec9ca2bdc_oheck out of it until October of 2010, when I had a wreck and broke my collarbone. My little scooter was known everywhere; I still have people who live on the streets who ask me about it.

About that scooter – one morning I parked it on the sidewalk by a small park downtown, where I left it because I had some errands to do. I’d been to court that morning with someone, so I was gone until after lunch. When I got back, there were three folks I knew that lived outside standing around it, and they started giving me a hard time. It turns out I had left my keys in the ignition, so they stood there for more than four hours to guard my scooter so no one would take it.

In the very beginning, I just went to the park and hung out. My goal was one conversation a day. I would eat lunch at the soup kitchen, where I would often see someone I had had one of those conversations with, and we would talk some more.

I briefly (maybe six weeks?) volunteered with an outreach group from a super evangelical church, where we served a meal in the park each Saturday. There was a praise band, a “gospel” message and lots of praying. It was hugely manipulative, and myself and some others quickly left. However, it did shape the direction of Love Wins because for years, if I was unsure of how to do something, I would ask myself what that church would have done, and I did the opposite.

So, we started sharing food on the weekend (sharing, not “feeding”). We refused to have prayers before the meals, refused to preach, refused to allow “gospel tracts” in the hygiene bags we gave away. Jesus didn’t place preconditions around who he ate with, so neither did we. We just wanted to create a space where you could be yourself, where you could be welcomed, and where you could feel loved. We were pretty sure a praise band, prayers before the meal, and street preaching about the dangers of hellfire did none of that.

Eventually, that became the sharing of biscuits on Saturday and Sundays, which directly led to #biscuitgate and the founding of the Oak City Outreach Center. But that would be years in the future.

I eventually got invited to speak to some churches, and some of them liked it, and some of them didn’t. Most of the churches that supported us in the early days were very evangelical. That was mainly because of the decision making structure in those churches – if the pastor liked you, you were in the budget. I was good at making the pastor like me.

It was around 2010 when that dynamic began to crack. We had always been welcoming of everyone. As I said a lot in those days, Jesus didn’t discriminate, and so neither did we. We had learned that if you were LGBT, you had a much higher chance of becoming homeless. We learned that the main reason for that was the religious objections to LGBT people. We learned that some of our friends were homeless because they had been kicked out of their homes by their parents when they came out.

So we became bold and unapologetic about our welcome and affirmation of sexual minorities.  And some of our churches objected. In 2010, we lost about a third of our income when a bunch of churches dropped supporting us over our affirming stance. We lost some of our most hardcore volunteers that year, over the same issue.

It was really hard to lose people – and not just because of the money. I lost friends that year. I was put on what amounted to a heresy trial by a church that supported us – and found guilty. I was dis-invited to local churches.

And that year I held a gay man who cried in my arms and told me that the love he felt from us made him believe God did not hate him, despite what his family had told him. This belief had kept him from killing himself. His name was Allen, and I often thought of Allen when I had to defend myself that year.

In retrospect, 2010 was a turning point for us. It was the year of losing. It was the year we defined ourselves. We declared our identity. We shared what our folks on the street face. We understood that you may decide you do not care, but you cannot say you did not know.

Two things happened in 2011 that changed us forever. The first was a random donation in the mail for $1500. At the time, it was the largest check we had ever received.  I wrote the donor, thanking him profusely. That led to a lunch, where, long story short, he agreed to underwrite my salary for the next ten years. I cried in the restaurant, I cried on the phone with my wife, I cried that night when I wrote the email to my board. I sorta want to cry now, to tell you the truth.

After four years of straight up poverty, I would make a living wage (on the low end of living wage, but still) doing this work, and was guaranteed of that for at least the next ten years. I really can’t explain how much that changed my life.

The other thing that changed was in the fall, a local church called and asked if we could find a use for a building they owned. They wanted to give it to us, rent free, for three years. I cried again. After the previous year I’d spent feeling I was fighting the church, to have a church open their doors to us felt healing.

That place became our first hospitality house, when we finally opened the doors in 2012. And nothing has been the same since.

Nine years is a long time. We have lost friends, lost churches, lost volunteers and lost community members. I have performed nine funerals, and attended dozens. Seven different times, I have held mothers as the state took their children away from them.

But Lord, what we have gained. A worldwide following, with donors on three continents. A community of folks who have hope, who have a place to be, who have an outlet for the love they have. Taking on the city and making it be more compassionate to its most vulnerable citizens. Shaping the conversation around policies regarding homelessness here in Raleigh from one of antagonism to one of welcome and relationship. Eight weddings. A dozen baptisms. Countless newborn babies held and snuggled with.  Employees who left to go change the world with their own ministries. I get emails from different communities around the country that claim us as a primary influence in founding their own.

Nine years in, it’s still a struggle. It is still tough raising money. It’s still painful watching people you love suffer. It’s still frustrating that I have to make a case for my community to even exist.

It’s still hard. But it’s also still worth it.

This Is Not the Blog Post You Are Looking For

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Writing these weekly blog posts was my idea. Sort of a weekly update from Hugh. I could use this space to let people know about needs; I could tell stories from my community; I could inform and educate with this space. The possibilities felt endless!

The reality is, this has been a hell of a year, and I am exhausted. We moved locations, had a 100 percent turnover in our staff (other than me), brought on interns that didn’t work out, had to train – from scratch – three brand new people in the ways of an organization that had nine years of history. Oh yeah, and I was out of commission for a month because my wife had a heart transplant, and the organization I spent nine years building was run for a month by two people with less than six months experience. They did an amazing job, but turning it over to them was stressful as hell.

I don’t say all that to make you feel sorry for me, but it is a way of claiming space…my way of apologizing for not having a great story for you today. The truth is, I have been fighting a migraine all week (the combination of a year of stress and the low pressure system are doing me in) and really want to be lying in bed, in a dark quiet room, with a blanket over my head.

So instead of my typical story, I want to share some highlights of the last few weeks with you – sort of like my version of the news from Lake Wobegon, where the men are strong, the women good looking, and the children are above average.

  • My parents were in town last week for Thanksgiving. Mom is on the women’s auxiliary for the volunteer fire department back home, so she buys all the hoodies they have for sale at their annual rummage sale and brings them for my community.
  • Mike and Steve, two vets who have been struggling to find housing for over a year, finally figured out the system – the right order for calls, office visits, and forms – and moved into their own place a few weeks ago.
  • Jerry, who is also a vet and on the streets, heard about this, and he and Mike and Steve talked for a couple of hours, with Jerry taking notes furiously. We were told yesterday that Jerry is getting a place the middle of the month.
  • Thanks to a partnership with Walgreens, we were able to offer our folks free flu shots. Some of them were afraid they were going to get sick from the flu shot, so I was the first in line to get mine. The flu ran through our community last year. I don’t want to see that happen again.
  • Charlie got a job – yay! Charlie was sent home his first day because he didn’t have any steel-toed work boots – boo! I asked on Facebook and several friends gave some money for us to buy more boots, and our supporter Katy dropped off a brand new pair, just Charlie’s size. Yay! So much of our life here is like that – a series of yays and boos, never knowing where you will end.
  • One of our folks attempted suicide because of depression around the holidays.
  • Stephanie asked me to perform her wedding. We spent several hours planning it, and it will happen after the new year.
  • Another of our folks found out his daughter, who lives in another state, is dying of cancer.

And that is the news from Love Wins Ministries. We are tired. We are weary. We are optimistic and endlessly hopeful.

Next week, we will resume regular programming, and I will tell you just one story from my community here. But for today, just know that we need your prayers and your thoughts and your help and yes, your money, to keep going.

Thanks for helping us with that.

Related Content: How’s Your Wife Hugh? and Some Updates For You

An Inseparable Pair

While Hugh is on the road today, we are reprinting this month’s newsletter from him. To receive your own copy in your inbox each month, please click here. Thanks and peace, Jasmin

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Her name is Janice, and I’ve known her for years. She’s in her mid-sixties, was married once, and then wasn’t. Janice lost custody of their daughter to his family, who had a lot more money than she did, and they kept her daughter away. She got a small job that paid for a small apartment. Here she drank tea, painted pictures, and listened to jazz when she wasn’t at her job. And she avoided people, because she wasn’t going to be hurt again.

Her apartment was gentrified, and she had to move out when the rent tripled. With the loss of stability, she lost the job. She eventually ended up on the streets, where she could keep her distance from people.

This spring, something shifted. Janice got a small terrier named Frank. Frank’s provenance is sketchy – all she says is that he chose her. And if you saw them together, you would believe it – Janice and Frank are inseparable.

Janice and Frank also started coming to Love Wins to hang out with us. She would sit in the smoking area outside, and Frank would sit at her feet. People would come up and pet Frank, and they would talk to Janice. On good days she would make conversation. On bad days she would snap and tell people to leave them alone.

She became something of a cranky grandmother for the kids that come through. She would tell the teenage moms what they were doing wrong, and sometimes, was even nice about it. To see her play with the kids would have broken your heart. She was experiencing a nostalgia for a past she never got to have.

Around the end of summer, she wanted to talk to me.

“I’m afraid, Hugh. I care about all these kids and their moms. And I am afraid because I know they will disappear too, and then I will hurt again. And I am really tired of hurting. So, I think I am going to take Frank and hit the road.”

She didn’t come back the next day.

But then I recently saw her sitting on the steps of the museum, reading a library book in the glow of the streetlights. It was around suppertime, and it was dark outside. I walked over and asked if I could sit with her. There was no sign of Frank.

“Frank is with a friend, who’s watching him for me. I’m in a program at the shelter now.”

I must have looked shocked because she laughed.

“Hugh, I think something is wrong with me. I’ve met some people, and I don’t hate them. I even met another woman at the shelter, and we are thinking about getting an apartment together. A roommate! Can you believe that?”

It was my turn to laugh. I asked what happened.

“Well, Hugh. I’m not getting any younger. And if something happens to me, who’s going to take care of Frank? And I remembered what you said – that keeping people out meant I wouldn’t get hurt, but it also meant I missed out on being loved. And I let Frank in, and that worked out okay.

So I am trying. I am trying real hard. And sometimes, I even find myself forgetting that it’s hard.”

Thanksgiving is next week. And this has been a hard year for us here at Love Wins, but a good year, too. We have gotten a whole new team of employees and volunteers. We have had people we care about die and seen people like Janice find hope. And I watched a mutt melt a hardened woman’s heart and give her a reason to try again.

And for that, I am thankful.

Winter is Hell

I walked in the office the other day and Craig, one of our most seasoned volunteers, was talking to the paid staff. I caught the tail end of the conversation.

“Y’all just don’t know. Winter is coming. It’s bad around here in the wintertime. Y’all just don’t know. Winter is coming, and it ain’t no joke.”

Craig told me, “They don’t know what it means to work here in the winter, Hugh, and I was trying to tell them. It’s no joke around here in the winter. Winter is hard.”

I agreed. Winter is hell.

Don’t get me wrong – this work is stressful. Always. The problems our community faces year-round are exasperating, and I’m not trying to diminish them. But winter is its own special kind of hell.

The most senior person currently on staff at Love Wins (other than myself) began near the end of March. We have two other employees that have started more recently than her. They’re all great, and I am lucky to work with them.

But none of them have known what it is to do this work in the wintertime.

So I tried to explain.

To start with, my people die in the wintertime. Not a winter goes by that we don’t lose someone to the cold temperatures, to hypothermia, or to suicide. Then there are the random accidents, like trees falling on tents or people getting hit by cars. The deaths are that much more horrible, however, in that people are less active, so sometimes bodies aren’t found for days. Last year, we lost three folks we all knew.

Just because you are homeless doesn’t mean you are immune to Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. Thedepression-20195_640 lack of sunshine, the grey days and the frequent rain affect us all. Riding out the storm in a damp tent, in the dark, in the cold, does nothing to improve your mood.

Being homeless in the wintertime means watching the weather like a hawk – when it is expected to get below freezing overnight, they open the shelters to everyone, so you are at least guaranteed a warm safe space to try to sleep. On those nights it means lining up outside the shelters, standing in the cold until the regular shelter guests have finished their evening meal. It also means the bitter disappointment you feel when the overnight temperature isn’t expected to get below 35 degrees, because there is every bit as real a chance of dying in 35 degree weather as there is 32 degree weather.

It’s hard for our community, but it’s hard for us, too.

In the wintertime, you know the harsh reality of closing time, when it is 38 degrees outside, there is a slight drizzle, and it’s five o’clock. Closing time. It’s near dark outside, and you have to tell people with no place to go that they cannot stay here. You give hugs at the door, lock the door behind them as they leave, and you get in your car. You turn the heater on and drive past the sad parade of your friends as they walk soddenly to the bus stop. You go home to your warm house and hot meal.

You feel horrible when guests ask about your Thanksgiving plans, and you tell them about the big meal at your family’s house. You describe the warm embrace of family and the expectancy of the love you will feel. When you ask what they are doing, they tell you about the turkey dinner at the mission they are going to. They hope to take a bag lunch home with them.

You feel worse when you realize that they don’t feel bad about that conversation.

They are really happy for you.

The donations that come in when it is cold save lives – the hats and coats and gloves are so needed and so appreciated. However, we have no storage for them, so they pile up everywhere there is a horizontal surface. For about three months our open floor plan office will look like a hoarder’s paradise, with boxes stacked high and little pathways cut through the clutter.

The normal calm of community melts away, too, when the guests are constantly clamoring for warm things, and you cease to be a builder of community and instead become a dispenser of goods.

You try not to think that the eight hours you were open, eight hours that you wanted to end so you could go home…those were the best eight hours they were going to have.

Winter is coming, y’all. And it ain’t no joke.

Barbecue, Sweet Tea And Fear

"Hog Heaven" Plate
On Thursday, Charlie came in my office.

“Mr. Hugh – you lived in Memphis, right?”

Let me jump in here and tell you that I hate titles, especially when they are applied to me. I have also come to realize that people want to show respect to me and the rest of the staff here, so however much it makes me cringe, I get called Pastor Hugh, Pastor, Mr. Hugh and the like all day long. I don’t try to stop them anymore.

I tell him I lived in Memphis for 13 years.

“I was watching the food network on TV the other day – they had it on in the dayroom at the shelter – and they had a show about barbecue, and they talked a lot about Memphis. Is the barbecue really that good there?”

I told him it really, really was – that dry rubbed ribs were amazing, and the barbecue chicken at the Cozy Corner in Memphis was the best chicken I had ever had, anywhere.

“Is there any place around here that serves barbecue like that, Mr. Hugh?”

I should probably mention that, like Memphis, North Carolina is a place of barbecue snobs. Here in Eastern North Carolina they don’t use a red sauce on their pulled pork like they do in Memphis, but instead use this sort of vinegar pepper sauce. It isn’t bad, per se. It just doesn’t taste like barbecue.

I told him that there was one place I had found in North Raleigh that served dry rub ribs. It wasn’t the best ribs I had ever had, and in Memphis you would get laughed at for suggesting them. They were decent enough though, and since they were the only dry ribs to be had in this town, I ate there five or six times a year.

“Mr. Hugh, I want to take you there for lunch. To say thank you for all you put up with.”

Charlie lives at the shelter sometimes, and on the streets sometimes and in motels sometimes. He works pretty regular, but on the lower end of the labor scale. Three days of bad weather will put him out of work and back on the streets.

It’s right here you see the difference between what we do and what agencies that work with people who are homeless do. We are a community, first and foremost. Yes, people get housed as a result of our work, and hundreds of meals are shared each week and tons of clothing are distributed and all of that, but it’s all a byproduct of community. The community is the real product – everything else is a side effect.

And when someone in your community wants to share something with you to show how much they care about you, you take it, even if you know it is a stretch for them financially. Especially if you know it is a stretch for them. Because the cost is part of the gift.

So, I said yes, and plans were made. Danny overheard us and told Charlie he wanted in on this. They decided they would split the cost of my lunch. Like a lot of people of African descent, Danny doesn’t eat pork, but he had heard me talking about chicken and got excited.

At 11:30, we piled in the car and headed north in search of dry rub ribs, tender chicken and good conversation. On the way there, we talked about my wife’s recovery and Danny’s time in Vietnam. I answered Charlie’s questions about Mississippi and Memphis and he asked me if it was a sin for him to notice that the most beautiful women he had ever seen lived in the South. I told him I hoped not, because I had noticed it too. He thought that was hilarious.

We got there and listened to the blues over the speakers while we ate ribs and chicken and seasoned fries and drank copious amounts of sweet tea. They bantered with our server Rodney, who was in his late fifties and African American. When Rodney left, Charlie, who is in his late twenties, asked if I thought Rodney made good money, since Rodney was wearing a tie.

The two of them raved over the food, and there was a lot of laughter and talking smack. When the check came, they snatched it from me and counted out their cash. The bill came to $46, and they paid it with a lot of ones and fives, but they paid it. I left the tip. They fought about that, but I told them that the food was their gift to me, and the tip was my gift to them. After some discussion between themselves, they accepted the logic of this and we piled back in the car for the trip home.

In the car, Charlie groaned, and Danny kidded him that he ate too much. Charlie said, ‘Man, the food was so good. And there was so much of it. And for a minute, I forgot all about being homeless, and being out of work and being scared and all of that. I ate like a king in there. For a minute, I felt like a king.”

In the Christian tradition, we believe that a meal is central to our story – that on the night Jesus was to be arrested, he was so terrified that he would sweat drops of blood. It was then that he chose to have one last meal with his friends.

We Christians call that meal a sacrament – which just means it’s a way to access the sacred. When we gather around the table with friends, our fears seem less scary and the Divine seems closer.  Sometimes that happens with bread and wine in a sanctuary. And sometimes it can happen with dry rubbed ribs and sweet tea in a chain restaurant.

Best Days and Worst Days

Mixed emotions
It never gets easier to watch beautiful things and horrible things happen to the same people. That we get to see both sides is a gift, one that comes with a commitment to relationship and the long-term.

I get accused of being a dark writer about this work, of not sharing enough of the good things that happen here. I disagree. I am committed to telling you the truth. And the truth is, whether someone is a success story or a failure story in this work often depends on where you stop the story.

In 2011, I performed Danny and Shelia’s wedding. It was a beautiful day, in a church, with a wedding dress, a cake, dancing and laughter. Thanks to some donors, they had a great three day honeymoon in a local Hilton, with the biggest bed Shelia had ever seen.

And then I picked them up and drove them back to the tent where they lived in the woods behind the Walmart. And cried all the way home.

If I hadn’t told you the last paragraph, it is a happy story. If I do, it is a sad one. Both of them are true. And Danny and Shelia experienced both of them. As people in their life, we experienced both of them. But if you are on a mission trip, say, you might only get to experience one of them, and that would color your experience, your story about people who are experiencing homelessness, and all of that.

So I will tell you the truth – some days are beautiful. And some days are gut-wrenching. And somedays, it’s the same day.

Yesterday, Danny and Shelia came by the Hospitality House. It was the first time I have seen them in four years. They moved away for a job opportunity in Texas, where life was good. Danny had a good job, they had a decent apartment. And then Danny had a stroke. And another one. And a total of five in one year.

They lost the job. And the apartment. They moved in with friends, but his being in a wheelchair was too much for them to handle. Eventually, they decided the only place they had community and people was back here in Raleigh. So they came back here – only now he is 40 pounds lighter and walking with a walker.

So yesterday, was a good day – I saw my friends, they brought me up to date, I showed them around the hospitality house. The last time they were in Raleigh, Love Wins didn’t even have a hospitality house. There was laughter and tears and stories. It was a good day.

And then there is the reality that they had no place to stay last night. The shelters were full. He is on a walker and medically frail. And at the end of the day, they hugged me and shuffled away, to find a dry place to sleep for the night, and told me they would see me this weekend at the Oak City Outreach Center.

See? Yesterday was the worst day, too. And the best day. Same day. But if they can endure it, I guess I can, too. Because at least I get the choice. They don’t.

Winter is Coming… And We Need Your Help

Seasons
It is now fall, and all the familiar signs are there – pumpkin spice everything is showing up in cafe’s, the sweaters are coming out of the back of the closet and we are getting asked for blankets here at the Hospitality House.

It might not seem that cool yet for those of us who sleep inside, with heat and hot showers and have warm cars to get into. But if you sleep outside, a warm blanket can make all the difference in getting a night’s sleep or not.

We don’t have the space to store these things all year, and we don’t have the resources to take people to the store when they need a blanket. What we need is your help to make sure we have these things for our guests as the weather turns cooler.

Below I have listed some of the things we need right now, or will need soon. The links take you to Amazon, where you can see representative pictures.

If you are able to help us with any of this – Thank You so much! If you personally aren’t able to elp, perhaps your book club, office or Sunday School class could take up a collection of these items to help us out. We would really appreciate it, and you would be helping far more than you know.

Please email Madeline to arrange a drop-off time. You can also mail your donations to: Love Wins Ministries P.O. Box 28837 Raleigh, NC 27611

I Appreciate You

Cloud Appreciation Society
I don’t know how it started. But it did, and now, it’s a “thing”.

At least once a day, sometimes many times a day, I tell my coworkers, “I appreciate you”. And they do the same thing to me. It isn’t policy or anything, like saying “My Pleasure” at Chik-fil-a, but it happens all the same.

Example: Thursday afternoon was frantic. There was a couple of hyperactive kids running around the hospitality house. We had two different families that had nowhere to sleep for the night and was asking us to help them, and one of the families had two young children.   We had some 30 people hanging out at the Hospitality House. And Madeline, our operations manager, was out of the office.

And it was just frantic. Elizabeth was calling motels and bus stations. I was fielding questions. Thursday is also the day we take folks to the showers, so they were trickling back in as well.

Around 4:50, it all settled down. Elizabeth and I both sort of collapsed at our desks and sighed.

I’m a big believer in affirmation, so I looked in my desk drawer and found a Starbucks gift card with a few bucks on it.

“Lizzie – here you go. Treat yourself to something nice on the way home. I know it was a hard afternoon. You deserve it.”

She grinned, and said, “Thanks Hugh. I appreciate you.”

I appreciate you. It seems so simple to say, but we seldom hear it from others. It isn’t the same as saying thank you, although we often use it that way here. It says that you are appreciated, not just the thing you did. You don’t have to do great things to be appreciated – you just have to exist.

It has filtered itself into our conversations with our guests, too. Yesterday, Michael told me he appreciated me, right after he asked about my wife’s health. He. Appreciated. Me. I know pastors that have went their whole career and never been told they were appreciated by a congregant.

I have been thinking a lot about self-care lately, and telling people who work with me that I appreciate them is definitely an act of self-care, both for me and for them. It reminds me that I am not the savior of the world, that we are interdependent and that I can’t do this work by myself. And it tells them that while it is true that we can’t afford to pay them lavish, or even average, salaries and there is no Love Wins retirement plan, their work matters – not just to the people who benefit from it but to the people they do it with.

When was the last time you were appreciated? That someone went out of their way to tell you that you were valued? When was the last time you truly appreciated someone? Not something they did – that’s easy. But you appreciate them? If so, tell them.