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A Whirlwind Year

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This year has been a whirlwind, and we aren’t even quite halfway through it yet. There is so much I want to share with you, but I am also sort of swamped. So, in lieu of a story, here are some quick updates, all the “need-to-knows” of our community:

  • We announced our decision to spin off the hospitality house into it’s own entity, and formed The Love Wins Community Engagement Center.
  • We put out a search for the right person to lead it – and we found her! Expect the announcement next week.
  • We have moved our Sunday worship services to Wednesday. If you want to be involved in those, please sign up for the worship email update list.
  • Starting next week (June 1) we will have a community meal at 11:30 AM. After all, communities eat together, mourn together and celebrate together. We need volunteers to help us feed these people – until we get a dedicated volunteer to manage that, just send me an email at hugh@lovewinsministries.org if you want to help us provide food for meals.
  • On a related note: Do you have amazing organizational skills (or can fake it) and want to help us organize Wednesday meals? Again, please email me to let us know.
  • Baby Christopher was born, and both baby and mama are doing fine – 5 pounds and 6 ounces!

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Last but not least: This is an excellent time to tell you that the summertime is all upon us here, and that means that our donations drop to a trickle.

Like most nonprofit organizations, we receive a majority of our money at the end of the year and operate out of our reserves. And like clockwork, every year those reserves run out around June. From then on, we are counting pennies to decide if we can buy stamps to send thank you cards.

Would you consider making a one-time gift to help carry us through the summer, so we can continue to do this work, and to show love and relationship to some very awesome people the rest of the world has written off? If so, click here.

That is how the year has gone so far. We are busy and tired and grateful and hopeful and a little bit scared.

But we are still here, and that is what counts.

 

Related: A Lighter In The Whirlwind

If you’d like to be in conversation with us, please make sure to comment on our Facebook page, Twitter, or shoot us an email. We’d love to hear from you.

Love Wins Worship Is Back

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When I first began doing this work, I noticed that, day to day, the people who seemed most interested in engaging people experiencing homelessness were church folks. And as I am a church person, that made me happy.

But I also noticed that the way they did it was atrocious more often than not – mandatory prayers; pressure to tell your story to people, when those people had no obligation to share theirs with you; shaming you of your choices that make perfect sense to you; and pronouncing God’s judgement on you because you don’t have the life they do.

Yeah, I saw all of that.

In swept the mission teams. I saw them all wearing the same shirts. All taking pictures of “the poor people.” All handing the tray of food to the “hungry homeless person” who was, in reality, being served their 7th meal of the day because it was, after all, Mission Sunday. All the churches were standing in line to touch a real, live homeless person. It was all completely devoid of context, of facts, of relationship.

Lots of doing things to people, a little of doing things for people, and virtually nothing of doing things with people.

All in the name of God.

The final straw was the weekend in late 2007 when I saw a friend of mine, a trans* woman who was waiting for a tray of food, be assaulted by a church woman who tried to cast a demon out of her without consent. That was followed by another friend being told his chronic alcoholism was God’s punishment for his rebellion. And the cap on that weekend was my friend Traci being told by a well meaning church lady that Traci’s experience of rape was “all part of God’s plan.”

Enough.

The hard drinking, foul-mouthed Baptist preach Will Campbell was once asked why someone like him became a preacher, and he replied, “Well, I was called, goddammit!”. That weekend I knew I was called to this work – not just to start an agency, but to start a ministry – to do this work in the name of God, in a way that lifts people up, that provides dignity.

To bear witness to the goodness of God to people who have legit reasons to doubt that goodness. To let people know that contrary to what you may have heard: If you are on the margins – God is on your side.

In other words, it was important for me to not only do this work, but to do it from a faith-based point of view.

And to do it from a position of Love. God is love. From a position of inclusiveness because God does not discriminate. From a position of attraction, because God does not coerce.

The Best Critique of the Bad is to do the Good

Because of the low key nature of what we do – without, ourselves, being low key people – you may not know that we have a weekly worship service. For most of the last five years, it was on Sunday afternoon. Beautiful things have happened there. Baptisms. Baby Dedications. Storytelling. Weddings. Funerals.

My friend Ben wrote about it one time, if you were wondering what it’s like.

We have always been reluctant to invite outsiders into our little service because none of us want to be spectacles, or objects of curiosity. But first and foremost, we are committed to community, real community, and that only comes when we eat together, celebrate together, and mourn together.

So, we are making some changes to invite you in, so you can get to know us, and we can get to know you, and maybe we won’t be afraid of each other any more.

Starting Wednesday, May 25th, our new service plans will consist of a community meal (you are invited!) followed by a worship service at 12:30 (you are also invited!). The meal will be in the fellowship hall of the church we share space with, and we will hold the worship service in the sanctuary upstairs.

This is a big move for us, and it scares us a bit. But the prospect of not broadening our definition of community scares us more.

Learn More

If you would like to know more about our little service, want to know how you can help or just have questions – feel free to send me an email. The worship service also has its own email newsletter that we use to make announcements, let attendees know about upcoming events, let them know of service opportunities and so on. If you want to subscribe, you can do that here.

We hope to see you there.

Related: Dave And Communion

If you’d like to be in conversation with us, please make sure to comment on our Facebook page, Twitter, or shoot us an email. We’d love to hear from you.

George Has No Place To Go

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George has no place to go.

He is in his mid-fifties, but mentally something like 12 years-old. He is illiterate and has a slight speech impediment, all of which makes him hard to understand. He is Black, more than six feet tall, and when you don’t understand him, he deals with it by raising his voice. So some people see him as aggressive.

None of that makes it easier for him to navigate society.

He grew up in the Bronx, with a mother who loved him. He had a job unloading trucks, which he could do, and do well. He lived with his family. His world was confined to a few blocks, except for the time they visited his family in North Carolina once and the trip to Montreal. He went to church, where Reverend Kerry was the pastor.

Then his mother died.

When she died, she left him some money – as near as I can tell, about $40,000 –  in trust at the bank. He came to North Carolina to stay with his family here. No one is really clear why that didn’t work out, but the end result is – George has no place to go.

So he eventually ended up at our Community Engagement Center, because whatever else we are, we are a place to be for people who have nowhere they are allowed to be.

So George has been part of our community for almost a year now. He is incompetent to handle his own money, so he blew through it really quickly. The bank would send him money in $500 increments, which he would spend on a hotel room, drugs, and sex workers (again, imagine he is 12). Then he would be out on the street until he called the bank and asked them to send him more money.

People on the street figured him out quickly, so when he would get his money, he had a crowd of people who would follow him around, sponging off him until the money ran out.

A few weeks ago, the money ran out.

He is living at the shelter, where he gets a bed, but he gets confused and leaves things there, and they get lost. He calls the bank in the Bronx every day to check his balance, only to be told there is no money there. I know this, because every day, he asks us for the number for this bank, because he can’t remember it. We now have it written on a piece of paper we made copies of, so when he wants it, we just hand it to him.

He can’t understand where the money went, so he tries to make sense of it. He will come into the office.

“Hootie?”

Oh yeah. Because of who knows why, he calls me Hootie. I have given up on correcting him.

“Yes, George?”

George: What is $1800 plus $250?

Me: $2050

George: Plus $250?

Me: $2300

George: Plus $250?

Me: $2550

This will go on until he gets confused, or I get tired. Then he will look me in the eyes and say, “I done spent all my money, and now I don’t have anywhere to go. I can’t handle money. I need a payee.” And then he will walk back out into the community room.

I think that is perhaps the most frustrating thing for us who know George; he will tell you exactly what he needs.

At least once a day, he will tell us, “I need a payee. I need to live in a group home. I need someone to help me take my medicine.”

And he is right. He needs all of those things.

But what he really needs is someone whose full time job is to help him access services so he can get those things. He needs, in the language of my field, intensive case management.

But that really doesn’t exist much any more.

For months I have been trying to connect him with various organizations. Some of them make him promises they have no way of keeping, (we will get you in a group home next week!) and he gets discouraged and doesn’t trust them any more. Others are far more honest, like the organization that uses wrap-around teams to work with people like George, who told me the other day that in 4-6 weeks, they would have someone free to talk to him, to see if he even qualifies for their services.

Meanwhile, our friend George wanders the streets at night, wondering where his money went, and during the daytime hangs out with us, asking us to do math, asking us when he is moving into a group home, asking us if we will talk to the lady at the bank so she can tell us where the money went, and telling me that maybe he ought to move to Montreal, because it is pretty there.

I bet it is.

Related: We Are Not Fighting Homelessness and So Tired

 

If you’d like to be in conversation with us, please make sure to comment on our Facebook page, Twitter, or shoot us an email. We’d love to hear from you.

Breaking Down Power Dynamics

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It is really hard to do this work and not talk about power, and especially, power dynamics.

Because the people I minister among are heavily affected by power dynamics.

Everywhere they go, they are affected by these dynamics – by constantly being reminded that they are the subject, and not the object, that they are the supplicant and not the grantor, that they are the recipient and not a peer.

For example: You go to eat at a soup kitchen, and the soup kitchen has a line in which you stand. In that line, you are supervised by a guard or policeman, and you stand until you are served food that you had no choice in picking. You did not order this food, and you cannot refuse it without difficulty. The food is served to you, and the portions are meted out by people who look nothing like you. These people do not engage you, and they are wearing name badges or uniforms so they are immediately recognizable as “staff” or “volunteers.” Thus, their power is made clear.

There is no sense of mutuality, that you are in this together.  No, you are the recipient, and had better be grateful. Because, after all, beggars can’t be choosers. Or so they say.

A lot of our work is about breaking down power dynamics.

For instance, I seldom play the preacher card. The “Rev.” before my name is useful, especially when dealing with those who would use power against our folks, but I just prefer to be called Hugh.

And at our Community Engagement Center, we don’t wear uniforms. We do have name badges, but that is mostly so visitors know who actually works there.

And if you call, there is a really high chance that whoever answers the phone slept at the shelter last night, and the coffee was probably made by someone who doesn’t get a paycheck. The guy who shows you around when you stop by probably lives in a tent. Because you don’t need a title or a paycheck to show someone else around your community.

In our worship service, we limit the sermon to 8 minutes, leaving the rest of the time as open space for the community to respond: Because The Spirit doesn’t speak exclusively to, or through, those behind the pulpit.

The reality is, we work really hard to break down power dynamics wherever we see them. Because all too often, our people have been on the wrong side of them, and have seen power used as a weapon against them.

Related: Spiritual Molestation In Chick-fil-A, The Core Values of Love Wins Ministries

If you’d like to be in conversation with us, please make sure to comment on our Facebook page, Twitter, or shoot us an email. We’d love to hear from you.

Community Works

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At the Community Engagement Center, there is a room off the hallway. It’s a small room, perhaps 6 feet wide and 8 feet deep, and it contains a table and four chairs. In the building’s former life as part of a church, the room had been set up as a small prayer chapel, and the sign that says “prayer room” is still mounted over the doorway. We haven’t gotten around to removing it yet, and pretty much the whole community calls it the prayer room.

The prayer room is the room where much of the actual work of our Center gets done, because it is the one room in our entire building where you can shut a door and have a private meeting. The weekly one-on-one meetings with staff members happen there, as do meetings with would-be volunteers. It is the place we go when we need to have a private conversation, like when two staff members disagree and I am brought in to mediate, or when I need to have a conversation with a guest about the way he acted toward another guest. Sometimes guests use it as a meeting place with their caseworkers or peer support specialists.

It’s also the room where we interview potential employees, so for the last three weeks, I have been spending a ton of time in this little room. We have interviewed ten people for the Director of Operations position, some of them multiple times. Every meeting has happened in that meeting room. So it probably makes sense that I have a couple of stories that happened last week in that room that sum up life here in our community for me.

We are without a lot of storage, and this room has the only door that locks, so sometimes we stick things in there to deal with “later.” Sometimes this leads to awkward situations. Recently, a volunteer stuck 20 sleeping bags in there, blocking most of the floor, just minutes before I interviewed an applicant.

The applicant looked at the pile of bags on the floor, then looked at me and asked, “Where are they supposed to go?”

I looked back at her. “If you are hired, it will be your job to decide that.”

“Oh,” she said. “So right now, they just get stuck in here, and you just deal with it?”

“Exactly. We just deal with it.”

Later that day, another applicant sat in the same chair as all the other applicants had before her, staring at the same wall of sleeping bags we’ve amassed without comment. She was asked to share with us, as far as she felt comfortable, a personal story from her childhood that was meaningful to her. (This is a great question, by the way, as it tells you a ton about the person you are interviewing.)

She got emotional during the telling of her story (which is fine), and she reached for the box of Kleenex on the table (which is there because lots of people get emotional in that room). As she pulled the tissue from the box, we all suddenly realized that it wasn’t tissue she held, but the paper towels that normally go in the bathroom towel dispenser. Someone had refilled the tissue box with rough, brown paper towels.

She laughed, and we all laughed, and it was a little embarrassing, and then we went on with the interview. But inside, I wasn’t just laughing, I was swelling with pride. A guest had seen that we were out of tissue in the box, realized we had no more tissue, and used their creativity to solve the problem. And didn’t even feel the need to tell anyone.

In other words, for the ten minutes it must have took for that to happen, the guest took ownership of the problem, and, within the limits of their capability, solved the problem.

They owned the problem, and then solved it. That is how you know someone feels as if they belong. That is how you know you have developed community. At that minute, in the middle of an interview, I knew that this crazy experiment we have created here, works.

So on that day, we didn’t look our best to someone who was new to our community, someone who may well become a part of our community. But it is better she learn now that we are not always pretty, or neat, or well organized, but we are always a community. And that is OK with us.

Related: Sometimes This Stuff Works

 

If you’d like to be in conversation with us, please make sure to comment on our Facebook page, Twitter, or shoot us an email. We’d love to hear from you.

Fighting The Status Quo

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“It’s a little chaotic right now.”

I told someone that the other day, as an explanation as to why I hadn’t been good at staying in touch. She gave me the side-eye and said, “That’s what you said a few months ago, too.”

Sadly, both of us are right.

Right now is just super chaotic. We are in the midst of spinning off the new Love Wins Community Engagement Center; I am conducting multiple interviews every day as we try to find the right person for our Director of Operations; we are preparing to get two interns and add another full-time position this summer; preparing for the next big project that will, if all goes well, be unveiled next Friday and, oh yeah, we still have 80 to 100 folks coming through the doors every damn day, expecting hospitality and welcome and a place to be, because, well, that is what we do.

And she isn’t wrong. Several months ago we were super chaotic, planning the next big project (which was to spin off the Community Engagement Center), fighting the cold weather, writing the job description for the new position, writing a grant that will enable us to hire the full-time person this summer, filling out paperwork (endlessly), and, oh yeah, dealing with 80 to 100 folks coming through the doors every damn day, expecting hospitality and welcome and a place to be, because, well, that is what we do.

The point is, it doesn’t stop. It will always be chaotic, because a) we are way understaffed and b) the list of things we can do is endless and c) for all our colleagues’ talk of ending homelessness, homelessness seems to be holding its own in the fight.

As long as there is an “other,” there needs to be a place for them to just be. And as long as I am here, we will be that place.

And the reality is, that work – the work of holding space, of holding power loosely so the community can build itself, the work of making sure the place is safe but being non-coercive in doing it – that work is hard. It is hard when everything goes right. It is hard when everything is working according to plan.

Because what we are doing here – holding safe space, making sure people have a place to be, accompanying the loneliness that accompanies homelessness, loving people whom the world has given up on – to do that is to fight against the status quo. None of that is default behavior. None of that comes easy.

The truth about this work: it is hard.

It just is.

That doesn’t negate the fact that I am ridiculously happy I have gotten to do it for close to 10 years. And yes, the work is hard, but often beautiful glimpses of the better world we all believe to be possible shine through. And sometimes, we win. None of that is negated, but none of that comes easy.

And that’s OK.

Related: Some Days, Hope is Hard

 

If you’d like to be in conversation with us, please make sure to comment on our Facebook page, Twitter, or shoot us an email. We’d love to hear from you.

What Is The Hardest Part

Trigger Warning: The following post makes mention of serial sexual assault. Please do what you need to take care of yourself if you choose to read.

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What is the hardest part of this job?

An applicant for the new Director of Operations position asked me that this week. We are currently in the middle of interviews, and while we are exhausted by the process, it is important we get the right person.

I told her that was a good question, and it is. I just am not sure I have a good answer for it.

I ended up tell her that the most difficult part of the job, in fact, the most difficult part of doing this work in general, is how reactive it is.

Every morning, I get up, make myself a cup of coffee and get out my old-school Franklin Planner and make a list of my planned activities for the day, ordered by priority, just like they taught me all those years ago in corporate sales school. It is a heck of a list, ordered in order of priority, with the three most important things to do for the day highlighted.

But that list is entirely aspirational, because as soon as I get to the office, Emily comes in and tells me that last night she was raped, and she asks if I can help her talk to the police. Or Steven is having a manic episode, and he needs someone to talk it down with him. Or Shirley has a panic attack, and she needs someone to be with her and reassure her she is safe.

Or someone we have never seen before comes by with food, which makes us very happy, but we have to make sure the food is put away. Or Danny needs his resume printed. Or Shelia wants to know how to enroll in the local community college. Maria asks if we can look up her daughter, who she hasn’t seen in years, on the Internet. Marvin, who isn’t fully mentally competent, comes by to tell me that he is going to a group home – he thinks – but he can’t find the paper that gives him his appointment times.

None of that was on that to-do list.

The inability to plan your work for most of your workweek has to be the hardest part.

But I have thought about it, and then I remembered the cold, snowy days in the winter. The days when we close at five, and it is 4:50pm and our friends are packing their things to leave. You know they have nowhere to stay that night, and it is wet and cold. You tell them all goodnight. You close the door behind them. Then you get in my car, turn on the heater, and drive past them as they trudge in the snow to the bus stop. You head home to your nice warm house. Dinner is prepared and waiting for you.

That might be the hardest part.

Or maybe it’s when you work with Billy for months, helping to make sure he makes his meetings, you help remove obstacles, you celebrate his 30 days, and then his 60 days and then his 90 days of sobriety, and then you have to go visit him in jail because he was arrested when they raided the meth house.

Or it’s seeing Stephanie return to her abuser, because it is getting cold outside now and she doesn’t have anywhere safe to go, and while he may beat the crap out of her, at least she has a warm bed to sleep in there.

Or it is having your illusions stripped away when you have been doing this work for a few months, and you meet an incredibly smart and beautiful woman who is partnered with a man who brings her nothing but trouble. She is obviously frustrated with the relationship. And when you ask why she doesn’t leave, she tells you that the first month she was on the streets, she was raped three times. While this guy is a jerk, he protects her from everyone else, and after all, it’s better to be raped by one guy regularly and predictably than lots of guys randomly. And sometimes, he’s even nice to her.

That might have been the hardest part.

But then you give it a lot of thought and realize that no matter how hard it was for you to hear that, it pales in comparison to her living that. And then you realize that the hardest part isn’t borne by you, but by the lives of the people you have come to love. And that your job isn’t to fix people, but to accompany them on a long hard journey.

That isn’t what I told the applicant that day. But it’s what I wish I had.

Related: The Interruptions Are Our Work

 

If you’d like to be in conversation with us, please make sure to comment on our Facebook page, Twitter, or shoot us an email. We’d love to hear from you.

Waiting and Hoping

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Today is Good Friday – the day in the Christian tradition that marks the death of Jesus, killed at the hands of a brutal regime that oppressed the poor and powerless. The Christian story is that three days later, Jesus was raised from the dead, vindicated by God and displaying his triumph over the powers that be. On Sunday, churches around the world will celebrate that, hallelujahs will erupt, and life will be celebrated.

We know that now, so it is easy to forget that on that first Friday, no one knew any of it was going to happen.

Jesus was arrested, tried, and killed in less than 24 hours. His disciples were scattered, his friends abandoned him, the movement he had built was dashed. People had made life choices based on the hope this Jesus offered, only to watch it disappear.

That Friday did not anticipate the Sunday to come. It was just bleak and dark, a place of no hope. No joy. No life. Kinda like my friend Billy.

Billy is 27, but talking to him is a lot like talking to an obstinate 14 year old. He aged out of the foster care system when he turned 18, and since then, has lived on and off the streets. He is an easy target for every conman and hustler out there, so he gets ripped off a lot, and while he isn’t stupid, he is very naive. He is also addicted to crack cocaine.

Like many people who receive disability benefits because of mental disabilities, he has a payee – a sort of financial guardian, who is supposed to pay his bills for him and make sure he has cigarette money and food money, but not drug money. His payeee receives a fee that works out to about 12% of his monthly income in exchange for this service, but when he yelled at the lady a while back, they called the cops, and now he is no longer allowed to come in person to pick up his money each week. Instead they mail him a check, and he cashes it at a check cashing kiosk, where they charge him a 10% fee to give him his own money.

Crack addicts are not known for being fat, and Billy is no exception. He has learned that he can take his food money and buy crack with it. And as crack dealers are not known for their sterling ethics, Billy’s dope man is no exception, either. People on the street joke about how he gets ripped off, and one person cynically said that Billy needs a payee for his dope money, because he keeps getting scammed.

He loses things. A lot. Billy had some money in hand, so eight days ago I went with him to get a bus pass because we wanted to make sure he had the ability to get around. In the week since, he has lost three bus passes, costing more than $30. He lost his ID, so he can’t cash his checks now. He sometimes gets on the bus and forgets to get off, thus losing himself.

What he needs is a residential facility where he can live in community and have a comprehensive case manager. Instead, he gets pieces of a broken system and no one who is paid to make sure he is OK. He is isolated and alone. For Billy, life is one big Good Friday.

But unlike the disciples, we know what happened that Sunday, and we know power doesn’t have the final say, and so we have hope. Or at least, the hope of hope. And seen with those eyes, not everything is bleak. As of yesterday, he had been sober for eight days. That this comes after bouts of sobriety that lasted 7 days, and 12 days and 15 days doesn’t make it less real – just very tenuous. He spends his days at our Community Engagement Center, coloring the adult coloring books we were given, and being cared for by our community. Nights are often at the shelter, or hotel rooms paid for by us with his money, because there is nowhere he is welcome. Yesterday he rode the bus to the DMV and got a new ID.

Things could fall apart any time, and for the smallest of reasons. It is all very, very fragile right now. But hope is like that. It has to be cared for, nurtured, and sheltered until one day, it bursts forth, erupting to lay waste to hate, doubt, and fear. But that happens on Sunday, and today it’s still Friday.

We are still waiting, and hoping.

And so is Billy.

Related Content: Waiting For Change

 

If you’d like to be in conversation with us, please make sure to comment on our Facebook page, Twitter, or shoot us an email. We’d love to hear from you.

 

 

 

A Framework For Understanding Homelessness

We’re hosting an event, and we’d love to have you! Here’s a quick look at the details:

What: A seminar, Framework For Understanding Homelessness
When: Tuesday, March 22, 6:30-8:30pm
Where: Trinity United Methodist Fellowship Hall (824 N. Bloodworth St. Raleigh, NC 27604)
Why: To workshop. To collaborate. To shoot some video. And, to have fun!
Want to join us? Click here to register.

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I am doing something I rarely do. I am hosting a local speaking event that is open to the public. And I need your help.

As you may know, some 15 or 20 times a year, I get on a plane and go somewhere else and talk (usually at a college, church, or a conference) about homelessness and community. Most of those events are closed to the public.

Occasionally I will speak someplace locally, but those are usually closed events, too.

So next Tuesday evening, I am doing a small workshop here in Raleigh completely open to the public. I will share my Framework for Understanding Homelessness, complete with a question and answer session.

I have two goals with this:

1) I am reformatting some of my talk, and I want to test the new ideas on a live audience and get your feedback on whether they work or not.

That’s right – I am going to workshop my talk. You get to help me get better.

2) My second goal is to capture some footage of me in front of an audience. We are trying to put together a promotional video for meeting planners who want to see a sample of what I do before they invite me to come speak, and we need some new footage of me presenting in front of an audience. So you also get to help us share our work more.

Think of this as a party. There will be heavy snacks if you didn’t have a chance to grab dinner before you come, and we will have a blast. Please register by clicking here, so we know how many people to expect.

I can’t wait to see you there!
Hugh

 

If you’d like to be in conversation with us, please make sure to comment on our Facebook page, Twitter, or shoot us an email. We’d love to hear from you.

Keeper of Memories

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I was putting some things away in my cubicle at work the other day, and I came across THE BOX.

My workspace is pretty chaotic. As a primarily visual person with a ton of ADHD, there are at any given time a number of boxes in my cubicle. But only one is THE BOX.

THE BOX is the holder of the dreams of the people I minister to. It’s like a poor man’s Ark of the Covenant, where my community has put our collective hopes and memories.

It looks like an ordinary box, made of cardboard. It originally contained whiskey of dubious quality, but now it holds a variety of things, for this is the box where I put things people ask me to hold.

One example: There is a small, blue velvet jewelry box, one you might expect to hold a ring. Instead it holds a small stainless steel capsule, about the diameter of your index finger, and the capsule is threaded on a tarnished silver-coated chain. The capsule contains some of the ashes of the grandfather of a woman I once knew.

This woman was living at the shelter, and her backpack had been stolen the night before. So she found me that morning in Moore Square and pulled me aside. We spoke in conspiratorial tones, interspersed with furtive glances. She slipped me the velvet box and explained that she didn’t want anything to happen to it. Her grandfather, it turned out, had helped raise her, and this was her only reminder of him. Would I be willing to hold it for her, until called for?

I have held it now for more than six years. I still see her occasionally, and she asks if I still have it. I tell her I do, and ask if she wants it back.

“No,” she says. “This way I know it’s safe.”

In the bottom of the box is a Bible in a really dirty and stained Purpose Driven Life zip up cover. Mike gave it to me about four years ago now. He came to our Hospitality House and asked for a meeting with me.

Mike was from Richmond, and his substance abuse problems had ended his marriage and dissolved his relationships with his kids. He had come here looking for a new start, but his addiction followed him.

He told me that this Bible was the one his grandmother gave him when he was baptized at a revival when he was a teenager. His name is in gilt on the cover of the faux leather, and his name is written in a feminine hand on the presentation page.

The Bible is like a record of his life since then. There is a church bulletin from the late ‘90’s. An offering envelope from a church in New York. On special pages are the dates of his marriage and the dates and names of his kids and the date of his grandmother’s death.

Mike was in and out of rehab a lot the three years I knew him. He would have fits of sobriety, followed by months of relapse. He asked me that day to hold onto his Bible until he “was better,” because he knew he was going to lose it.

The last time I saw Mike, he was doing great. I asked if he was ready for the Bible back, and he told me not quite yet. He then disappeared, and we didn’t see him for a while. We later learned Mike died in a ditch on a rainy night, having overdosed on paint fumes. We didn’t find out until weeks later.

In the days after I learned of his death, I have paged through his Bible many times, looking for answers. Thus far, the answers are elusive.

The box has other things. Wooden crosses. New Testaments. Pictures of babies. A keyring of keys. An envelope containing a dead man’s medical records. The receipt from the crematorium for the cremation of a stillborn baby. The bulletin for a funeral I performed. A rabbit’s foot that looks like it survived a war.

As pastor to this community, it is a given I will be trusted with their stories. I just never expected to be the keeper of their memories as well.

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