The following is a sermon delivered by Hugh to the First United Methodist Church of Pottstown, PA on December 14.
I bring you greetings of grace and peace from the congregation at Love Wins Ministries in Raleigh, North Carolina. It’s always a bit difficult to describe our work at Love Wins. Officials call us a homelessness agency, but most of the folks that interact with us know we are a church.
Although, as my friend Wilbur, who happens to live under a bridge, says, “This ain’t like no church I have ever seen.”
Most of us agree with him.
Perhaps it is easier to describe Love Wins by what we don’t do.
It’s true that in the last 12 months or so, at least 15 people who were chronically homeless have gotten permanent, stable housing. But we aren’t a housing ministry.
It’s also true that we provide hot meals to more than 250 people a week, but we aren’t a feeding ministry. And we help dozens of folks write their resume each year, but we aren’t a jobs ministry, either.
What we are, actually, is a ministry of community and presence in the homeless and at-risk communities of Raleigh, NC.
About 10 years ago, I found myself reading the Bible. Don’t get me wrong – I had read it before. I had grown up in poverty in the rural south, where even the atheists are a little Christian. I had memorized Bible verses before I had memorized my address. In the language of my childhood, I was “washed in the blood” and was assured of my place in God’s good graces.
I had spent my twenties trying to escape my roots, working on making a fortune to make sure I was never poor again.
It was in the midst of that that I came across the reading for today.
And I realized I was in big, big trouble.
Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
The street translation of that is this: “Jesus said, ‘People were hungry, and you did nothing. People were thirsty, and you did nothing. People had needs, and you did nothing. So, go to hell.'”
The next few years were spent wrestling with this. Eventually I repented – an old fashioned word that means I changed my direction.
Eight years ago I ended up in Raleigh, and I founded Love Wins, a place that does nothing but extend hospitality as a way to bear witness to the love of God to some folks who have real reasons to doubt that love.
We are, like I said earlier, a church. We have a worshiping community that meets on Sunday afternoons, where folks get married and buried and communion is shared and prayers of the people are uttered, just like happens here. It just happens that most of us in that room slept outside or at the shelter last night.
We know lots of people who live in the woods, and on the weekends it’s hard to get food because the soup kitchens are closed. So we share hot meals and coffee with our friends who live outside, nearly a thousand meals a month.
We discovered that our friends who are homeless have nowhere to be during the day – no place to sit, no place to rest, no place they are allowed to just be. Like a lot of churches, we had space we weren’t using during the day, so we opened that up and invited people in. We fired up the 100 cup coffee urn and told people to make themselves at home.
Originally, we thought we were going to be fighting homelessness. But we came to realize we are actually fighting the loneliness that accompanies homelessness. We’re treating homelessness as the lack of relationship that it is, and not the financial problem everyone wants to make it be.
Because the opposite of homelessness is not housing – it is community.
Imagine for a moment that when you left here today, as you pull in your neighborhood, you see the fire trucks in your driveway. Your house has burned down, with everything you own in it. Where will you sleep tonight? Who will help you? What will you wear tomorrow?
As I described that scenario, you were making a list in your head of the people you would call, the friends who would help you. It’s your community that will keep you safe, that will make sure you don’t end up on the street.
I want to tell you about a member of my community, my friend Ashley.
When I first met Ashley, she was the street smart alcoholic wife of a serial felon. The husband had been running a meth house up north, which resulted in his arrest and their losing their children to the state. They had moved here for a fresh start after he got out of prison.
Sadly, it didn’t last. He relapsed and, eventually, was arrested again. Ashley had had enough – she left him.
Life on the street is hard, and she started coming to Love Wins to have a place to get away, a place to rest. She was in and out of homelessness that year, fighting a relapse into addiction. Sometimes she would show up drunk, and sometimes she was high and sometimes she was delightful. Regardless, because we believe that everyone we see is Jesus in disguise, she was welcomed, she was treated with dignity and respect and she was loved.
Eventually, she asked us to help her get into rehab, which was followed by 12 step meetings and relapses and more meetings and so much prayer, both by her and for her.
She began volunteering at our hospitality house, where she would clean up messes made by drunks and learn how to love other people, the same way she was being loved. Eventually, following long conversations, she was baptized at her insistence.
This is Ashley on her baptism day, with her very pink Bible a member gave her and a very pink cupcake another member made for the party afterwards. (Her favorite color is pink.)
It was at our hospitality house that she met David, a good-hearted guy whose love for her is palpable. Together, they made the transition from living in a tent to a room in a rooming house to finally, an apartment. We helped negotiate with landlords and they used one of our computers to search craigslist for listings, but they worked really hard.
They are ridiculously cute together – he’s a clean cut rural farm boy, while she’s a street smart woman with tattoos and piercings and a shock of pink hair. But they make it work. Together they have left homelessness, quit drinking, and quit using drugs.
So this summer, when they found out they were pregnant, it was just the next step in their journey, a chance for Ashley to raise a child while sober, to make up for mistakes of the past. A chance for David to show even more love than he thought possible. A chance to begin again.
They decided to call her Liberty, because after a lifetime of struggle, Ashley wanted her daughter’s very name to proclaim freedom.
Babies bring their routine with them, even before they arrive. Prenatal visits, WIC applications, Medicaid applications, and ultrasounds. Ashley and David and our community worked to handle it like champs. They met with us to help figure out who should be called when she goes into labor, who will take them to the hospital, all of that. We took her shopping for maternity clothes and planned her shower.
Life was good. Until it wasn’t.
We were all scared on Thanksgiving when we got a call that Ashley had been rushed to the hospital at 4:30 that morning. Her water had broken, way too early. She had woken up, covered in amniotic fluid, freaking out because it was a good 10 weeks too early for this to be happening.
I went up there that morning to sit and pray with them and find out more. Ashley was fine, the doctors said. The baby was going to be ok, they said with much less certainty, but the key was that Ashley needed to stay in bed for the next four weeks, at least, to give the baby’s lungs time to develop. As David said, she needed to cook a little longer before she was done.
This is Ashley and David at the hospital, trying to keep their spirits up.
Ashley chafed at being confined to a hospital bed, and was ecstatic when the doctors authorized a daily wheelchair trip to the courtyard outside. David was scared and excited and afraid to leave her side. Our community did daily visits, because being in bed for four weeks stinks, but maybe it stinks a bit less when you’re surrounded by people who love you.
And so it went, for two weeks. I was in Maryland for a conference this past Thursday when I was woken up at three in the morning by an insistent cell phone. Ashley had went into labor, and at 32 weeks, Baby Liberty was coming!
She was born on December 10, weighing just three pounds and 13 ounces. She’s living in the NICU right now, with tubes and wires everywhere, but very healthy, all things considered.
I thought you would want to meet Liberty.
Yesterday, some of the folks from Love Wins went to the hospital and picked up Ashley and David and took them home, and helped set up the nursery and assemble baby furniture to get ready for Liberty’s homecoming.
Their struggle is far from over. Newborn babies are expensive, and preemies even more so. Baby Liberty is going to need lots of love and attention in the months to come, and countless doctor visits and so on. And all of that is time consuming and expensive. But Ashley and David and Baby Liberty will get through it, because this time, it’s different. This time, they have community. This time, they are not alone.
The text today tells it matters how the people on the bottom are treated. It doesn’t just say that how we treat them is how we treat Jesus, but actually says that they are Jesus in disguise.
The beggar on the street? Jesus. The family in the shelter? Jesus.
The woman trading sex for survival on the wrong side of town, the mom who has her kids taken from her because she can’t provide, the gay kid being bullied in school? Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.
They are all Jesus. And if we are with them, then Jesus is with us.
All it takes is that we have the courage to do it.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Thank you for helping us to provide hospitality to vulnerable people. After all, there’s no place like home. Share the love of home by visiting our Holiday Market.