Help Us Recover From Hurricane Matthew

Hurricane Matthew flooding near downtown Raleigh, NC
Photo by Randy Bryant, via Facebook.
On Saturday, the 8th of October, North Carolina was hit by Hurricane Matthew. We didn’t get it as bad as South Carolina did, but it was still significant. Raleigh is a good 2 hours inland from the coast, so mainly what we got here was rain.

Lots and lots of rain.

Somewhere around 7-8 inches across most of the city. That picture at the top of the page was taken about a mile away from our Community Engagement Center.

Creeks flooded their banks. Intersections flooded. Power went down in patches, and in some parts of the city is still out 24 hours later as I write this. Seven people died in North Carolina as a result of the storm.

And for some of our friends who live outside, it was devastating.

My friend Danny and his girlfriend Mary had just went to the thrift store this week and bought blankets and clothes to replace the ones destroyed in the thunderstorm from a few weeks ago.

It’s all gone now, washed away after Hurricane Matthew, when the creek overflowed, taking with it the tent we gave them and pretty much everything they own.

Gone.

Danny just sat on the bench this morning at the Oak City Outreach Center, covered in mud from where he had been trying to drag things out of the creek this morning, weeping to himself. Mary said he had been like that for the last few hours, and that they weren’t sure how they could go on.

“You just get tired of fighting, Hugh,” she told me.

I made sure Danny and Mary got hooked up with some folks who could help them today, but I know over a dozen folks in exactly the same situation, and will no doubt hear more stories when we open up Monday morning.

Help our friends recover from Hurricane Matthew

Here are our biggest needs right now:

  • Blankets
  • Sleeping bags
  • 2 man and 4 man tents
  • Or the cash to buy them ourselves.

If you are in the Raleigh area and want to bring these items by, please bring them to our Community Engagement Center, located at 824 N. Bloodworth St, in Raleigh. (map). If you are out of town, it is probably more efficient to donate funds so we have the flexibility to purchase the things we need to most effectively help people. This is also dramatically faster than your shipping it.

You can make a financial donation by clicking here

Thank you for helping us to help our friends and community members. Thank you for sharing this post on your social networks. Thank you for your prayers. And, of course, thank you for helping us prove, once again, that, well, that Love Wins.

Community Means Eating Together

IMG_20160615_115301Three marks of authentic community are that you eat together, you celebrate together and you mourn together. One of the ways we do that here at Love Wins Ministries is our weekly community lunch.

Oh, it isn’t all that big of a deal, really. There will be about 50 of us on a busy day, and there will be fried chicken or lasagna or, once, there was barbecue. They still talk about the barbeque, actually. There is a side dish and bread and dessert. While we want it to be nourishing, we aren’t going for maximum nutrition – this is comfort food for weary people. There is always a pitcher of lemonade on the table, or sometimes tea, and always plenty of ice water.

Sometimes people bring us food, and sometimes we end up buying it ourselves, and sometimes it’s a mixture of the two. The barbeque was a gift from a political rally that apparently didn’t have the turnout they expected, and once the expected meal fell through, and we threw together spaghetti and meat sauce from a can in about 30 minutes notice.

The doors are supposed to open at 11:30, but, being us, we will probably start a few minutes late. Meanwhile, inside, VJ and Cassie are scurrying around inside, making sure everything is set up, and one of us is rushing around trying to remember where we hid the forks last week. Someone will inevitably ask me where something is, and I will have no idea.

By now, someone will be knocking on the door, reminding us they are out there, and I just burned my hand on a hot dish and – ok, open the doors!

Folks file in and line up to get food – it’s mostly self-serve, but we have people who will hand out particularly prized items, like fried chicken or cake, to make sure everyone gets some. It doesn’t take all that long to get through the line, and everyone sits at the round tables in the basement of the church building we share with Trinity UMC.

For the next 45 minutes or so, there is a lot of laughter, of smack talking, of joking and ribbing. Most of the people eating are folks who come to the Community Engagement Center, but some folks from Trinity come by, and some of our volunteers, so it’s a delightful, eclectic group. There is a piano against the wall, and inevitably someone will sit down and start playing it – Prince’s Purple Rain is a fan favorite – and over in the corner, one of our regulars who lives outside is regaling two elderly ladies from the neighborhood with tales of his exploits.

After 10 minutes or so, I will interrupt and welcome everyone. If we have a special group with us that day, I will introduce them, and if it’s someone’s birthday we will call them out. We invite folks to join us for worship upstairs after the meal if they choose, and ask for volunteers to help us clean up after. Then I sit down, and people begin to get seconds.

We try to get plenty of food, because we believe in abundance around here, but the food is all gone in 30 minutes or so. Even so, after it’s gone people are still sitting at tables, laughing and story-telling, their bellies full of comfort food and happy for the chance to be in a safe place where they can linger.

Some people start cleaning up tables, and some begin to drift upstairs for church. Others drift outside to smoke, and some slip away without saying goodbye, peopled out with all the stimulation. I am envious of that last group, but I can’t rest yet, because I have to run upstairs to preach at our little worship service – but I will tell you what that is like another time.

* * *

Every Wednesday at 11:30, we have a community lunch in the basement of the building we share with Trinity United Methodist Church, followed by a small worship service in the sanctuary upstairs.

If you would like to eat or worship with us, please come on by! If you want to help us by providing food, please email my coworker Laura and y’all can work out the details. If you want to make a donation to help us offset the cost of providing the meals, you can do that hereIMG_20160615_115301.

 

Jasmin Says Goodbye

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With a tender heart, I’d like to announce that my formal, professional time with the Love Wins’ community is coming to a close. With the demands of two young children at home, one of them with special needs, I’ve found that they both need more of my full-time attention. As I step away from this work, I’m sure my children will happily reoccupy a large chunk of my time. My family is also planning an out-of-town move, so the time, as they say, is ripe.

But for as long as we’re still living in Raleigh, I hope to remain a part of the community, whether that be through Wednesday lunch and worship, or just popping in to say hello to who I now consider to be my extended family.

There are so many moments I will never forget, so many people that are etched into my heart. Sometimes I was wrung dry, especially in the wintertime, when I hoped and prayed and hoped some more that we would not lose someone to the cold. Sometimes, I was overcome with joy, especially when I was privileged enough to witness or be the beneficiary of the incredible generosity of this community. And most of the time (see: every day), even if I initially didn’t feel like it, someone made me laugh.

We’ve said that the Community Engagement Center is a place of hospitality for people experiencing homelessness. It could also be said, that it’s a place of hospitality for people experiencing human-ness.

In other words, it’s a place for everyone.

Since it seems as if there are so few, truly safe and welcoming spaces for people of differing races, economic classes, sexual orientations, or religions (the list could go on), the unique experience of being a part of this community has given me such hope. I’ve caught glimpses of what a more beautiful world could look like. I’ve caught glimpses of love in action. I’ve caught glimpses of God.

I am changed. And for that, I’ll always be grateful.

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.

 

Wasting Time on Purpose

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“Community, I am beginning to understand, is made through a skill I have never learned or valued: the ability to pass time with people you do not and will not know well, talking about nothing in particular, with no end in mind, just to build trust, just to be sure of each other, just to be neighborly. A community is not something that you have, like a camcorder or a breakfast nook. No, it is something you do. And you have to do it all the time.” – Wendell Berry

I have a good friend who had devoted his life to reconciliation between murder victims’ families and murderers. One day we were talking about the difficulties of explaining our work to other people, and he said, “Some people just have a hard time understanding that this work isn’t supposed to make sense.” We laughed, but I knew exactly what he meant.

When we say that something makes sense, we mean that it fits into categories we already have. When I tell people I run a ministry for people who are experiencing homelessness, they often reply with, “So, tell me about your shelter,” or “So you help people get jobs?”. Because the categories they have in their head around homelessness say that people experiencing homelessness need housing or they need jobs, and that to provide those things is what it means to work with this population.

So when I tell them that I do neither of those things, but instead I build community – they don’t really know what to do with that. It is often so hard to explain what it is I do, exactly. I mean, people understand the pastor thing, and that I preach once a week, and that we share food on the weekends. But honestly, that is like 20% of my time.

Most of my day consists of chatting with people, listening to stories, telling stories, asking if I can sit next to someone, laughing at bad jokes, telling worse jokes, eating donated fruit with Paul, hearing Dennis’ newest conspiracy theory, visiting Nancy in the hospital, or visiting Karen in jail.

In other words, most of it is wasting time.

And that is OK. Because that doesn’t interrupt my work.

It actually is my work.

Because my job is to build community, and while the marks of community are that we eat together, we celebrate together and we mourn together, community is built when we waste time together.

So that is what we do. We waste time chatting with and listening to people that we don’t know well, building trust, making time investments, being neighborly.

It is nothing, really.

But it is also everything.

 

Related Content: Friendship Doesn’t Have A Deadline

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.

 

The New Operations Manager for the Community Engagement Center

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Rev. Laura Michelle Foley’s arrest on April 25th, 2016 at the North Carolina General Assembly while standing in opposition to the discriminatory HB2 ruling.

As we announced back in the spring, we spun off the operations of our hospitality house, and formed The Love Wins Community Engagement Center as a separate organization. The next step was to hire the right person to lead it.

We launched a nationwide search, and interviewed more than a dozen people, but it turns out, the right person was in our backyard all the time. Or at least, right down the street.

I am proud to announce that we have hired the Rev. Laura Michelle Foley to serve as the Director of Operations for the Love Wins Community Engagement Center.

Her impressive resume includes a Bachelors of Arts from Appalachian State (cum laude), a Master’s of Divinity from Wake Forest, nearly 10 years of youth ministry work, extensive work in communities that navigate homelessness, a proven commitment to justice (including being arrested in protest of the discriminatory “bathroom bill” here in North Carolina) and most recently, serving as Minister with Youth and their Families at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church.

But the most impressive thing about Laura was simply this: Our community advocated for her. I hadView More: http://cynthiaviola.pass.us/lovewins several people who live outside come up to me in the process and say something like, “I heard Laura applied to work here. You should hire her – she’s a badass!”

We agree.

In fact, Laura did the bravest thing I have ever seen an applicant do – she listed four people who are part of our community who do not have homes as references.  Not PhD’s, not coworkers, but people who are experiencing homelessness.

Laura brings with her a passion for the Beloved Community, a commitment to justice, and a wealth of experience and relationships. We are lucky to get to work with her, and cannot wait for her to start.

Her official start date is the 13th of June, and toward the end of the month, we will have an open house event so you can meet her in person. Stay tuned for that, as well as other hiring announcements in the weeks to come.

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 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.

Hospitality In Action

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This Sunday during my church’s worship time, we had what we call a “contemplative Sunday.” That basically just means that instead of singing we sit and meditate, which is usually accompanied by music and a reading. We were encouraged to offer hospitality by welcoming every part of ourselves to the moment. All of our weaknesses, along with our strengths; the dark places, along with the light; our sorrows and our joys. In the midst of this welcome, the phrases “lovely one” and “beloved” were offered as way to address ourselves, a reminder that we were all made in God’s image.

The community at the Love Wins Community Engagement Center wasn’t far from my mind. We may not mediate using the theme of hospitality, but you can see hospitality in action all the time. There’s Tori*, who is visibly offering the hospitality of her body through her pregnancy with her son Christopher. Roger, who offers hospitality when he cares for the kittens who were recently born next to his tent. Or, Johnny, who has taken Rick, another community member with some mental health challenges, under his wing.

The Center is a place where hospitality is always moving and living, a place where hospitality is in action. No one is perfect, but no one, thankfully, is expecting perfection. We only want to walk beside each other in grace, and support each other as we are able along life’s journey. I love the words of Catholic saint and Carmelite nun Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world 

I’m grateful for the reminder that made in God’s image, we can all be bearers of hospitality in a world that so desperately needs it.

*If you’d like to share a gift for Tori and Christopher, you can find her registry here. Wal-Mart, Target, and Walgreens gift cards are also welcome. Or, if Amazon is your thing, our mailing address is: POB 28837, Raleigh, NC 27611. Thank you for your generosity!

Related: Hospitality Is Risky

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.