Max is Not My Dad

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“Well I guess you’re a good son,” the lady on the phone says casually. I can hear her typing as she offers the pleasantry and I don’t bother to correct her. She’s probably got a hundred more phone calls to field that afternoon and she’s more likely looking for a way to fill the silence than making an honest assessment of me. Max and I are waiting in the parking garage out in front of the hospital because that’s the newest check-in protocol for his appointment. We must have followed four different protocols since January, but we’ll do what they ask so Max can get his biopsy. We’ve already made the 135-mile drive for the appointment, Max dozing in the backseat with both of us wearing masks the whole way. So, one phone call is hardly an inconvenience.

“Alright,” the lady says, bringing my attention back to the phone, “you can bring your father around to the front entrance and we’ll take it from there.” I thank her and put the car in drive. I won’t be able to go into the hospital with Max – another good protocol – so after I drop him off with a prayer, I’ll drive down the road a ways and park in a grocery store parking lot to wait. I’ve got a thermos of coffee, some emails to respond to, and an overflowing list of podcasts to listen to while I wait for Max to be done. I’ll pray too; I’ll pray that it’s just inflammation and not a return of Max’s cancer.

Max isn’t my dad, though he is the right age for it. He’s funny and introverted. He often prays that God will show him what God wants him to do, because Max nurses the thought that God has more for him to do in the world and he’s attentive for any sign of what that might be. His funniest stories are about his various stints in jail. But his most inspiring stories are about how God has moved since he got clean roughly five years ago. Max doesn’t drive, though sometimes he threatens to get his driver’s license again, but he doesn’t have much of a need for it since we’ll give him a ride where needs to go and he’s a bit of a homebody anyway. He offers hospitality in his home now that he’s sober and stable. Max, who once questioned if anyone could love him, is now a spiritual leader in our community and one of the quickest to remind people of his love for them. Max is so many things, but he isn’t my dad.

Because of our work and because of the community of which I am a part, people often mistake me for blood family of those with whom we share our lives. I’ve been called “son,” “brother,” and “husband” of lots of our folks both in person and on the phone. Most of the time I don’t correct people because it’s easier to keep the conversation moving than to clarify a point that doesn’t matter much. Whenever I’ve needed to clarify the point – say, at a hospital when one of our folks is very sick and doctors and nurses are looking for family – it has been a strange hiccup of a conversation as professionals try to figure out how to think of me and my relationship with my fellow community member. Often, folks like Max have offered some explanation that smooths past the confusion: “he’s my family, but not my blood.” There’s more than a little truth in those words.

My own father passed in August of 2019 and it is still hard when people mistakenly call me “son.” There’s a grieving part of me that wants to correct people, as if my dad’s memory is somehow lessened by the polite assumption of anonymous professionals. Of course, it isn’t, but part of me still flinches at the jarring thought. In those moments, I’m comforted by two thoughts. First, my father was proud of me – and, I believe, is still proud – and encouraged me to continue in this work, even once noting that we had quite the extended family in Danville. Second, in the days after my dad’s death, Max was praying for me and was eager to tell me he loved me. He and my father had met only occasionally, but Max found a way to distill a few good memories of my dad to share with me over the phone as I struggled to find words for my father’s funeral. It meant more than I can say.

On the 135-mile ride home, Max and I took turns telling stories and reminiscing. Storytelling like that is about as close as I ever get to feeling like I’m home again. “You remember when,” we each began what must have been a dozen times. We shored each other up with all the nostalgia we could muster. Like family, we swapped stories that we both already knew but still enjoyed hearing. We spoke of loved ones gone too soon from the world and all their quirks and blessings. We reassured each other that all the things we’d learned from those now past were still just as true nowadays. We did our best impressions of voices too silent in these last few years. We even took a turn or two each at telling a story about ourselves that would be embarrassing in any context other than family.

I don’t need Max to be my dad – I had one of the best already and continue to benefit from his legacy and memory. Max doesn’t need me to be his son – he has found a home and family where God has planted him.  But, somehow, Max and I still need each other. Perhaps we are brothers, united not by blood but by a curious mixture of fidelity and memory. It’s hard to say and I can’t imagine the specifics matter in the end, but I’ve learned my only answer from Max and all my other extended family: “he’s not my blood, but he’s my family.” It’s as good an answer as any other I can find.

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A Piece of the True Cross

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I hadn’t seen him coming as I perched on the unfinished wood table outside of the shelter and waited for my friend Cam to show up. Cam is usually late to meet me for things, but never egregiously so and I had emails to catch up with on my phone anyway. I had forgotten about the little cut-through on the side of the building and now I could hear footsteps approaching and then stopping as if the person was also surprised at my presence. Looking up, I noticed it wasn’t Cam but instead someone I didn’t recognize.

“Hey,” I offered over my shoulder in a weak attempt to break the tension of startling each other.

“Hey,” he answered sheepishly before continuing, “are you the director of the shelter?”

“Oh, no,” I responded with a chuckle at the likelihood that our conversation was back on more familiar footing and I had confidence that I then knew what was going on. This gentleman was looking for the director of the House of Hope but didn’t know him, he carried a too new duffel bag in his off hand, and there was no car in sight. I assumed he must be wondering about finding a place to stay. Turning my head but not my body to speak to the man, I said, “I’m just here to meet a friend,” by way of explanation before continuing, “I think the director is out on some business.”

“Looking for a friend?” he queried with something like laughter at the edges of his voice, “I can be your friend.”

It was an odd thing to say, though perhaps just innocuous and extroverted, so I turned my body and more of my attention to him. I wasn’t worried, but ten years of our life and work has taught me to pay attention to odd phrases and curious sentiments. While getting a good look at the man, I introduced myself and gestured toward a large cross he wore on a piece of twine hung around his neck and said, “I like your cross.” Honestly, it was mostly small talk to give me time to get a good look at him and change the trajectory of our conversation. It was a little larger than the size of a playing card and it appeared to be metallic. I don’t usually wear a cross, but this one wouldn’t be my style even if I did—it was ornate in its filigree and it looked heavy by the way the twine pressed into the sides of the man’s neck.

“Oh, this?” the man questioned as if he was somehow unaware of its obvious presence, “It’s actually a reliquary. It has a piece of the true cross inside of it.”

I smiled politely and responded, “Oh yeah?” but I won’t say I came even remotely close to believing him. “Pieces of the true cross” have a fascinating history within the Church going all the way back to Constantine in the early 4th century at the least. But, as others have remarked over the years, there are certainly enough pieces distributed through the world to make for many, many crosses and Jesus only ever carried one.

Standing directly in front of me and holding out his metal cross, he continued, “Oh, yeah, when they gave it to me I made a promise that I’d offer a blessing to anyone who commented on it.” I knew what was coming but hurried in my thoughts to imagine what I might say to this man who I had just met and whose name I still didn’t know. “So, do you want a blessing?” he asked with a strange waggling of his eyebrows.

Uncertain of what to say, I looked to see if maybe Cam was walking up but he wasn’t. “What’s your name?” I asked.

“Michael,” he said, “like the angel but not really.”

“Alright,” I began before I really knew what I was getting ready to say, “yes, Michael, you can bless me.”

So much joy bloomed in his smile in that moment that my uncertainty nearly withered away. I got the impression that not a lot of folks took Michael up on his offer and that he was pleased to be able to do it. He was pleased to be able to live into this calling. It’s very likely that he could sense my uncertainty and mixed feelings, but he didn’t let on in the slightest as he opened the pectoral cross to show me the tiny fragment of wood resting therein. Placing his hand on my shoulder, he smiled and called out in a loud voice, “Father, bless this man,” before sliding his hand from my shoulder to the top of my head with his growing confidence. His blessing continued in what felt like an extemporaneous way before ending abruptly with a loud “amen.”

With a deep and contented sigh, Michael sat down on the bench and leaned back, saying, “I think I’ll wait here a bit and see if the director shows up.”

“Cool,” I replied to replace my stunned silence. I didn’t think it was a piece of a true cross or anything like it inside of that cross, but there was still something holy about it. His blessing would never be recorded in a prayer book for others to offer or emulate, but there was still something holy about it. He was just a near-stranger with a duffel bag who stumbled across me when he wasn’t expecting to, but there was still something holy about him. While the wood resting inside of Michael’s cross was likely just some speck of gnarled wood, the image that rested inside of Michael himself was that of the God whose breath held together the dust of both me and Michael.

I could see Cam coming up the street, so I patted Michael on the shoulder and thanked him for his time. “Go with God,” he said as he realized I was headed out to meet my friend.

“I appreciate the blessing,” I said with a sincerity that surprised me a little. I’m not sure what exactly happened in the parking lot of the shelter beneath the building’s overhang but I know it was a good thing. I’ve not seen him since, but Michael blessed me with what was almost certainly just an innocuous splinter of wood. He hasn’t seen me since, but I blessed Michael by believing him for a bit and giving him room to live into a calling that may well have been self-selected. God blessed us both by intruding into the ordinary of our day and meeting us in each other.


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It’s Harder

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The most common question I’ve received since suspending my sabbatical in response to the spread of COVID-19 has been: how is everybody at Grace and Main doing? Part of the reason I keep getting this question is because of how kind and thoughtful our supporters are. It is a privilege not only to receive your prayerful and loving support but also to receive your care and compassion. The other big reason I keep getting this question is because many people sense that our deeply relationship-driven life and work is substantially harder and more complicated than before. So, what follows is the truth about what life together is like in our neck of the woods during COVID-19.

It’s hard to sing as a group on Zoom. There’s a delay in the audio that isn’t immediately obvious when you’re just chatting. But, when you’re trying to do something in unison like singing or praying the Lord’s Prayer, the delay presents a challenge. Our little community gathered to pray a couple times each week before things changed with COVID-19 and that commitment continues now, though we’re still figuring out how best to do that. So, it’s harder to pray together now than it was before but we’re still doing it – we’re still being formed and molded by the commitments we’ve made.

It’s hard to make sure people have enough of what they need when social distancing precautions make sharing space and objects tricky. Most of the community is sheltering in place and self-isolating, but need for things like food, medicine, and urgent transportation sometimes brings us out of isolation briefly and carefully. Regardless of what is happening in the world, people are still hungry and still in need of shelter. So, it’s harder to share our possessions, time, and resources with our neighbors than it was before but we’re still doing it – we’re still being formed and molded by the commitments we’ve made.

It’s hard to find and provide medical equipment like masks and gloves or cleaning supplies like soap, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer to folks in our community when the pressure from COVID-19 leads some to buy far too much either out of panic or greed or some other motivation. So, we’ve been sewing masks and engaging volunteers (like some folks at West Main Baptist Church) to do the same. We’ve even worked with a local professional with a 3D printer to print face shields. Most of what we sew and print has gone to our local hospital and EMT crews, but we share the rest of the masks and shields with our neighbors. Thanks to the generosity of the folks at Ascension Lutheran, we even got some toilet paper to share when it’s needed. So, it’s harder to share necessary things with our neighbors than it was before but we’re still doing it – we’re still being formed and molded by the commitments we’ve made.

It’s hard to make sure people are staying in good shelter when looking in houses and meeting with landlords is a risky, if not impossible, prospect. Our community has recently received the resources from the CBF of Virginia to buy a house to add to our network of spaces but we can’t tour houses in the middle of this “grand pause” in which we all wait. We keep providing hundreds of nights of shelter every month through hospitality spaces and subsidized rent and emergency hotel stays. We can’t really move forward but we’re not falling back because it’s still true that “folks need a place to stay.” So, it’s harder to provide shelter than it was before but we’re still doing it – we’re still being formed and molded by the commitments we’ve made.

It’s hard to handle the kinds of isolation that are being asked of us. Some of our people are much higher risk than the average person and we don’t want to do anything that will endanger them further. Some of our people work in healthcare and give much of their time to holy service alongside the sick and the frightened. Others are desperate for social contact or a feeling of something like normalcy. In the face of separation, we meet online and find ways to play games together. We text more often and we talk through the storm door. Some of the extra time generated by the isolation we give to prayer and silence. So, it’s harder to be community than it was before but we’re still doing it – we’re still being formed and molded by the commitments we’ve made.

None of us would choose for things to be the way they are, but we’re trying – just like you – to figure out how to keep the promises we’ve made. It is the keeping of promises and the consequent building of trust that molds people together into community. Over our more-than-ten years of life together, we’ve learned from our neighbors what life together actually means and we’ve found time and time again that God is at work in a thousand places in our neighborhoods, homes, and lives. We still get to be a part of that good and holy work even if it feels different and looks different in light of the way the world tilts and wobbles day to day. So, we’re still doing it because it’s more important than ever to find, be, and offer community.

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More than We Ever Imagined

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This month, Grace and Main celebrates its tenth anniversary and there must be at least a hundred different ways to tell the story of the last ten years. Every month for nearly eight of those ten years, we’ve brought you a story from our life and work so that you can participate in your own way in our shared life and work. Each of those stories is a piece of a quilt that makes up our experience as an intentional, Christian community devoted to hospitality, prayer, and grassroots, asset-based community development in Danville, Virginia. Some of the stories have been celebrations, some have been sad, but all of them have been honest attempts to articulate this beautiful, good life which we name as a vocation and privilege.

Over the course of ten years, we’ve told lots of stories about addiction because of its prevalence in our city, neighborhoods, and companions. We’ve learned that addiction is an idol that extracts the life from people and places. We’ve learned that relapse is more common than recovery, but that recovery is a beautiful possibility sustained by a hope far greater than our confidence. We’ve learned to see the Kingdom of God in a pile of broken glass and we’ve celebrated so many brothers and sisters who’ve finally gotten clean after months and years of trying. We’ve grappled with our own, sometimes-more-subtle addictions and the things that we too often prefer over God. We’ve found home and community among both the addicted and recovering whom God loves.

We couldn’t tell the story of Grace and Main over ten years without telling the story of Bruce, who first showed up to one of our meals because we pestered him, but who eventually became one of our community’s strongest and most devoted leaders. When he passed in September 2017, he had been clean for two weeks shy of six years. The fruit of Bruce’s labors are everywhere around Grace and Main from the Urban Farm (which he was instrumental in getting started) to the Tool Library (which was his idea) and the dozens of relationships sustained by his kindness, faithfulness, and generosity. Dozens of people were influenced to pursue recovery because of Bruce’s love and inspiration and many cite him as a reason they remain clean even today. Bruce even contributed a couple of stories to this newsletter (here and here). Bruce’s story is wrapped up in ours and we still give thanks with fond remembrances of his time alongside us.

Inspired in large part by Roland, a Grace and Main leader from very near the beginning of our shared life, we’ve been a community that practices radical hospitality in evolving ways. The night after getting his first, stable shelter in years, Roland opened his home to another who had nowhere safe to sleep and, in doing so, also challenged us to take up hospitality with the phrase: “folks need a place to stay.” Following Roland’s lead (and the lead of Joann), we’ve opened our homes to others and found that a shared life is a more beautiful life on the balance. Since 2015, we’ve provided over 20,000 nights of shelter through a variety of methods. We’ve been joined in this work by dozens of friends and partners, including Ascension Lutheran Church who bought and donated a house to our ongoing work. Ten years has meant seeking fluency in the “language of knocks” and trying to learn to greet unexpected guests with grace, mercy, and attention that is all too uncommon.

Any telling of the story of the last ten years of Grace and Main must also devote some time to meals shared together in a wide variety of places like church fellowship halls, apartment complex courtyards, parks, and homes among others. Our practice is to break bread and pass the cup at our meals so that we remember that our tables are meant to be the Lord’s tables and that any and all are welcome to share a meal with Jesus. In ten years, we’ve both hosted meals and accepted the invitations of others to share a meal – part of hospitality is learning how to be a good guest, after all. We’ve wandered neighborhoods with a “roving feast” to share Jesus’ meal wherever we might find someone. We’ve shared extravagant and lavish meals together where we’ve given thanks for God’s providence and the generosity of others, but we’ve also given thanks for the more meager and simple meals we’ve shared. Over ten years, we’ve been bound together by our tables and in the sharing of food.

For about half of our community’s life, we’ve run an Urban Farm on in North Danville, where half of the growing space is dedicated to growing food to share with any who has need or want of it. The other half of the space is plotted out for folks to grow what they want to grow and do what they want to do with what they grow. The substantial majority of the Urban Farm’s leaders are people with direct or previous experience with hunger and/or poverty. There is power in this piece of donated land that was once used as an illegal construction company dump site. Together, we not only grow food to share but also new gardeners, new leaders, and hope. We give thanks for these every bit as much as we give thanks for tomatoes, asparagus, elderberries, and mushrooms.

Ultimately, the story of ten years is best told by the many people who make up our shared life with Grace and Main. Our quilt is made up of people like Alex the Chef, who once prepared a meal unlike any other; Carl, who didn’t have much to give but insisted on giving anyway; Katherine, who made an important pinkie promise; Tyler, who’s looking for us now; Lisa, who doesn’t have to worry what she’d do without us; Jeron, Mongoose, and Greg, who have their own way of making it to our meals; Marcus, who has everything including busted shoes; Marlon, who always remembers to give me a call; Mason, who we know loves us even if he can’t stay with us; Ben, who sometimes preaches with milkshakes, and Meredith, who sometimes preaches with a pillow fight; Derek, who keeps teaching us how to walk; Todd, who’s learning to put his hands to other uses; Tasha, who doesn’t struggle to breath anymore; Kenneth, who reminds us at meals that “God was praised and people were fed” and that there’s not much of a distinction between the two; Ms. Parsons and Ralph, who trust us with precious things; Mike, who sometimes shows up with a truck full of bread or gets caught sleeping on the floor; and Linda, whose garden we’re still tending.

Ten years later, here we are. Life has changed for so many of us. We’ve celebrated new homes, recovery from addiction, confessions of faith, lives well lived, births, birthdays, anniversaries, and God’s grace. We’ve mourned and grieved together over the passing of some of our beloved sisters and brothers. We’ve built new things and revived old things. We’ve commiserated on porches and around campfires, occasionally indulging in a conversation we sometimes call “Grief and Main.” We’ve spent many hours talking about things that matter and many, many more talking about things that don’t matter with people who always matter. We’ve shared life and it has been good.

There’s simply no good way to tell the story of ten years other than saying that it’s a story of a crowd of people—prodigal sons and daughters, all of us—returning home only to find a celebration and a family that is so much more than we ever imagined.

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What Andrew Needed

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I hadn’t known Andrew long when I saw him walking down the sidewalk, but I could tell by his gait that he was coming to see me. Eyes searching every house number on our end of the street, it was apparent that Andrew had only been by the house a few times; he didn’t yet know to look for the garden surrounding our steps and walkway or any of its other distinguishing features. The night of the week and the Styrofoam container in his hands told me he was coming from a particular free meal about a mile away. I didn’t know precisely where Andrew stayed yet—we hadn’t known each other long enough to make that question a comfortable one—but I knew which neighborhood and that we were out of his way. The bounce in his step suggested he was in a good mood and was probably looking to talk for a bit. If it was like the last time, he mostly needed to be heard but might do some listening too.

I waited near the door for a minute while he made his way up the sidewalk and our stairs. When he knocked—two short, hurried taps on the window pane beside the door—I made my way to greet him, but took my time. I didn’t want him to think I’d been waiting for him, after all—that can be its own kind of unhelpful pressure. We sat on the porch and chatted amiably for a bit. We didn’t talk about anything of much importance but instead talked about the weather, the meal he had just had, and some of Grace and Main’s upcoming schedule. Little conversations like this are so much more a part of our lives and work than nearly anyone suspects. These little, seemingly inconsequential conversations are a pillar of our work and shared life. Conversations like that start to make people feel welcome while also providing time and space for people to organize their thoughts. For all of us, whether we’re aware of it or not, part of feeling like we’re loved and trustworthy is being able to have conversations that don’t matter without any pressure to make them productive or purposeful.

So, we talked about nothing and I absently watched the sun start to set over the houses across the street. I knew there was something more coming in the conversation—likely some kind of request—but time has taught us that it will come when it comes and there’s not much we can do to hurry that moment along. Instead, we can try to make our friend feel comfortable in the asking. If Andrew was going to give me the gift of his trust, I could certainly afford to give him the gift of my patience.

“I’ve got something to ask you,” Andrew began after we found a natural end to one of our conversations. To the answer of my nod and smile, he continued, “Can I pray for you?” I won’t try to say that this is what I expected. I knew he didn’t have much money and that the place he was staying was his only through of charity and lack of wider attention. I knew that he needed help finding food to eat some days and that he had nowhere to do his laundry that he could afford. I knew a lot about Andrew’s needs, but I hadn’t considered that he might need to pray for me.

“Sure,” I answered with what must have sounded like confusion to Andrew, because he hesitated. You see, I’m much more accustomed to being asked to pray for people than I am to people asking if they can pray for me.

“I just heard you were sick is all,” Andrew explained. It seems he had seen my name on somebody’s prayer list, had heard that a few people in our little community were sick, and had seen me coming and going from the hospital a few times in the previous week. I wasn’t sick, mind you, and had only been visiting some sick friends, but I could certainly see how he came to that conclusion. I didn’t correct him; I certainly wasn’t going to turn down the prayers he wanted to offer.

As Andrew laid his left hand on the nape of my neck, he began to pray in his breathless style. I could feel the sweat on his hand built up from carrying his to-go meal out of his way to come pray for me. It was a long prayer that covered a wide variety of both prayer requests and passages of scripture. I didn’t always agree with how he seemed to be interpreting certain texts or the exact requests he felt moved to mention aloud on my front porch, but there was a weight to his praying hands that I’ve only rarely felt. I still don’t know what to make of that feeling, but I know somehow that it’s important.

After he prayed, I offered a short prayer of my own that even in the middle of it felt perfunctory. I hesitated to pass my handkerchief over the back of my neck when Andrew was done praying in part because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings and in part because it was a visceral anointing not of oil but of effort. With mutual promises to continue praying for each other, we parted. “I really appreciate it, Andrew,” I called after him as he descended through the garden with his leftovers in hand.

“My pleasure,” Andrew called back, “I saw your name and I wanted to pray.” As I gathered the water glasses from beside our chairs, I briefly watched Andrew walk up the street with the setting sun behind him lengthening his shadow. I didn’t feel all that different than I had thirty minutes before, but then it wasn’t really about me. Andrew needed to pray.

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Trying Again

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The first thing I saw as I rounded the corner was Rick’s mud boot stuck out and resting on its heel on the dry ground. He was sitting on an old cinder block by one of our community’s first gardens and smoking a cigarette with a clear lack of hurry. His sunburned shoulders and neck were on display in his undershirt, but he still wore the bucket hat that was his ever-present summer time companion. I’ve never been very sneaky, so Rick heard me coming—but that was okay since I didn’t want to surprise him anyway. He had asked me to come, because he had something he needed to tell me. I already knew what he had to say, but sometimes the telling of a thing is as important as the hearing of it. I sat on the cinder block next to him and kept my eyes turned toward the garden so that the pressure wouldn’t grow too much. It can be hard to tell the truth sometimes, even when everybody already knows it.

“I screwed up,” Rick offered unprompted, “I had a good thing going and, I guess, I screwed that up.” I nodded and searched for words as I waited to see if he’d continue on his own. “I drank,” he offered up to the shared silence.

I nodded again before offering, “I’m sorry to hear that.” At six months long, it had been his longest run of sobriety since he was a teenager. Rick’s white hair was evidence for just how long it had been.

“Don’t you think I am, too?” Rick asked me with a mixture of anger and disappointment at the edges of his voice. He was spoiling for a fight and thought I might give him one if he pushed me.

“Of course you are,” I offered as conciliation, “you most of all, I’m sure.” After a short pause I added, “you know we still love you, right?”

“No, I don’t,” Rick said a little too loudly, “I know yall say it, but I don’t feel it.” Like the cork coming out of a bottle, this seemed to have made way for Rick to tell the truth: “I can see that yall love Bruce. That’s for sure. And sometimes I think you love me, too, but I just can’t feel it. I can’t see why or how. I want to, but I can’t.”

“I hear that,” I assured Rick as we both stared straight ahead at the garden, “but I don’t know what to say to that other than to say we really do—or, at least, we’re really trying.” Turning his gaze from the garden, Rick looked where my eyes would be if I’d only turn to face him. “And we’re not going anywhere,” I added as I made eye contact for the first time that afternoon. Rick held my eye contact for a few more seconds, as if he was weighing my promise against his experience. I waited for his verdict, but he only turned his eyes back to the garden. Following his lead, I joined him in a thoughtful silence. I tried to pray silently, and I guess I did, but it was a mostly wordless and uncertain thing.

Eventually, as the sun was dipping low behind us, we silently headed back up the hill. “Hey,” I offered uncertainly from the driver’s seat of my car, “when you’re ready to try again, we’re with you.” His nod, a mixture of understanding and irritation, was as fine a cue as I was going to get that I should leave. So, I drove away with a wave.

Rick wasn’t ready for a while. There were times when we wouldn’t see him for weeks. There were times when he slept outside or crashed on somebody’s couch. There were times when we’d see him somewhere and he’d fruitlessly try to hide how intoxicated he was. There were times when we’d put him up in a hotel room for a few nights. There was even a time when he called to let us know he was ready, but hid from us when we came to pick him up because he had started drinking in the short interim.

I must say that there were certainly times when we loved Rick well, but there were also times when we loved Rick poorly. Sure, we didn’t go anywhere, but we also didn’t always seek Rick out.  But God never stopped loving Rick and never stopped seeking him out. Months later, Rick found his way to one of our hospitality houses and let us know that he was already a few weeks sober. “I’m ready to try again,” he said. “We’re ready to try again, too,” we said with our hugs, back slaps, and knee squeezes.

So, we did. We tried again to love not only in word but in action. We tried again to walk the road of recovery together. We tried again to share life in community. Trusting that trying is somehow enough, we tried again. It didn’t come easy, but it came nonetheless.

The other day, Jessica and I were giving a tour of the Urban Farm to a visitor from Richmond. Our daughter had come along for the visit and Rick also happened to be there. “Mr. Rick, Mr. Rick!” she yelled, “watch me swing!”

“I’m coming, sweetie,” he yelled back as he shook our visitor’s hand hastily. “Excuse me,” he added more quietly to us with an expansive smile, “I’ve got to go push a swing.” With over three years of sobriety under his belt, Rick has become one of our community’s leaders. He is quick to remind us at prayers that we need to keep loving each other and finding ways to show it. Rick is eager to tell us that he loves us and faithful in finding ways to make it felt. Sometimes that means pushing a swing.

A little while later, our daughter and Rick sat at the top of the stairs leading down into the garden and sang silly songs about monkeys and sharks. I was struck by their coincidental seating arrangement: side by side on some cinder blocks, looking down over a garden. There was no lack of eye contact this time, as our daughter giggled her way through another verse and shoulder-bumped Rick in his ribs. Over their shoulder, I saw Ryan, another friend of the community who Rick has taken into his home. Though they used to drink together on porches, Rick and Ryan now work together on the tool library and around the community. Ryan is one month clean and sober on the fourth attempt at recovery that I know of. We tell him we love him and we try to show it.
“He might not feel it yet,” Rick conceded to me one afternoon, “but he will. We’ll just keep trying.”

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Jeron’s Ride

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Hands gripping the steering wheel and eyes set firmly forward, Jeron’s mouth drew to a line as he focused on the road ahead. He’d been this way many times to come to one of our meals, but driving a car like Jeron’s takes a lot of attention. The lack of a windshield meant he had to squint if that red streak of a car ever got up to speed. The lack of a driver-side window meant Jeron’s ears were filled with road noise from the clatter of the wheels not so far below him. Looking at the car’s various dents and scratches, you might be surprised to learn that the wheels were original. Jeron’s car wasn’t as fast or as sturdy as he’d like, but it had gotten him to the meal before and it almost certainly would again. Especially since Jeron’s car is a riding toy with a long, dirty, blue handle that Mongoose and Greg were taking turns pushing as the trio made its way across the sidewalk to one of Grace and Main’s meals.

Three-year-old Jeron spends nearly every day with Mongoose or Greg, and has for most of his life, but neither man is his father. They’ve been entrusted with the care and keeping of Jeron, a task they’ve undertaken with warmth and steadfast love even if also a relative lack of resources. Mongoose and Greg take turns watching Jeron most days, depending on which of them has work. Like so many communities, they are a family united by a chosen bond instead of blood.

Look, I know the question you want to ask, but I don’t know if I can answer it. Try as I might to understand it, I don’t know why people started calling him Mongoose. There’s nothing about his features or mannerisms that suggests the nickname, but hardly anybody calls him anything else. Mongoose is cautious and doesn’t talk much, but he does what he says he’s going to do. Like Jesus said, his yes is yes and his no is no. Mongoose is older than me by a couple decades and I confess I was puzzled when he introduced himself. Nobody around me seemed to find his name strange though, so I nodded and started calling him Mongoose. After all, if people matter then so do their preferences. Plus, who doesn’t want a friend named Mongoose?

There is no mystery to where Greg got his name, though. It’s the one his mom gave him. A regular more by acclimation than attendance, Greg has participated at least once in most of what our community does and is a welcome presence on our porches and at our meals. At various times, and through various seasons of life, he has been very active in the leadership of our Urban Farm. It was Greg who originally procured the red, yellow, and blue riding toy that Jeron rides to meals and it’s Greg who brings Jeron around some afternoons to do sidewalk chalk at a hospitality house. With a quick smile and a tendency to rock back and forth a little bit when he’s joking around, Greg warms every room he enters with his presence. He needs a little help with rent every now and then when the weather gets in the way of his job, but it’s easy to help somebody like Greg who is living in part to provide for others.

So, Mongoose and Greg push Jeron’s car down the sidewalks toward one of our community meals, taking the time to catch up with each other as Jeron works his 8-inch steering wheel and watches the real cars drive by. His braids are set just right and he’s wearing the new coat he got for Christmas even as Greg wears a coat that has long since seen its better, warmer days. Jeron’s shoes light up when he walks and have Spiderman on them, even as Mongoose’s shoes are held together with duct tape in strategic locations. Jeron is neither man’s son but he is their family. Neither of the two single men expected that they’d be guardians of a child when we first met them, but they took to it with a committed nonchalance that rang with a sense of calling when Jeron was in need.

The trio arrived to the meal with a few minutes to spare before we broke the bread and passed the cup. Jeron had driven them there successfully, even if it was Mongoose and Greg’s legs that did the work. After shucking their coats and hats, Greg made a plate for Jeron as Mongoose went to get drinks and dessert for all of them. My hand on Jeron’s braids, I offered a quick, quiet blessing. I prayed that he would be well even as Greg and Mongoose made sure he would be. As Mongoose and Greg got plates of their own, I prayed that Jeron would always feel welcome in our little community. I prayed that God might keep knitting together families in unexpected places from unexpecting people. “It’s good to see you, little brother,” I said to Jeron, before adding with a nudge, “go eat.”

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Better Plans

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“Wait, guys, I’m coming down,” Ed shouted from his second-floor apartment door. He patted his pocket to check for his keys before pulling the door shut and walking quickly to the stairwell at the end of the motel turned apartment complex. This wasn’t the particular apartment we’d helped him move into a few years previous, but it was in the same building. He had moved out of the building we sometimes called “Little Calcutta” in one of our neighborhoods after taking part, and leading, in the justice that God grew there. Ed’s new building wasn’t the nicest in town, but it was leagues ahead of his previous place. More importantly, it was better than nearly all of his accessible and affordable alternatives. Ed insisted he was blessed because he could pay his bills and drink his coffee, even if it was out of a cup he borrowed from a hospitality house.

“Sorry, guys,” Ed said before adding a slight shake of his head and a pursing of his lips to his meaningful pause that told us what was next before he continued, “I can’t make it tonight…you know why.” Of course, we did. Like so many of our brothers and sisters around Grace and Main, Ed’s circumstances mean that he is perpetually at the mercy of other people’s schedules and calendars. If he needs something from the more traditional organizations that help him and offer some form of needed and appreciated support, then Ed often has little control over when they come. So, on many Sundays when we go to pick him up for prayers, Ed cannot come because his help hasn’t come yet. On those Sundays, we remind Ed that he is loved, promise to pray for his mother as he always asks, and insist that we will pray for him, as well.

But this Sunday, our visit didn’t follow its semi-typical script. Ed waved as I put the van into gear and said not too loudly but still insistently, “Hey, wait!” With my foot on the brake, I waited for Ed to continue. “Once they come, I would love to get some dinner at the KFC across the road,” he said as quickly as he could get the words out, “I mean, I don’t need it but I sure would like it.”

I knew I didn’t have any cash in my wallet, but I still patted my pocket before saying, “Sorry, brother, I don’t have any cash on me.” Ed nodded with understanding. But Robert, who was riding in the passenger seat of the van having just been picked up five minutes previous, was already fishing his wallet out of his pocket and flipping it open.

“I’ve got it,” Robert said with a quiet nonchalance while pulling out the last few bills out of his wallet and handing them over to Ed.

“That’s real kind of you,” I said while Ed offered his own more profuse gratitude to Robert. “Seeya next week?” I asked Ed as I prepared to continue our drive.

“Oh yeah,” Ed intoned with a smile that told me he was already thinking about chicken livers as soon as his time was his own again.

Later that evening during a period of extended silence in our prayers, I was reminded of Robert’s generosity so I turned it over in wordless contemplation. I knew that Robert and Ed receive the same kind of monthly check and that money can be equally tight for the both of them. This was certainly not a case of minimal sacrifice; eight dollars was a lot for either man. I wasn’t feeling guilty either because I hadn’t lied to Ed; I gave up lying or deflecting about the contents of my wallet several years into my life with Grace and Main. But, still I was struck by Robert’s generosity—I felt like I had missed an opportunity to do what Robert had done. That is, to be generous not because of a deeply felt need but because of the innate joy of giving for both recipient and giver.

Robert is one of a few Grace and Main regulars who makes sure that my daughter rarely has to go without a Reese’s cup for more than a week or two. In exchange for his gifts, my daughter is keen to remember him in her prayers and often quite eager to greet him. Robert once brought a harmonica to Little Calcutta when he knew that he’d be staying a while after the roving feast to play some music. He passed it to one of the residents who always listened but never had an instrument to join in the impromptu jam session. The new performer didn’t necessarily make pretty music, but it was made beautiful by joy and generosity. One Christmas, Robert bought a pair of boxing gloves for a friend of the community. He had heard the man had been a boxer in years past but had lost nearly all of his possessions in some personal and anonymous disaster. Those gifted gloves weren’t much use for boxing, but they were excellent for the memory of a more hopeful time.

Of course, Robert also gave Grace and Main a number of gifts over the years. His prayers have been constant. He recently finished three years of sobriety. He was also the one who pestered Bruce to come to one of our meals all those years ago. So, in his own way, he gave the community the gift of our dear brother.
I dropped Robert off last that night after prayers so that I’d have a few minutes to ask him about his generosity and why he was so keen to give gifts. Robert acknowledged that he wasn’t sure his gifts would actually change much and conceded easily that they didn’t always address needs so much as wants. “But you like giving, don’t you?” I asked him.

“Yeah, I do,” Robert began, “I like to give because I’ve not always been able to. Now that I can, I really enjoy it.” Rounding the corner toward his home, I hesitated to say anything for fear that I would disrupt his word for me. My silence was paid off when this kind, introverted man continued, “You know, the truth is that sometimes they’ll enjoy what I’ve got more than I will. Just because I’ve got it doesn’t mean I’ll spend it better than they will.” As we pulled up to his door and I thanked him for his time and requested his prayers for something like the thousandth time, he gathered his hat and bag. Robert turned and offered a final word from the gravel path leading to his door, “Sometimes they’ve got better plans for my money than I do—so why not let what I have be theirs?”

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Marlon Always Calls Me

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Marlon always calls me when I’m out of town. Over the last year or so, I’ve accumulated a collection of different phone numbers that Marlon has called me from and have saved each one into my phone’s contacts under the name “Probably Marlon.” But, without fail, Marlon calls me when I’m traveling. When his name flashes across the screen of my phone, I can’t help but think of Marlon’s broad smile and throaty, understated laugh. Marlon is a big man with a shaved head, a cheerful presence, and ears eager to hear how others are struggling. He’s just as comfortable sitting on the porch and talking as he is moving furniture and loading or unloading a borrowed pickup truck.

The first couple times Marlon called when I was traveling, I figured he must need something but was deferring his ask when he found out that I wasn’t in town. After all, the summer brings a number of things with predictable regularity in our work, but perhaps none so regularly as increased need in our neighborhood. It wouldn’t be surprising if new needs were creeping into Marlon’s life and he was turning to the community of which he has steadily become a part. We wouldn’t dread the ask—we’d celebrate the trust it showed.

But, Marlon still called me even when I know he knew that I’d be out of town. Talking while we both helped to prepare a community meal, Marlon said to me, “I hear you’re headed to Atlanta. What for?”

“Oh, school,” I responded, “I’ve got class and need to get a ton of writing done.”

Nodding with what might have just been polite interest, Marlon continued: “Oh, well, are you driving or flying?”

“Flying this time,” I admitted, “because the timing is too tight to drive.”

“Oh, I’d go to Atlanta,” Marlon insisted, “but I’m not flying—that’s too dangerous.” With these words, our conversation sprawled into a neighboring duo of Grace and Main leaders, who were checking the contents of the ovens. Over the next fifteen minutes, we had a harmless and shifting conversation about the relative safety or danger of air travel. Like so many of the conversations we share in community, this one was marked by joking and playfulness.

Eventually, Marlon conceded, saying with a wink, “Well, I guess it’s safe for you, but it’s not safe for me.” As we left the meal that night, Marlon grabbed my elbow and wanted to know the precise time of my flight. He assured me, with a smile that called back to the kitchen, that he’d be praying for me. I thanked him and promised that I’d see him in a week or so at evening prayers. Of course, Marlon called me from one of the “Probably Marlon” numbers while I was in Atlanta. After all, Marlon always calls me when I’m out of town. He didn’t need anything, but he wanted to make sure I didn’t either. He wanted to make sure I was okay.

For a while, I wondered why Marlon seemed so worried about my safety when I was away. I wondered if perhaps he had lost somebody in an accident in the years before we knew him. I wondered if his own limited travel experience made it seem more daunting to him than to me. I wondered if it might be a family tradition he was carrying into life in community, as if his family gave special attention to traveling members while they were separated. I wondered if this might be an extension of the way he prayed with us—thoughtfully reflecting on the needs in the room, eyes scanning, before producing a short litany of requests like ticker tape while staring at the rug. I didn’t know why he called but I knew that he did, even if he had to remember again my memorized phone number and borrow somebody else’s phone to do it.

I came close to asking Marlon about it once. As we sat on the front porch one night after prayers and told and listened to stories shared with whoever was around for the telling, I told Marlon how much I appreciated his calls when I was traveling. But, before I could segue into asking him why he called, he smiled and said, “Oh, well, you know I’ve gotta check in on you,” before continuing with a softer, less-joking smile, “because you belong here with us.” I assured him that I knew that and thanked him again for his prayers and thoughts. Usually, I’d respond to words like those by assuring him that he belonged here with us, too. It’s a practiced move that is equal parts hospitality and deflection. But, in the moment, I said nothing and just patted Marlon’s knee.

Whenever I travel now, I look forward to a call from “Probably Marlon” and everything that it means. Maybe we’ll catch up about his family, maybe we’ll talk about the Urban Farm and what he’s growing there, and maybe we’ll just go over the upcoming schedule again. But, one thing I know for certain: Marlon always calls me when I’m out of town. Now I know why.

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Neither Do I

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I was just getting ready to start Sunday evening prayers at one of our community’s hospitality houses when an unfamiliar brown sedan pulled to a hesitant stop in front of the house. I didn’t recognize the woman who got out of the back but I recognized the driver from a local congregation. The driver didn’t make eye contact with me as I walked off the porch toward the street. I imagined that perhaps the driver and his unknown companion would be joining us for prayers, so I was eager to greet them. But, as the anonymous woman closed the car door and I recognized the tears in her eyes for what they were, the driver departed without a word. With a familiar, sorrowful look, the woman sat down on the curb.

With a quick glance around the porch, I hoped to find somebody whose expression would show that they knew the woman or perhaps had some idea what had just happened. What I found in the faces of those who make up our little community was surprise and a creeping realization that this woman had been abandoned here by somebody who didn’t know what to do with her. For all of us, this was a tragedy; but for some of us, this was a familiar experience.

Sitting on the curb next to her, I coaxed her name—Kathleen—from her between sobs and looked back over my shoulder to see if anybody had figured out what to do yet. Kathleen and I were joined on the curb by Brandon. With his intimate experience of what it’s like to be “somebody else’s problem,” Brandon took the lead as I fumbled for words and understanding and Kathleen tried to catch her breath.

Like Job’s friends before they messed it up with their words and false confidence, Brandon kept silence and helped me to do the same. Brandon didn’t know what to do, he later admitted, but he knew how to be a witness to suffering so that one of God’s children doesn’t have to suffer alone. When Kathleen fumbled in her pockets only to find an empty pack of cigarettes, Brandon offered her one of his in a gesture that our shared life in community has taught me to call generous and merciful. With a shaking hand, Kathleen smoked her borrowed cigarette and began haltingly to tell a piece of her story to two silent strangers whom chance and a fast-moving sedan had compelled her to trust.

As Kathleen explained that she wasn’t from Danville and was, in fact, from High Point, North Carolina, I could hear quiet footsteps approaching. Another one of our community’s leaders brought Kathleen a glass of ice water and whispered to me that prayers would wait. While Kathleen began to explain that she had ended up in Danville in order to escape an abuser in North Carolina, yet another one of our leaders started up a conversation on the porch thirty feet away. There wasn’t anything special about the conversation, but so many of our folks know well from past experience what kind of story Kathleen was likely to tell. They also know how hard it is to tell when you’re worried that you might have an audience.

So, in the place of prayers, our little community talked about nothing much in particular and offered a grace that sounds like a low, inconsequential murmur. What our people knew—what they had learned from their own similar, hard experiences—was that you didn’t need to know exactly what to do in order to do something good. Sometimes we all are tempted to strive for acts of great, heroic love and not be satisfied with little acts of love. In pursuit of big solutions, we risk seeing people as problems.

Kathleen continued her story but interrupted every other sentence with an apology for being drunk. Kathleen seemed to hope that her many apologies would pry mercy from our unwilling hands. Brandon spoke for us both when he quietly reassured Kathleen that she was welcome, even if unexpected, and that we weren’t interested in judging her. With that tiny shred of confidence in our hospitality, Kathleen opened up and expressed her fear and anger to us. She was angry at her abuser. She was afraid to go back to High Point. She was angry at feeling abandoned. She was afraid because she didn’t know her way around Danville and didn’t have a place to stay or food to eat. She was angry at herself for leaving her ID in High Point, but she had done so because of the fear that had gripped her heart in her escape.

Then came the question I knew was coming, as Kathleen made eye contact with me for the first time and asked, “So, what can I do?” I had been dreading this imminent question because, like the driver of the brown sedan, I didn’t know what to do. Kathleen wanted to go back to High Point but was also afraid to go back. She wanted to stay in Danville but had no material or social resources here. She wanted to be sober but didn’t feel like she could be yet.

I excused myself for a moment to make a few phone calls and see what our options were for making a place for Kathleen. After about fifteen minutes of phone calls, I still had very few options because there are very few places that pick up the phone on a Sunday evening. Discussing those few options with a handful of our community’s leaders led us to doing something we’d done before but which I still find relatively uncomfortable: making a promise and then counting on God to keep it. We didn’t know what to do, but we trusted that God did and then went about our business of little acts of love.

We convinced Kathleen to join us for an impromptu meal in the kitchen of the hospitality house. We hadn’t been planning on eating, but we didn’t want her to have to eat alone. Sunday Evening Prayer became sandwiches and a tray of finger foods that week. While most of us shared lemonade and tea, one of us made a reservation at a local hotel for a few nights. Between bites of egg custard left over from a meal earlier that week, we promised Kathleen quietly that we could do more nights of shelter if it took longer to find a solution and we scheduled a time the next day for us to sit down and figure out her options.

While taking Kathleen to her hotel room, I repeated to her out loud what the sandwiches and egg custard had said more subtly: “you’re not alone and you’re not a problem.” As I drove back from the hotel room, I had a short voicemail on my phone with an awkward apology from the driver of the brown sedan.

“I just didn’t know what else to do,” he told my voicemail with an apology tinging the corners of his voice.

“Neither do I,” I confessed to God, myself, and no one else in particular, “but I’m not sure that always matters.”

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