Dec. 21 is the shortest day of the year in terms of daylight. It’s also a few other things – a few days before Christmas – meaning really busy for pastors like me. It’s really cold. And it’s Homelessness Remembrance Day.
This year Pat LeMarche and I commemorated this day with a unique project – a blanket project. Pat is a wonderful person, author, and advocate with a huge heart who puts thoughts and feelings into action. Pat came up with the idea some time over the summer, called me up and asked if I’d like to be a part of it. I said yes, and then asked when it was taking place. Turns out to be three days before one of the busiest church days of the year. But this event is right up my alley with its focus on homelessness.
And so over the last few months there has been a ton of work to pull everything together. A whole community of folks came together to pull off an incredible event. There are far too many people to thank in this blog post. Here’s just a few thank yous to get started. We are grateful to the Charles Bruce Foundation and the Lower Susquehanna Synod of the ELCA for being the sponsors of the event. Grateful to the Homelessness and Affordable Housing Task Force of the Synod. Grateful to Rev. Lisa Leber and the good folks at First Lutheran Church in Carlisle for hosting the event. And grateful to WGAL 8, FOX 43, ABC 27, and CBS 21 for their coverage leading up to and during the event. Thanks to the Carlisle Sentinel and the Burg Magazine for their pre-event coverage too. Special thanks to Chris Kapp and Max Donnelly for their incredible behind the scenes work that made the event go off without a hitch.
This whole post could be a listing of people to thank and I fear I would still miss people. For all involved, you are awesome!
Here’s what took place. 5am on Tuesday morning, a handful of us set up a sample encampment. Fox 43 was there and interviewed Pat and I throughout the morning about the event that would be taking place later that evening. Let’s just say it was cold. Like 20 degrees F cold. Cold enough that the frozen tundra beneath our feet was making our feet freeze. This bone chilling temp kept everything in perspective for us. And made the event more real.
We recalled that for about 24 hours a few weeks beforehand the event itself was homeless. How ironic that an event to remember those who died on the streets would find itself homeless because the application for the previous location was rejected without question or conversation with the organizers. Essentially, we’d be in the way of people getting their ideal pictures in front of the community Christmas tree. Nothing says the spirit of Christmas like moving homeless people out of the way for that ideal picture that makes it look like everything is picture perfect.
I recalled that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were homeless as well for a time. They had to travel far to go pay the Emperor’s tax and stay where they found shelter. Jesus was born in meager conditions. And after the birth, they had to flee Herod’s insecurity – becoming refugees because Jesus was inconvenient and a threat to the established order of the day. Our event was seen as a threat and had to go away. But, miracles happen. And a new location was found. And the event took place.
Set up for the main event started after noon. People just started coming and got to work. The beautiful part being that they just pitched in wherever they were needed. It all flowed together. The blankets started pouring in. And more and more of the front steps were covered, extending out into the lawn. Electric candles showed up on the blankets creating a beautiful sight to behold.
Agencies and churches who work directly with people experiencing homelessness, poverty, and more came – 17 in all. The conversations were life giving.
There was the continuous reading of the Priscilla Series that Pat had authored – four books that help young people understand homelessness.
A community blessing of the blankets took place at 5:30pm. Everyone had a chance to offer their own blessing over these blankets. The blankets would be given away the next day to those who needed them. What a blessing to bless them and have them be a blessing and warmth to those who need both.
Young people and adults volunteered to be someone sleeping on the public benches in the location where the event was originally supposed to take place, with a sign pointing to the new location. So much for the unsightly being moved out of way for that ideal shot… If only one person was made uncomfortable by this sight, then I’m grateful. The maintenance of our comfort and our desire to push away anything we don’t want to deal with is part of the reason homelessness still exists. Until enough people are uncomfortable enough to do something (besides make the problem go away or make it someone else’s problem), then it will persist.
Back at the event, soup and bread were given away to all who wanted it. People were being fed in body, mind, and spirit.
And we did a live podcast broadcast throughout the evening interviewing a wonderful group of people representing so many great organizations that work with people, that showcase homelessness, and that just really live into their call to care for people. It started with me interviewing Bishop Dunlop, my Bishop. It was a great interview and I’m grateful to the Bishop and our synod for it’s incredible support for this event. And we released a video from ELCA Presiding Bishop Eaton who recorded a wonderful message full of energy and hope specially for the event.
We left the blankets out all night, with the candles on them. It was incredibly stunning.
After the cleanup, it was time almost time for bed. CBS 21 was there for a live shoot at 10pm. The crew was nice and did a great job with the story. And then bed. Pat, myself, and my son, camped out in our makeshift encampment. It was cold again and reminded us all over again of the reality that many people face – no where warm to lay down their head. A hard ground to lay on. No opportunity to freshen up before going to sleep. Being exhausted after being outside all day. But sleep came. It wasn’t restful for me, but it was sleep.
And then in the morning, it was time for the clean up. It was time to collect the blankets and give them out. Organizations came by early and we loaded up their trunks with 10’s of blankets at a time knowing that these blankets were in good hands and would soon be around those who needed to feel the warmth of these blankets. It was our hope that they would not only feel the blanket surrounding them, but the community who came out on a cold night, raised awareness about the reality of homelessness, and did something for complete strangers.
On the way home I stopped off at the emergency shelter to drop off some food that we had remaining from the night before, knowing that while the event was wonderful, there’s still plenty of folks in need – it doesn’t end.
And by 10am, I was home. I had a new appreciation for home, a warm shower, running water, and warm clothes.
A few of the other things I want to highlight: One of the most common questions that Pat and I faced over the last few months was this – what happens if it rains, would you move the event inside? No. We’d get wet, just like people who are experiencing homelessness. The blankets would get wet too. That’s reality. That’s part of the purpose of the event. We were grateful that it didn’t rain. We were also grateful for the opportunity to share this reality with people – good people that never had to consider such a situation before. That was part of the reason for the event – to make homelessness less an issue, and more about real people experiencing life.
Lastly, this event was special to me. It was amazing to see so many people from the community come out in solidarity. I know there were also some folks experiencing homelessness at the event too – getting food, being able to tell their stories and more. Many of them with receive the blankets that were made just for them. If for just one night homelessness become something other than an issue and became a story about real people who will receive real care from complete strangers, then this event is a success. If only one person had their mind and heart opened to the reality of homelessness and start to see the world differently, then this event is a success.
We didn’t “solve” the problem. We didn’t even house anyone. But sometimes you have to start with something that is more manageable, something that people can get their hands on, or their minds around. Housing a person is a big task. Housing millions across the country is too huge of a thing for people to even grasp. So the goal was to make this into something relatable, something that lets people know they are not powerless and that they are not alone. That working together, real impact can be made on the lives of real people.
And for me, this was the living out of the faith that has been given to me. Matthew 25 is one of the key guiding passages of Scripture for the ministry that I do. “For I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was naked and you clothed me. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was sick and you cared for me. I was in prison and you visited me.”
Throughout this event, I saw people of all faiths and no faith at all, living out Matthew 25 in incredible ways. I saw the image of God that evening in a rainbow of colorful blankets and faces. I saw what love of neighbor means in practice. I saw what hospitality was. I saw people seeking justice. In short, this was the unfolding of the kingdom of God in our midst. Not the way most people might expect it to be, but then again I bet most people never expected the savior to be born to a teenage mother far from home and then fleeing for their lives. The kingdom of God shows up in ways we can’t imagine. Thank God for that. Good news was proclaimed and received. And will continue to be received as the blankets are given out. The seeds of the kingdom are planted. I look forward to seeing how they sprout.