Pastor's note: On April 30, 2018, after 9 years, the county-wide Rotating Emergency Shelter Team (REST) project came to an end, so that Marin County might be inspired to search for more lasting solutions to chronic homelessness, rather than applying perpetual band-aids. . The REST project enlisted local churches to provide people experiencing homelessness with a nutritious, hot meal and a warm, dry place to sleep during the winter months. Four months became six months, and every Friday night during those months, Duncan Hall, our social hall, became a shelter for between 30 and 55 men experiencing homelessness. It also became a place of respite and hospitality, a place where friendships were formed and insights grew, and where we saw the face of Christ in our guests and each other. The REST ministry became central, even defining, for our congregation. On Sunday, May 6th, the three church members who were most actively involved in leadership shared their reflections as our morning sermon. These are the reflections of Royce Truex, Joy Snyder, and Jo Gross.
In 2008, the first year of emergency shelter - I don't think it was yet called REST - I was Chair of the Church and Society Committee, but was out of town when the call went out for congregations to participate. At the time it was not at all certain that there would be shelter the following year, but when the invitation came, I recall responding and how I felt while I was doing it. I was full of energy and enthusiasm, excitement and a sense that this is the right thing to do. We can do this! It's going to be terrific! I recall volunteering us for Friday night, offering Saturday night to St. Anselm's and Wednesday night to St. John's, all without conferring or consulting anyone! Well Duncan Hall was rented on Wednesday nights and I created a heap of trouble for myself. The point I want to make is that the way I was feeling - the energy and enthusiasm and sense of rightness - is the way a person feels when they are saying yes to a call. And it is important to note that the entire time I was doing this I was thinking of the congregation's doing it, not me. When you add to that the energy and enthusiasm with which people responded, it seems very clear to me that our call to participate in REST was a call from God.
Now I want to return to last week's worship service and the long embarrassing standing ovation you gave the three of us. I'd like you to try to remember the way you, yourselves were feeling as you were doing that. Did you not also have a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. Were you not also full of the feeling that we have done a good thing. Folks, that's the way we feel when we respond to a call and join in doing God's work in the world. It's a very special feeling.
In Joanne's KP [the Kensington Press, our church newsletter] column this month she uses a quote that expresses the idea that "little things" can produce tremendous results. My experiences, and I believe those of most who were present on Friday nights these past years, provide lots of evidence supporting that idea. I've come to call these moments of beauty and they can occur in a many ways. I experienced some just in the welcoming process that was Joanne's focus, but the one I want to tell you about was different.
It was the next to the last week....And here I told an unscripted story of creating a "precious time" by pouring a glass of milk. It went something like this: It was the next to last week of the shelter. I was prepared as usual to pour milk and juice. Most of the men were in line to pick up their food, but there was one who was sitting alone at a table. He was a regular guest and I had experienced him as very unhappy. I had not seen him interact with any other guest and I had never seen him smile. He asked me for a glass of milk and immediately after it was poured said to me, "You know, this is a precious time." And then more loudly and with feeling, "No, I really mean it, when I'm out of this I'm going to remember the times you have poured milk for me." He then went on to say a bit about himself and ended by saying, "I'll tell you more about it later." Unfortunately, there was never an opportunity to continue or to hear more, so I'm left with the experience of having created a precious time by pouring a glass of milk. Am I being too idealistic, too romantic, to think of that experience as the entire congregation creating that precious time through me?
And now REST is over. I wonder what else God might call this congregation to do or be. I hope you wonder too.
As I prepared these notes, I’ve been comforting myself with the knowledge that Royce and Jo would both be clear, eloquent and spiritually meaningful … thank you Jeezis! Because it’s hard for me to talk about serious things such as this without my voice cracking, and then I get all slobbery, and I need to refer constantly to my notes, etc. etc.
In other words, it can be … not pretty …
And so I hope you will forgive my occasional lapses into levity … trust me, it is in both of our best interests.
In fact, just think of me as the baloney in the sandwich of Royce and Jo.
Meanwhile, I will endeavor to share with you how a Homeless Shelter is like a Church for me … and how I learned that throughout each of the 9 years I served in Duncan Hall.
But first, let me set the scene for how this church and my involvement with REST started … and then what mine grew into:
To be honest, the first year that I volunteered at shelter, it was out of personal, selfish desperation. I was suffering from serious depression in my early 50’s after some necessary back surgery.
And so, mostly looking for something to distract me and to better fill my time and my brain, I wandered up Ross Avenue one night, thinking that I would just peek into Duncan Hall and check out what participation in this REST program looked like.
Many of you know that Jo and Royce were the ones who started up our participation in the program … but do you recall that we were initially serving 3 nights/week that 1st year, with Jo organizing assignments on paper signup forms!
In fact, just between U and me, at the end of that 1st year, when I expressed amazement at the giant stacks of paper she had juggled, Jo laughed a bit hysterically and then joked that she had both gained weight and started drinking during that season. I knew then that she should be my mentor!
So, as luck would have it, I had loved working in restaurants in the past, and this Shelter gig immediately felt a little bit like that. I began to help Jo in any way and as often as I could. In fact, I worried a little about being a pest, but it seemed that we had good chemistry – for instance both of us wanted the silverware just so, and the various cloth napkins to be arranged like symmetrical color wheels.
OK, in fact, we pretty much we both wanted everything to be symmetrical! So much fun was made of this that I quickly dubbed us “Napkin Nazis.”
Seriously, though, what we both wanted was to create close to a 5-Star Restaurant experience for our guests as possible for just that couple of hours. Anyway,
AS I BEGAN TO HELP … I BEGAN TO HOPE!
AND MORE HELPING = LED TO MORE HOPING …
… yes, I admit that at first it was a hope that the way I felt on Shelter nights might spill over into the rest of my - at the time - unhappy life.
However, rather quickly, as I began to meet more and more of our guests … what I call “Spirit” began to work a change in me … and yes, I do suspect that Jo, Royce, and the other volunteers I began to know were working undercover on Spirit’s behalf … as were many of our homeless guests! OK, all of them, whether they knew it or not. Their very presence was a tribute to the human spirit in my eyes and it changed me.
ASIDE: I feel I need to mention that I grew up “unchurched” in any normal sense of the word until this church where I stand. Christian family life, whether functional or dysfunctional, had never been shown to or instilled in me. And so, a comfort zone with “church-going” did not exist for me … And thus, I was/am still not much of an active church-goer, even here at my church-home. I’m a work in progress.
But, because of my increasing amazement at the obvious fragility of life especially that of our guests’ all day, every day of their lives on the streets – I found myself responding to the occasional, well-intentioned questions about my spotty attendance at Sunday services by first just thinking, but then blurting out more than once that, “I GO to church - on Friday night! “
I was not being facetious.
So here’s the thing:
I guess what I want to say is that there are many ways and many examples of how Friday nights in the REST program created for me what I now understand to be “church” … and that is a sense of intentional family. As the years passed, and my responsibilities increased, I found that I really couldn’t wait each week to see and share what was going on with my new, extended, homeless “church family.”
So [spoiler alert] here comes that sappy, mushy part that I warned you about:
For, much as you and I now worry when we lose track of a “church friend” … or when we don’t lose track, but simply know that they are going through a rough patch or even a disastrous, life-changing one …
YES … Just like that …
I’m now worried about Scottie, who got positively teary-eyed at the thought that his necklaces were being carried forth by so many (like me) and especially by the little, innocent and positive spirits (his words) … such as the C4C kids he gifted at Christmas. He’s a generous, sensitive, and slightly fragile soul who avoids his own community a lot in order to maintain his sobriety.
And I’m worried about David, as he slips into early dementia with no family in sight to support him.
I’m worried about Peter, who often offered to mop the kitchen for us at the end of a Shelter evening, and who always helped with bussing tables … and then just didn’t show up on the final night of Shelter.
And I’m still worried about Dunny, who was born without legs and travels on a skateboard or specially designed bike … and who disappeared again last year.
I’m worried about Casey and Roger and Mike and Ed and Justin (BOTH Justins), and … I worry about the anonymous men who we have watched slowly succumb ever more to alcoholism and drugs over the years. We could see their inevitable prognoses developing right in front of us as their color changed, and their appetites and energy dissipated.
SO … I’m calling out these names, as well as anonymous concerns, for your prayer lists.
Yes, a prayer list … it’s yet another “Christian” thing that I have personally implemented in my life and begun to work as a result of my attendance on Friday nights …
at The Homeless Church in Duncan Hall.
THE BREAD CONNECTION
Early in my work of developing soup kitchens and shelters I recall a saying that never leaves me. When a person dreams alone, it is only a dream. But when we all dream together, it becomes a reality. This is the story of the shelter program.
In the fall of 2009, the Duncan Hall kitchen was being painted but was not in full operation and we had only two weeks to get ready. The dishwasher needed repair, we couldn’t find all the silverware and we were short of glasses. We were also asked to serve two nights, back to back that first year and hosted St. John’s and St. Anselm’s who wanted to use our kitchen. My phone was busy as I had not advanced to computer planning. What I mostly remember is the magnificent response from the community and the joy we felt from the aroma of the food and fellowship as we opened our doors and welcomed the homeless strangers.
Because I had visited several soup kitchens across the country where I felt the poor were mistreated, I admit to being intentional about not serving the poor poorly --- a mantra of mine --- and along with nutritious food suggested we use tablecloths, cloth napkins and fresh flowers on the table. It was a stretch, but we did it. I felt vindicated when one evening one of homeless men stopped at the door and said, “I always feel I want to stand up straighter when I come here.” Restoring dignity was one of our most powerful values.
The key to the program was the welcome table and the fellowship of eating together.
The act of sharing food and conversation initiates a different dynamic than the usual soup kitchens where food is dropped off. I often said that if Jesus were to come to San Anselmo on a Friday or Saturday night, he would want to eat with us and sleep on the floor with the other men.
Let me tell you of the epiphany --- which illuminates my story and defines what I call The Bread Connection.
Approximately thirty years ago on the first Sunday of October I attended worship at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. I was in New York for the purpose of viewing soup kitchens and shelters in preparation for the work I was asked to do in my home state of South Dakota. I planned to meet my team the following day, but on this World Wide Communion Sunday, I wanted to worship with my family. To our surprise The Feast of St. Francis was also being observed and along with a crowd of worshipers, the cathedral was full of animals --- all kinds of animals from monkeys to snakes --- as well as an elephant, and a camel walking down the center aisle. The service included movements of dance, song and incense. It was a wild and wonderful celebration including Paul Winter on the soprano saxophone playing music from the St. Francis collection. But what really struck me was what happened as the priest lifted the bread for the Eucharist. From the balcony came a thundering drumroll and a blast of trumpets! I thought only in New York could this happen. Then, I thought but why not? This was the table of our Lord reminding us of what he said, “Do this is remembrance of me.” Jesus did not say, “Think this” or “consider this” or “pray about this.” Jesus said, “Do this.” He called for love in action.
With this in mind, the next day our group assembled and participated in a soup kitchen on the lower east side of Manhattan. In two hours 847 men came off the street and through the line to eat. I was asked to hand out bread as the men left the dining hall. As I held the bread box and watched the hundreds of hands reach in, I heard those words from the day before. A trumpet sounded inside of me and with every heartbeat, the drums began to roll. I knew that through this bread, I was intimately connected to the compassion of Jesus. This was his bread and the bread given to me at the cathedral was the same bread I was giving that day and the same bread broken in the programs that followed --- including the shelter meal at First Pres. San Anselmo. Through this bread connection “do so in remembrance of me” takes on a deeper meaning --- especially as we serve the poor and disadvantaged.
The memory of lessons learned these past nine years will linger. Duncan Hall and the kitchen have received a permanent blessing and so has our community. In that sacred space we became aware that just because a person is poor or homeless and a bit torn and tattered doesn’t mean he is less of a person. We learned that impoverished people really don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. And as we watched the children and young people come and go our hearts felt a ring of hope that seeds of goodness and mercy were being planted. And as we worked together we learned to pray with our feet and hands. Words were not as necessary to the homeless men as was our presence to them and their presence to us --- a mutuality of hosting and being hosted developed.
It was a holy time. It was communion.
So let the trumpets sound and the drums roll as we move on and may our hearts be filled with gratitude for the task we were given to do.