She was a walk-in and we haven’t had many of those this year. Our church building has been in varied stages of lockdown, like the rest of our world. So there haven’t been many folks who have rung our church doorbell, asking for help. But, on a cold winter morning, Jennifer did.
She was a thin young woman with a tired expression. She smiled—I could tell just from her eyes since we were both dutifully masked. She wondered if we ever help people with expenses so I invited her to go upstairs to the Fellowship Hall where we could sit at a distance from each other and talk privately.
Once settled into hard plastic chairs with two tables between us, I asked her what was going on in her life. She needed assistance with room rent. She had landed at the Colonial Motel the night before. Her money had gone into an unexpected car repair and whoever had housed her for a time had suggested it was time for her to move on. I asked if she had anyone who would help her. I could see her eyes welling up with tears, a courageous smile under her mask. She quietly said, “I had a difficult home life.” I didn’t ask for details because they wouldn’t change the obvious fact that Jennifer was fending for herself.
I asked her if she had children. Our congregations works with Family Promise, making sure homeless families have a safe place to stay. She nodded and said she had three children. When I told her that Family Promise would house her and help her get back on track with her children, she shook her head. She told me that they weren’t with her. “Are they with their father,” I asked. She nodded, her eyes again filling with tears. Their ages? 11, 10 and 6. “Do you ever see them?” She shook her head. Her ex had bankrupted her through enough custody hearings to exhaust her meager funds. She hadn’t seen them in several years so she couldn’t be sheltered as a family. I gave her a couple of other suggestions of places that might offer her long-term support. What she needed from our church was enough money for one more night at the Colonial Motel. Affter that her dad would receive a paycheck and he would help her out. “Is your dad good to you?” I asked. She smiled and nodded.
I excused myself to go downstairs to my office to get the checkbook for our Discretionary Fund. Overseeing this ministry of financial mercy allows me to meet people like Jennifer. I could just write out a check or turn folks like her away. But I wanted to give her a chance to sit with someone who would listen. I sensed she needed to experience the unconditional love of Christ. I seldom write out checks to individuals. Rather I pay their bills directly through utility companies, landlords, pharmacies, or car repair shops. But I knew her needs were greater than just one night at a hotel. So I made an exception. I wrote out a check to her. I told her I was glad to meet her and prayed that she would find a place to stay on a more permanent basis. We both stood up and she offered her tired smile again.
But then she surprised me: she asked if she could have a hug. Like most of you, I haven’t been doling out hugs this year, especially to strangers. But I made an exception. With our masked faces angled away from each other—the new COVID clasp—I offered her a hug and felt God in the embrace. Christ repaired the breach through the way that we connected in the safety of a church gathering room, emptied by a pandemic. The woman who hasn’t been able to hold her babies for years asked for a hug. Nothing could have felt more right to me.
Our church joined a sister church in our community for an Ash Wednesday service tonight. When Pastor Dawn and I talked about the usual Lenten practices, she suggested that the only fitting thing for us to give up for Lent this year would be our burdens. It’s been an unimaginably challenging year. We’ve lived Lent for 11 months so sacrificing from our lives seems redundant. What I invite you to do this year is to lay down your burdens at the feet of the One who has sat with us, listened to us, and rescued us more times than we know.
The prophet Isaiah speaks on behalf of a God who is wearied by folks trying to earn brownie points for heaven. God turns from the spiritual show-offs who flash their good deeds before others like a woman in a fur stole laying down a $100 bill to pay for a cup of coffee. God tells the shallow servants, “Don’t bother. This isn’t what impresses Me. I want you to open your homes to the poor. Keep the peace in your family. Feed the hungry. Give a coat to those who are trying to survive this cold winter without a home or a friend.”
This is how we rebuild the ruins. This is how we restore the streets where people live. I have dim memories of how it felt to open our church building to homeless families not so long ago. We invited people into our space to lay down their burdens. This is how God is glorified! So I invite you to do the same this Lenten season. As we begin our Lenten journey I urge you to start small as a repairer of the breach. Open the door and let Jesus in–always! Entrust your burdens to Him because He will carry them!