She was a walk-in and we haven’t had many of those this year. Our 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 February morning, Jennifer did.
She was a thin young woman who appeared very tired. 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 follow me 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 a safe distance of 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. This is a local motel that serves as short-term housing for those without shelter. There are rough stories of broken lives in those rented rooms. Jennifer’s limited budget had gone awry with an unexpected car repair and whoever had housed her most recently 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 I knew they wouldn’t change the obvious fact that Jennifer was fending for herself.
I asked her if she had children. Our congregation works with Family Promise, a housing organization that ensures homeless families have a safe place to stay. She nodded and said she had three children. When I told her about Family Promise she shook her head and said 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. She said she needed enough money for one more night at the Colonial because after that her dad would receive a check. 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 check book for our Discretionary Fund. Overseeing this ministry of financial mercy allows me to meet people like Jennifer. Rather than simply handing her a check, I wanted to sit with her and listen. She needed the tangible experience of Christ’s unconditional love. I seldom write out checks to individuals. Rather I pay their bills 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 between our very different lives as we connected in the safety of the Fellowship Hall, long empty because of 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.
For the Lenten season this past winter, a couple of clergy colleagues and I wrestled to find a theme. One suggested that the only fitting thing for us to give up for Lent this year would be our burdens. The COVID virus has enshrouded our days for what seems to be an eternity. We’ve lived Lent for many months so sacrificing further from our lives seems redundant. What I invite our church members to do this year is to lay down their burdens at the feet of the One who sits with us, listens to us, and rescues 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 pulling out 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 home to the poor. Keep the peace in your family. Feed the hungry. Give a coat to those who are trying to survive the cold of winter without a home or a friend.” This is how we rebuild the ruins of lives eked out in the Colonial Motels of our society. This is how we restore the streets where people live. We 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 and we look forward to offering that hospitality again soon. This is how God is glorified.
As restrictions mercifully loosen and we resurface in each others’ lives, start small as a repairer of the breach. Open the door and let Jesus in. Entrust your burdens to Jesus because He will carry them!