The Night I Was Homeless

With nowhere else to sleep and the hunger pangs in my stomach increasing in intensity, I approached the door of the Rescue Mission with fear and trembling.  I didn’t want to spend the night exposed to the elements in Elmwood Park, but I didn’t want to sleep at the Rescue Mission either.  I’d heard stories about violence, drug use, and other frightening behavior at the Mission.  Even so, a meal, shower, and bed were better than the alternatives.  After pausing to say a quick prayer, I opened the Rescue Mission’s door and entered a room crowded with other men upon whose faces were expressions ranging from frustration, to drone-like stupefaction, to (in my case) deer in headlamps.

Of course, I’m not homeless.  My options weren’t truly the Rescue Mission or Elmwood Park.  I could’ve simply walked back over the Elm Avenue overpass to St. John’s and driven my car home.  But I was participating in the Rescue Mission’s “My pastor slept here” program, in which local clergy check into the Mission anonymously as though they’re homeless and go through an entire twelve-hour overnight cycle as a Mission client.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I didn’t go alone.  Three fellow parishioners went with me, each posing as a homeless man.  Even so, we did not huddle together.  We attempted to preserve the illusion that we were, indeed, homeless and had nowhere else to go.

First we experienced in-take.  Each first-time Mission client must meet with a staffer to answer a litany of questions about job history, residency, and family status, as well as inquiries about mental and emotional health.  Then we and the other 140 men seeking shelter that night sat in rows of plastic chairs and waited to be called to the dining hall for supper.  After supper, we attended mandatory chapel, which included a rousing sermon on redemption.  After chapel every client is required to shower.  Finally, the bunk beds in the large, meandering men’s shelter are divvied up by a lottery system, and everyone goes to sleep.

Except, of course, for me there was no “finally.” I did not slumber peacefully as soon as my head hit the pillow.  The sounds made by 140 men bunking in the same room are cacophonous.  All night, I drifted between furtive sleep and alert anxiety.  I prayed a lot: For the Mission’s chronic clients; for my three friends sleeping (or not sleeping) across the room, who cared enough about me to be fellow travelers in this experience; in repentance for my own preconceived notions about who is homeless and what renders him so.

The next morning my three friends and I left the Mission, walked over the Elm Avenue overpass to St. John’s, and returned to our South Roanoke and Raleigh Court homes.  But I carried a bit of the Mission with me, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to let it go.  I also learned some important things:

  1. The homeless don’t always look homeless.  I am accustomed to the homeless who most often seek assistance from St. John’s.  Often these men and women are in tattered clothing.  They sometimes bear the malodorous combination of sweat and alcohol.  But many of the clients at the Mission were as well-dressed as my friends and me who were pretending to belong.  Some were even fastidious about their clothing (which the Mission offers to launder daily).  One man woke up and put on pressed khakis and a blue blazer.
  2. Many of the homeless are actively striving to remedy their condition.  At 4 a.m., several dozen men got out of bed and began getting dressed for the day.  Confused (since wake-up is not until 5 a.m.), I asked a staff person what was going on.  “They’re getting ready for work,” he replied matter-of-factly, as the cohort prepared to leave the Mission for jobs across the city.
  3. No one goes hungry at the Rescue Mission.  My plate was piled high with smothered hamburger steak, corn, fruit and rolls.  One could easily consume 2000 calories at supper alone, not to mention breakfast and lunch (both of which the Mission serves).
  4. The Rescue Mission is clean, and it is safe.  There was no violence—indeed, there was barely a harsh word—and while there was likely clandestine drug use somewhere, it was surely not in the open.  Every bed includes a handmade, colorful quilt as a subtle reminder to each resident that he is a unique and beloved child of God, not a statistic to be tallied or a problem to be solved.
  5. The Mission is an abiding blessing to the Roanoke Valley.  I already knew this, but what was “head knowledge” has become “heart knowledge.”  As I lay awake through the night, Reformation-era English cleric John Bradford’s phrase repeatedly crossed my mind, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Last night, 345 people spent the night at the Roanoke Rescue Mission, including 121 adult men in the men’s shelter.  As many St. John’s parishioners know, my hope for the Church is that it will be the place where no one is forgotten.  By that standard, if one wishes to find the Church in Roanoke, he need look no farther than the Rescue Mission.

The Triumph of Love (Exodus 15:1b-11)

This homily was preached a year ago, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11.  On this, the eleventh anniversary, I offer it again.

Moses and the Israelites have fled their enemies the Egyptians, and they have reached the edge of the Red Sea.  They look behind them, and the enemy is relentlessly pursuing.  Their options are to stand and fight an unassailable foe or else plunge into the deep and murky waters.  It is a choice so untenable as to be no real choice at all.

We know what happens.  Our first reading today reminds us.  When the Israelites cry out to God in their panic and their fear, the waters part. Moses and his friends travel safely through the abyss, and when the Egyptians pursue them, Pharaoh‟s men are themselves drowned by God‟s very hand.  Today‟s reading gives us Moses‟ victory song.  To God, Moses says:

Your right hand, O LORD, shattered the enemy.  In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew your adversaries; you sent out your fury; it consumed them like stubble.

Ten years ago today, it didn‟t feel like that.  We knew, then, the experience of an unassailable enemy on one side and a murky—in this case smoky—abyss on the other.  We knew what it was to have no good options. The first responders to the World Trade Center knew this literally. Standing at the base of the burning North Tower when the South Tower was hit, they must have thought: “Do I run into this burning building?  Do I turn around to see if more airplanes are coming?”

Ten years ago it felt as if the Exodus story were turned on its head. Instead of the waters parting to see us safely through, the towers crumbled to earth. We drowned, so to speak. There was no reprieve.  We sang no victory song that day.  There were no words at all.

In 2005, Richard Lischer wrote a book entitled, The End of Words.  His thesis is that our world has become so violent, so unpredictable, so chaotic, so insane that words have lost their inherent meaning.  Words are now but tools in the hands of those who wish to manipulate other people.  As a lover and crafter of words, it pains me to agree with this notion.  But too often today, publicly and privately, words are combined to fool, frighten, or whip into frenzy, and each time this happens the Red Sea water rises just a little more to drown us.

Religious words can be among the most manipulated, and perhaps never more so than on and immediately after 9/11.  Some, during those days, invoked the Prince of Peace to sound drums of war.  On the opposite extreme, others utilized the Gospel to suggest that we‟d brought terror on ourselves, as if we deserved that awful day.  Both extremes felt emotionally like being pushed down into the watery depths all over again.

But the most abused religious words of all spoken on and around 9/11 were those of the hijackers themselves.  On United Airlines Flight 93, the terrorists were recorded saying—as they killed the pilots and ultimately crashed the plane in a Pennsylvania field—“In the name of God, the most merciful, the most compassionate…O, God, the most gracious.”i

Archbishop Rowan Williams says, “[These] religious words are, in the cold light of day, the words [of] murderers [used] in order to make a martyr‟s drama out of a crime.”ii

In a world where the most holy and sacred words are used so cynically, so dishonestly, how can we ever put our faith in words at all?

But, lest we forget, there were other words that day.  From airplanes and from the Twin Towers, dozens of trapped people telephoned family members, friends, and sometimes mere strangers on the other end of the line.  Invariably, the words spoken on such calls are words of love.iii  It isn’t surprising that some of these calls express panic.  What is surprising is the large percentage of them that evidence a remarkable calm, even as steel collapses in wrecked buildings or hijackers scream in the background.  The recipients of the calls have fear in their voices.  But the callers are more often steely and intent:

A newlywed says to her father, “Dad, you have to find Sean and tell him that I love him.”

A young professional says to his mother, “I love you no matter what happens.”

The voicemail message a woman leaves for her husband records, “There‟s a lot of smoke, and I just wanted you to know that I love you always.”

These words overpower those other words of war and blame and terror. Archbishop Williams says of those trapped in the Twin Towers and on the planes, “Someone who is about to die in terrible anguish makes room in [his] mind for someone else; for the grief and terror of someone [he] loves. [He] does what [he] can to take some atom of that pain away from the other by the inarticulate message on the mobile [phone]…These nonreligious words are testimony to what religious language is supposed to be about—the triumph of pointless, gratuitous love, the affirming of faithfulness even when there is nothing to be done or salvaged.”iv

We drowned on September 11, 2001.  The Red Sea didn’t part for us.  The planes crashed.  The towers crumbled.  Our lives, as we had known them, ended.  But we know—we Christian people here gathered—that the waters‟ depth does not lead to the grave, but rather to resurrection.  We discover again in these telephone messages that even at the bottom of the sea, even on the smoky 89th floor, even nose-down on a doomed airplane, love abides.  And what is love, but God himself, and specifically the Incarnate Jesus over whom death has no power?  With love—with the Christ of God, with that Word—we can emerge from any depth into new life.

Returning to Moses’ victory song with which we began, we must ask what it would look like in our world for the Lord to “triumph gloriously.”  Would it be the triumph of violence over violence, only this time with us as the winners? I don’t think so. It is worth noting that Moses’ victory at the Red Sea was immediately followed by forty years of confusion in the wilderness, as Moses and the Israelites struggled to discover who they had become. In other words, what happened next was not so cut, dried, and simple as today’s reading suggests. It was not a return to normalcy, and it was not easy.

Maybe the triumph of God in our world would look very different. Maybe it would be more like the triumph—and, yes, we can call it that—the triumph of those facing sure death ten years ago today, who yet had the fortitude to reach out to those they loved and try to ease the other’s pain. That’s where God was to be found that day.

Maybe God‟s triumph would it be the triumph of love—pointless, gratuitous love: love that does not panic, love that does not run away, love that is faithful in the face of any threat. In a world of unpredictability, violence, chaos and insanity, understanding what the glorious triumph of God looks like makes all the difference between the grave and resurrection.  As we prayerfully reflect on this decade past, and as we look forward into the wildernesses ahead, we’ll know which words are those of the God of love, and when we hear them we‟ll remember that he walks with us through every depth into new chapters of life. Like Moses, we’ll say, “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders even in our lives?” Amen.

ii Williams, Rowan. Writing in the Dust: After September 11, 3.
iv Williams, 5 & 3.