New Year, new conviction

Tuesday night is On Tuesday night, First UMC Santa Rosa hosts Spirit Cafe, a dinner/worship service for anywhere between 90-190 folks (and 10-25 dogs). Most of our guests are experiencing homelessness, though some are housed. Many are food insecure, though some have strong social support networks. There are folks from a variety of racial, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds. Some of us are trans and queer. There are plenty of folks from all of those subgroups who are struggling with addiction and mental illness.

Tuesday night has morphed over the almost seven years that I’ve served as a pastor at FUMC. The number of guests as almost doubled, and the number of FUMC staff has diminished. It’s been an opportunity for new volunteers to step forward, including youth, retirees, caregivers, and a medical professionals who serve in non-official capacities. The time has become more community-driven. We all eat together at round tables. We often have a focus of the night for optional discussion. Homeless activists (who are homeless themselves) make invitations about civic actions at city hall or about changes in social services.

Our volunteers and guests know each other by name, and inquire about anyone who hasn’t been seen at Spirit Cafe in a while. About a half hour into the dinner, while we’re still at the tables, we start a time of singing and prayer. Folks are free to leave as they’d like, though more and more plan to stay for at least the beginning of our formal worship. It changes from week to week, but what stays the same is that we are there EVERY week. This year, it meant that Christmas Eve services were organized around Spirit Cafe.

It also meant that we were together on New Year’s Eve. It also started as a difficult night. Some folks were a bit combative. Worse, a well-meaning volunteer had placed paper horns at the table. Very “New Year’s Eve” but also, whenever someone blew a horn, the dogs began to bark at each other. It took a while to find some quiet to begin worship.

We always begin with intercessory prayer.

“I want us to pray for the homeless folks,” a woman said when I opened the floor. “For those people who are real disturbed.” It always moves me when people experiencing homelessness pray for others who are on the streets who are in a worse condition than they are.

“I ask God to be with the families of homeless people,” said a man. “We don’t think about them very often – how hard it is for them to be worried about us.”

Others asked God to protect their pets. Many gave thanks for the Spirit Cafe volunteers by name, much to the embarrassment of the volunteers themselves. Someone offered a witness about Jesus walking with her in the last four days of sobriety.

By the time we got to reading scripture, which I do aloud, and interpreting, which we do together in a conversational preaching style, the Spirit was clearly at work. The passage for the night was from Luke 2 from the infant Jesus’ presentation at the Temple:

There was also a prophet, Anna… She was of a great age… She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. (NRSV)

In the context of Spirit Cafe, the story itself had taken on new meaning. Anna, a poor widow, could have been homeless herself. Perhaps her fasting started by necessity, one man suggested. Or because she was so sad about her husband, a woman added. Perhaps she was always at the Temple because she had nowhere else to go, someone else chimed in. Maybe she was just going to worship all the time, so that no one would notice that she was sleeping there at night.

It took my breath for a moment: The image of the schizophrenic woman who sleeps outside our church building as a prophet of the Lord. As a queer person, I have constantly had to brush off the convictions that other Christians have tried to place upon me. As a housed person, I was humbled by the conviction I received on New Year’s Eve.

I in a number of capacities in homeless advocacy and affordable housing development. I give my time freely for meetings and for phone calls. I engage with unhoused folks daily, trying to refer people to the right social services available (or not) at any given moment. And I confess that I do it all on my time. When and how I want to, because when something shifts – when someone is able to get housing or a vehicle or reunited with family – I, too, am satisfied.

This woman with schizophrenia is different. The system has completely failed her in every way imaginable, and no one takes responsibility for her life or well-being. My attempts to get her help have fizzled, over and over again. And as of late, I find it difficult to engage with her without feeling absolutely hopeless. And so I have justified avoiding her, because, after all, what can I say?

And on New Year’s Eve I was reminded (not for the first time) that I have the whole thing backwards. I have missed what she would be saying to me. In the story of Anna I was reminded that not only do people on the margins of society can speak for themselves – and have spoken for themselves for generations – but also, that God is speaking through them. Through them and to them. And through them to us. And through us to all of us.

The question is: Are we listening? Not just when it’s convenient, but especially when it’s not. Are we listening when it’s difficult? Are we listening, even if it means that we don’t have anything to say in return? Are we listening? And are we willing to sit with what we hear, trusting that God is – and will be – at work among us?

2 thoughts on “New Year, new conviction

  1. My dear friend, I was moved to tears by this. Having been there, I can testify that NYE was a powerful experience at Spirit Cafe, and your words described how moving – and frustrating! – Spirit Cafe can be to all of us…often both at the same time. May we find the resources and the strength to help the woman on our doorstep again, and yet again. And to hear her as well.

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