A year ago I was still stumbling around a place called A HOPE, still wondering a little what was going on and definitely not having much of an idea where I might land in the midst of Homeward Bound of Asheville's (www.hbofa.org) chaos. Fast forward to a year later, to this moment, and it's clear my heart's invested and my soul tied in to all of that chaos in so many ways. Shannon reminds me (at just the moments I need reminding, she always knows somehow) that when I was a pastor I would say that working with homeless folks and poverty issues is something I would say I would do "if I wasn't in a church." And here I am. A full 18 months since I drove out of Santa Cruz on my last Sunday as a local church pastor.
I'm still coming to terms with it, wondering what to say about this crashing into a new career, maybe even a new - or should I say wider - calling from the One who creates me. It's been a whirlwind, to be sure, but also full of salvation and many moments of redemption. I've met Jesus face-to-face even when I've felt the widest chasm I've known between me and the God I seek. I said in a sermon once that the world's brokenness is not so easily passed by once you've glimpsed Jesus in some way. Unlike some other things I've said in past sermons, I still stand by that statement. And now I know what it means a little more. I'm pretty sure I am not any more equipped to deal with that brokenness now than I was when I wore a preacher's robe. What I am sure of is that Jesus brought me here, to this moment, to the A HOPE Day Center, to the streets of Asheville.
Many days I get up pretty early, and arrive at work in the dark, before the chaos begins when we open the doors at 7 a.m. to the homeless men and women of Asheville. I creep around the house, trying desperately not to wake up Abby as I tiptoe on our 1945 creaking wood floors. Most early mornings I fail miserably at this, and Abby wakes up as soon as I walk out the door - if not before, so it's certainly not just me having to adjust to this new career of mine.
And, so, in the dark and quiet of the morning, I enter into a different kind of sanctuary. There are no pews, no organ or grand piano, no majestic stained glass windows or weathered crosses of wood. Instead, there are mis-matched, dilapidated chairs down an entryway and lined around a room built for a quarter of the number of people that come through our doors everyday. Smells of cheap coffee, bleach, cigarette smoke and body odor are constantly in the air. (even though no smoking is allowed in the building) Most days I wear jeans, and use my former work clothes only for particular community meetings and appearances. We all clean toilets, and all clean up after ill and intoxicated clients.
My office is in the basement with a slit of a window at ground level. I retreat there for awhile before the other staff arrive. And I try to remember to breathe, try to remember to seek compassion for everyone I'll encounter that day - including the angry neighbor who doesn't understand why we provide space for all these "losers and junkies." I am grateful, every moment, for the extraordinary staff of people I get to work with - their hearts are big, their souls deep, their compassion and patience unrivaled.
Once the door opens, the work, the movement, the noise is unending until I leave the building since something is happening 24 hours a day in the building. At the end of the day, we've usually seem more steps backwards than forwards. Minute progress is celebrated and held onto tightly. 24 hours of sobriety is a beginning, as is even a passing mention of mental health treatment. We learn to begin, a lot, and then to begin again. We try to hold hope for folks who no longer remember what it is - if they ever knew what it was in the first place. On a good day, I think maybe we're helping save the world a little bit at a time. On a bad day, I think maybe all we're doing is stemming the tide of brokenness in our little corner of the earth. Maybe both are true, all days.
Some days, when I walk out the door, I get to drive a few blocks to the YWCA and pick up Abby from daycare. I get to walk into her little classroom, and her little feet come running toward me - or she just looks at me and decides her snack is more important for the moment. She wants to walk on her own now to the car, but she still reaches up to hold on to my finger. And our little family sits down for dinner, we say a blessing for the food, and enjoy the chaos of mealtime with a 16-month-old. Sometimes, even, after Abby goes to bed, Shannon and I are awake enough to talk about days before our heads hit the pillows.
I am blessed beyond measure. I am still trying to figure it all out - what life outside church work is, who I am becoming as a wife, mother, advocate and activist, continually seeking the steps of Jesus here in this corner of the earth. And I realize that my days are perfect. They are not without challenge or conflict, not without room for improvement, I still need more balance. But they're full of real life, messy and beautiful, stunning and broken.
Tomorrow may be the most difficult day I've faced in my professional life. Decisions I have had to make for the health and sustainability of the agency will affect my staff in incredibly hard ways. My soul aches. I pray for wisdom, for compassion. And, yet, despite what tomorrow will bring, I wouldn't trade a minute.
This life of mine, it's a real, full, messy, stunning life. There's a beautiful toddler sleeping in a room not far away who calls me Mama, and an amazing woman who still puts up with me who's sleeping in a bed that has space in it for me. For tonight, that's enough. For a life, it's more than I could have ever dreamed possible.