“I prayed on Sunday morning during worship, ‘God show me what you want me to do. I am obsessed with thoughts of the homeless. I was given a sign to relax and let it unfold.’”
“The sermon on Sunday reminded us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. I have to help.”
“I was sitting in church saying to myself, ‘Okay. We can’t just sit here in our nice, warm church when people are hungry and cold on the streets in Detroit. It’s the first thing you think of.’”
The snow intensifies on Sunday afternoon, January 5, dumping ten inches on the Detroit area. Church attendance is sparse, but we pray for the needs of our world, especially for all those who will be affected by the bitter cold about to descend on a large portion of our country. “Lord, please protect those who are homeless and living on the streets.”
Then we go home and hunker down for the next day and a half while snow is slowly cleared from the roads and temperatures dip to minus 13 degrees, with a wind chill factor in the minus 30’s. I am fascinated by the intensity of the cold. As an experiment I crack an egg on the front sidewalk. It’s scary to see how soon the egg is frozen solid. The novelty wears off when I think about those out in the cold, who would give anything to have eaten that egg.
The shelves are almost bare at the grocery store. A young woman is bewildered by the empty shelves and says, “What is this? It’s not as if the Apocalypse has come!” Well, for some people it could be the end were it not for the assistance of others. I have never experienced such mind-numbing cold as I walk the neighborhood streets, praying, “Lord, show me what we can do.” “He gives snow like wool; he scatters frost like ashes. He hurls down hail like crumbs – who can stand before his cold?” Psalm 147:16-17
Meanwhile, the fire of the Holy Spirit begins to dispel the cold and warm our hearts. On Tuesday morning our women’s book study meets, the only daytime event that is not canceled. Twenty-eight women show up. We’re tough. A sidebar conversation spreads to the entire group before we even discuss the book.
Someone says, “I contacted Faith Fowler at our United Methodist Cass Community Social Services. Our shelters in Detroit are full and are running twenty-four hours a day. They need everything, especially twin sheets, hats, gloves, warm coats, hand towels, soup, coffee, soft fresh fruit, sugar, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, feminine hygiene products, and laundry products.”
“I know your works. You are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” Revelation 3:15-16
The United Methodist Church that I know and love is not lukewarm. Our group springs into action. Our hands and feet may be cold, but we are also hot to serve in Jesus’ name. Several hundred dollars in cash is raised on the spot. Others rush home to get donations and food before a van leaves for Cass in the afternoon, with a stop at Costco along the way.
The Holy Spirit, which had been nudging each one of us since Sunday morning, bursts into a collective flame of energy. A mass email to the congregation late Tuesday afternoon generates dozens of responses, and church members share the need with friends, relatives, neighbors, and colleagues.
On Tuesday night, the pipes freeze in one of the buildings at Cass. The next morning three handymen from the church, nicknamed the Birmingham Boys, rush down to Cass to work on the problem. Meanwhile, donations pour into the church.
One mission group, StreeThreads, decides to make sandwiches. Fifteen people gather to make four hundred and eighty egg salad, turkey, ham, chicken salad, tuna salad, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in less than an hour. An additional hundred sandwiches are made by a couple in their home. We completely fill the fifteen passenger van with sandwiches and donations. People hand us cash as we walk out the door. “Are you going to Cass? Please take this.” “Here’s a new sleeping bag and warm coats from my neighbor. She wanted to help, too.”
In the van I wonder whether Jesus ever knew what it was like to experience the bitter cold from the polar vortex that has brought sub-zero temperatures to much of the Midwest. I doubt it. Even though Jesus went up on a mountain to pray, was transfigured on a mountain, and taught the Beatitudes on a mountain, he would never have been as cold as many people were last week. Israel has a warm, stable climate with some snow in the higher elevations, including several inches in Jerusalem every few years.
Then I remember a conversation with a woman who brought several bags of clothing a few hours before. She said, “I was praying for God to take care of the homeless on Monday night when God said to me, ‘They’re not my homeless. They’re your homeless. What are you going to do about it?’ Then I received your email last night. Here’s a check and a bag of requested items. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to help our homeless.”
By the time we arrive at Cass, I get it. Jesus may have never experienced sub-zero temperatures, but Jesus is right here. Jesus is in the warming shelters, under the overpasses, and everywhere there is human need. Jesus is there when people see beyond their own minor inconvenience with the cold and rush home to gather up coats, hats, and gloves to send down to Cass. Jesus is present whenever we clothe the cold, shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, and encourage the hopeless.
Faith Fowler, executive director of Cass Community Social Services, tells us about a woman who came to the warming center the night before in the throes of an asthma attack. She could hardly walk or breathe. She was not adequately clothed for the weather and was wearing ziplock bags over her shoes so that they would not get wet. If it were not for the warming shelter, this woman probably would not have made it through the night.
As we engage those who help to unload the food, clothing, and supplies, we sense that the last three days have taken a toll on staff members and volunteers at Cass. It’s difficult when the cupboards are bare. The rotating shelter that normally houses fifty people every night does not have a sponsor church this week, so food, space, cots, and sheets are needed for fifty more people than normal. In addition, when the temperature is this cold, the shelters need to stay open twenty-four hours a day, rather than only at night, taxing personnel even further.
Cass has also been receiving numerous calls from EMS personnel and business owners, who identify street people that need to get to a shelter. A driver roams the streets all night, looking for those who are outside in sub-zero temperatures. If they refuse to come to a shelter, at least they are offered a sandwich and coffee. “You fixed all the bounds of the earth; you made summer and winter.” Psalm 74:17
Fortunately, when the word went out on Facebook that Cass was in need, United Methodists and others all over the Detroit Metro area responded immediately. After all, they’re not God’s homeless. They’re our homeless.
It’s above zero now and getting warmer. The immediate crisis is over, but we’ve all been reminded that every congregation, large or small, can be God’s people in the midst of crisis.
- Disciples of Jesus Christ continually feel nudged by the Holy Spirit to action. The role of leaders is help people recognize that tug and then inspire and organize them to act.
- The least, the last, and the lost are not God’s responsibility, nor are they ultimately the responsibility of those who run homeless shelters. They are our responsibility, for we are God’s hands and feet on this earth.
- Lukewarm Christians don’t cut it. Would you want to be spit out of God’s mouth? We can accomplish far more together than we can alone.
- Social media is an amazing tool for communicating needs quickly and efficiently.
- One of the most effective ways to share the gospel is to invite friends, neighbors, and colleagues to participate in your congregation’s outreach ministries. People are touched by and want to be a part of churches that are making a difference.
- Leaders release the power and fire of the Holy Spirit by empowering others to run with their passions.
“And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” Matthew 24:12 May your love never grow as cold as it was last week, for, in the words of Rev. Faith Fowler, “If people have a piece of fresh fruit, a cup of coffee, and a hat on their head, it goes a long way.”