As I sat in the crowded Fellowship Hall listening to the familiar sounding facts, reminding us that we live in the second wealthiest county in the country, and yet have a significant homeless population, I was transported back to a mental slide show of moments of the last 10 years of my life. The slide show took me to the training for my first visit to a maximum-security prison, where we were told to talk to the inmates like you would anyone else. Another image was a meeting where I learned that people in the National Capital Area give more of their funds to animal shelters than to homeless services, a fact that has haunted me ever since. And the slide show in my head ended in the Floris Fellowship Hall, where I was brought back to the moment and blessed to be part of a church family that cares so much, that hundreds of people will show up just to play a small part in showering a community of 30-40 homeless people with the love of Christ.
After seven years working for a faith-based organization that helps reconcile prisoners to God, family and community, I learned three truths about communities that I’ve held close. First, that there are communities of people all around us, every daythat are hidden from us. Some are hidden at our own choosing, and others are hidden at the discretion of the community itself. If we are honest, we all prefer not to seek out those that are not like ourselvesprisoners, for example. You know they exist, and you may even know that American incarcerates more people per capita than any other country in the world. But do you know that 1 in 13 people in this country are incarcerated, on probation, or on parole? The point isthe community is all around you. But because of the labels put upon them, they stay hidden. And “though the harvest is plentiful, the workers are few…”.
The second truth is that even in the darkest communities, of our own making or our own fate, there is hope and there is light. But it needs to be encouraged; it needs to be supported. I consider it a true privilege to have gone into prisons across this country and talked one-on-one with inmates. At one of our larger prison yard events, the Warden had told us the most we could expect to turn out would be about 300 men, but a few minutes before we began, men starting coming from every dorm, walking slowly as they are trained to do. It was such a surprise that I asked a nearby guard how many men he thought were there. While he responded in a controlled shocked voice, “Why, I believe there must be 700-800 men walking this way.” My reaction was, “Praise God!” But the guard’s was somewhat less enthusiastic. During the event, the staff and volunteers were mingling amongst the crowd, seeking out someone we felt God nudging us to talk to. Once the last song concluded, I started talking with a man named Daryl. He told me that he had been in and out of prison for nine years, but had gone for the longest stretch yet18 months without any infractions, and he thought he was going to finally make it on the outside. I dared to ask, “So Daryl, what made you come to this event today?” He responded, “I have been trying to go back to my roots, to make God a bigger part of my life and I thought this might help.” I asked, “Do you have a Bible here? Do you read it?” And his response had such an impact on me. He told me that he starts every day by bringing his Bible into the only closed door stall and reads the Lord’s Prayer while on the toilet. When I asked him, “Surely you know that prayer by heart, why do you bring the Bible into the stall and read it there each day?” He said, “Honest? I am afraid to read it in the open; I don’t know how others will react. And, I’m not sure what else I should read.” In that instance, I just started talking, not even sure where the inspiration or encouragement was coming from. I told him that first of all, he should be encouraged to know that most people that call themselves Christians don’t open a Bible once a month, let alone once a day. I also told him that the Lord’s Prayer just about sums up everything you need to sustain your daily bread from the God of all creation. And finally, I shared about three different passages that I thought he might easily recall and ones that would bring him comfort. They were James 1:2; Psalm 51; and something in John that I no longer recall. He simply glowed and as I put my arm on his shoulder to pray for him, I asked that God give him the strength to eventually read his Bible in front of the other residents and to continue to set an example for the members of the church inside the walls.
Which leads me to the third truth about communities, especially hidden ones: If you seek community, it will be there. Nothing can stop the power of our omnipresent God; not barbed wire engulfed prisons hidden from public view, not the trees and humility that hide society’s most vulnerable residents, the homeless all around us, and not the walls and barriers that each of us build up to hide our fears. God is always calling us into community. The challenge we face, is having enough space in our lives to hear the call.
I have kept a small stone on my desk that I received right after meeting Daryl. It used to have his name on it, acting as an Ebenezer and reminder to pray for Daryl. His name has long since been rubbed off, but I think of him daily, and feel connected to his journey. I consider him part of the community of faith; where our physical surroundings have no hold on the power of the community.