Last night, I attended a candlelight vigil and memorial service for homeless people who died in Cobb and Cherokee Counties in 2011. A national organization that advocates for people who are homeless encourages local communities to have memorial services on December 21 every year.
December 21st is the longest night of the year.
Just before 5:30, I pulled into the parking lot of the Elizabeth Inn, a homeless shelter that is part of MUST Ministries in Marietta. I found my way to a makeshift altar on a patch of asphalt on the far side of the Inn. A table had been draped in black cloth. Five 8” x 10” frames were arranged on the table with an unlit candle in front of each. Three of the frames held names; the other two, pictures. These were the five homeless people who died in Cobb and Cherokee Counties in 2011.
At one end of the table sat a thick white candle with three wicks. I picked up a smaller candle from a basket, walked to the table, and lit my candle from one of those flames. Or tried to. For the next hour and 15 minutes, I worked hard to keep that flame alive. Unusually warm for December, the air was pleasant, but the wind was persistent. Take my eyes off the flame for even a second, it would die.
My first lesson of the evening: flames are fragile.
My friend, Andy Peabody, was in charge of the vigil and service. He invited us to enter into a time of silent—or at least quiet—reflection, not only for those people who died, but for all people in our area who are without stable housing.
Fighting to keep my flame alive, aware of its warmth and light–and fragility–I remembered a thought earlier in the day: “If it rains, will they cancel the service?” Well, of course not, silly. What message would be sent to the homeless if we cancelled a vigil for them because of a little rain? And then it hit me what a luxury, what an absolute luxury it is to choose to cancel something because of weather. (…indeed, what a luxury it is to be sitting here in my recliner with a laptop on my lap listening to the rain fall outside my window. A luxury.) People without homes have few options when it comes to avoiding weather.
My second lesson of the evening: I live a life of luxury.
I chose to attend the service because I wanted to experience the deep suffering caused by homelessness. I wanted to confront the stark reality that homelessness isn’t a game, it’s not something to shove to the back of our thinking. Jesus said that we’ll always have the poor with us, but I don’t think he meant for us to give up on them. Because people die. They really die. For many people without homes, there is no happy ending. Life is hard. It kicks them in the teeth then turns its head when they die.
Anyway, the best way for someone like me (a worship leader) to experience this depth of suffering is by attending a worship service and opening myself completely to the experience.
Which is what I was doing when a woman came up to me and started chatting… asking me who I was, where I lived, talking about how it’s always windy at these December gatherings… Okay. I confess: I was annoyed. I was there to pay my respects to homeless people who had died. Didn’t this woman have any respect for the dead?
My third lesson of the evening: Everyone deals with grief in his or her own way…some of us by chattering our way through it; others of us by judging others for their chosen method of grief.
By the time the memorial service began, the sun had set. The pictures and names of the deceased had become obscured by darkness. As we gathered around the table, drawing closer together, Andy invited everyone who didn’t have a candle to get one and to let another person light it.
By this time, I had used up two candles. I thought I would forgo using any more. But the invitation, though gentle, was insistent. So, I walked back to the basket, got a third candle, and turned to a person I didn’t know to get a light. Again, because of the wind, it took two or three times of trying before the light “took.” Then a person came up to me to get a light from me. Again, it took several times before the light took. Flames are fragile.
The service began with prayer and comments made by representatives of several homeless advocacy groups. Then the names of those who died were read. After each name was read, the frame holding the name or photo was placed and the candle lit. After the candle lighting, a bell sounded.
The fourth name to be read was that of a man who had been a Marine and who was a veteran. After his name was read and the candle lit, somewhere behind me, a trumpeter played Taps. It surprised me, that solemn sound. I wasn’t prepared for it. I was wide open; I was vulnerable. I nearly lost it.
My fourth lesson of the evening: Homeless people are people. They are human beings created in the image of God…people who have lives, histories, loves, and disappointments… people whose passing needs to be noticed. People who need to be—deserve to be–honored.
Our last act of the evening was to read a litany. In it, those gathered promised to work for a future where everyone in our community has stable housing. By that point, I was so devastated by the plight of the homeless and so overwhelmed by the size of the problem, I despaired of what, if anything, I could do to help ensure that anyone—much less everyone—in my community has stable housing.
Who knows? Maybe this blog post is a first feeble step.