“Ethan” is an African-American man who lived on the street for quite some time. I met him several years ago when he was selling newspapers at a bustling nearby intersection and living in a local SRO. As more and more people got their news online, Ethan’s business dried up leaving him with few alternatives. He lived with a woman for a while, but when the relationship didn’t work out he found himself sleeping on the dock behind an historic building in the area. It was a dangerous place to lay his head, but because Ethan usually didn’t make it back to the shelters in time for check-in, he had no choice but to sleep in one of the few places in the area that afforded him some level of protection from the elements. In our conversations, Ethan noted he had to sleep with “one eye open” because most of the people who populated the docks were, in his words, “rough.” He chose to say little about what that meant other than noting he tried to stay out of the drama.
Ethan has attended worship regularly for a number of years. Like many of his still homeless counterparts, Ethan came to worship with his backpack or bags containing all his worldly possessions. Each time he was asked if he had any thanksgivings or blessings to offer up, his response was the same: “I am thankful to be alive…I am thankful I got up this morning.” This is a common declaration and the singular most powerful statement folks on the street can make; for after a night sleeping on the “el”, on the docks or under a viaduct, they continue to choose life. And they are thankful.
Gratitude doesn’t end by merely offering prayers of thanksgiving, though. Gratitude happens in other aspects of life and is manifested in the component of sending forth. We end worship at the Ministry with a general prayer—called a collect—and the Lord’s Prayer; as we finish, we hold hands and shout, “Prayer works if you work it!” At the Ministry, this means our gratitude, our ambitions and desires for a better life and a better world are founded in the centering of prayer….then acted out in our lives. We shake hands. For many, hugs and words of encouragement are in order. It is the way in which those who come to worship are sent forth.
I may (and do from time to time) entreat the gathered body to go in peace; that the Lord bless and keep them. But more often than not, I find as I look at this small band of believers that I am the one who feels extremely blessed. What is most miraculous is that for many like Ethan, it is the words of encouragement they give to one another that are the most evocative means of sending forth. The fruits of these blessings are seen in the conversation that continues between Ethan and Gabriel—the Euro-American transgender person from last week—who have become great friends. Ethan is concerned about the abusive relationship Gabriel finds herself in and wants to help. He has recently found housing and offers Gabriel some advice on how to find a place of her own. They talk for a little while before going their separate ways. I know Ethan will check in with Gabriel again soon.
On this Epiphany night, the temperature in Chicago is -11 degrees F with a wind chill index of -40. Thousands of people will sleep on a bus or an elevated train; others not quite as lucky will sleep on the docks or under a viaduct near Lake Michigan. Their survival is precarious. Yet these precious ones continue to choose life, to choose love and to seek the Anointed One in the faces of another.
Uptown Ministry is a program of Lutheran Child and Family Services and is affiliated with The Missouri Synod Lutheran Church.