Signs and Wonders
May 7, Fourth Sunday of Easter:
Sermon by the All Saints City Reach Team. On April 28, 29 a group of youth and adults from All Saints attended City Reach in Boston. This Sunday they were invited to give their reflections on the experience using the reading from Acts as their prompt: “What wonders and signs did you witness among the community gathered at City Reach?”
Last weekend, I along with my fellow preachers here had the privilege of living in community with the people from CityReach. CityReach is an opportunity for young people to learn first hand about homelessness from people who are or have experienced it. We walked through the city at night with individuals who shared their stories and experiences of living without housing, prayed together, ate together, and offered hospitality, food, and clothing to unhoused guests.
We arrived at St. Paul’s Cathedral Church on a warm Friday evening. Members of the City Reach staff were mingling with participants on the front steps of the church. This was my fifth time at City Reach, and as I approached I waved to Pastor Mary. Her face lit up. “It’s so great to see old friends again!” she exclaimed. In the crowd I spotted Brenda, a City Reach staff person whom I’ve gotten to know through my participation in MANNA’s Monday lunch program. Brenda gathered me close and kissed my cheek. “I’m so glad you’re here!” she told me. What a welcome! I expressed to her my sadness about the recent death of Frank Brescia, a longtime member of the City Reach and MANNA leadership teams. “What a shock that was. It’s hit us all very hard,” she told me, shaking her head sadly. “We really, really miss him. He died doing what he did best: helping people who are homeless.”
The next day, the City Reach staff had first dibs at all the donated items we’d brought. Tommy, one of our hosts, looked through the suitcases and backpacks we had at our station. “Do you need one of these?” I asked him. “No,” he replied. “A friend does.” Picking up a medium-sized rolling suitcase he said, “This will work.” He stashed it in a corner, covering it with his jacket. “Don’t let anyone take this,” he told me. “I won’t,” I replied, trying my best to honor the friendship.
This time at City Reach I sensed with greater clarity the community of care that exists among people who are living with the challenge of chronic homelessness. They know each other. They watch out for each other. They miss each other when one of them is gone. Those who serve them – the City Reach pastors – are part of that network of care and love.
When you go to City Reach, you become part of that community of care, too. Pastor Mary calls you “Beloved.” Pastor Laura patiently explains and encourages. The homeless folks share their stories and answer your questions honestly and openly. On Saturday we all work together to provide hospitality to complete strangers, our “guests.” What a precious gift it is to be part of this community of care, even if it is only for a day!
On my trip to St. Paul’s Church to attend City Reach, my friend Sam and I met a man named Scott. Scott asked us about our experience during the time. At first, I didn’t really know what to say but eventually, I mustered up an answer. He explained to me that knowing what we got out of the experience was important to him. It made some sense to me: he had gotten what he needed from City Reach and now he wanted to know if I had, too.
Scott was one of the big stand-out wonders for me at City Reach. Not only because he was a sincere person, but because he actually took time out to talk to me about my experiences at City Reach.
But let’s get back to that answer I gave Scott. What I actually said was something along the lines of “erm, uh well, uh it’s been really eye-opening and, uh, I’ve been really, uh, moved by, uh, seeing the reality of homelessness.” What I thought was much more eloquent. I was thinking: The reality of homelessness is so often regarded as a problem that only affects certain people but the stories that I heard from the City Reach staff showed me that it can happen to anyone.
The second answer sounds a bit better, doesn’t it? But I meant what I said. And not just Scott but all the staff and people I was there to serve are the greatest wonders I found at City Reach.
Sherlock Holmes. What a detective. Don’t you just love that he’s able to make all those conclusions about a person based off of how they appear in the doorway? How easy it is for him to make quick assumptions and be right. We’ve all tried to be him at some point. Making educated assumptions based on what we see.
But what you see is not always the case or the full story.
At City Reach, even Sherlock would be surprised to know that some people choose to be homeless. If you saw Jayne, a City Reach staff person, on the street, you probably wouldn’t guess that she came all the way from England and gave up everything to live on the streets with her husband. She chose love over money, after getting tired of being separated from her husband who was homeless.
While at City Reach Becky said to me, “If I met Stacy on the street, I’d never know she was homeless.” Stacy, one of our City Reach hosts, doesn’t have the stereotypical rags and stench that many of us associate with a homeless person.
The personal stories that our City Reach hosts told were so much more than what their appearance said about them.
City Reach teaches you to take off the deerstalker hat and put on your listening ears instead. Many people distance themselves from people who appear to be very different. When you listen to these people’s stories, you begin to realize that there isn’t such a big distance between you both. They are in fact very relatable and each one has a story more elaborate than the clothes they wear.
This past Saturday was the first time I had been to CityReach, and it may be one of the most valuable experiences I’ve had. I will probably never forget it, and the morals and lessons of those 20 hours.
The people I met there taught me a few things, some directly, some inferred. First, the common image of a homeless person as a panhandling bum is wrong. Homeless people are in fact people, and really great ones at that. Our guides and mentors, Tommy and Stacy, were some of the nicest people I have ever met. Stacy was a kind and sweet lady who was always helpful. While we gave out the clothes, she was a master at handing things out and talking to people, as that can be difficult.
On the other hand, Tommy was a tall and grizzled man, who seemed like he had seen much in his life. He took a leaderly stance and guided us around the Common as he told us stories of his life, childhood, and what it is like to live on the streets. He gave us some advice, like don’t fool around in school, etc. but the best advice he gave was “Keep your ears open, keep your eyes open.” He was telling us to always stay alert and on top of things, so you don’t get into precarious situations.
The scripture says Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. These men and women that we met last weekend might not have been baptized in the traditional sense, but they surely devoted themselves to teaching. The way they talked to us and the other homeless folks who we were giving the clothes to was quite teacherly and it appeared that they really believed in their mission with their whole hearts.
Over the years, I have grown as a youth member of this church and as a young person in the world. I have grown through my experiences and the advice handed down to me from the generations above me as well as a few welcome surprises from below. Last friday was my 4th time participating in the City Reach program with All Saints. I have loved every single one of them, and have learned a lot through them. Even though the program each year is identical, there is always more to look forward to, because ultimately we know that the people we meet and the goings on that go on each year will bring new surprises, new advice, a new perspective on life and what it means to be homeless, and a whole lot of love. This year, there was a very special person that we met, who really embodied what City Reach means to me, especially in regards towards the growth of the volunteers. He also happened to be one of our guides on the night tour around Boston. His name was Tommy. While Tommy showed us around the Common, he did something that I had never experienced before during a City Reach. He turned his experiences and his mistakes into life lessons for us, the kids, and openly and strongly gave us life advice that really impacted me in a way that I hadn’t been before. At one point, started to talk about his tortured childhood. He was raised as an orphan, being shipped from house to house, never holding on to one family for long, until he became a drug addict. The most important thing, Tommy said, is to love and respect your parents, to keep working hard in school, and to never give up, because your parents never will. Your parents love you, and will do anything in their power to help you. The best you can do in return is love them and give it your all in whatever you do. For me, it is lessons like these that really define the City Reach experience, and bring life and light to the world.
As we walked around Boston Common and the Public Garden on Friday night, Stacy shared her story with me. She was a clergy spouse and Sunday school teacher when she became homeless. Listening to her history, one burning question came to mind. “How did becoming homeless affect your faith?” I asked her as we walked. Given her circumstances, I was surprised by her answer. It didn’t, Stacy replied, becoming homeless mostly just affected how she practices her faith. Keeping kosher is really not an option, although she told me she still hasn’t had a ham sandwich.
On Saturday, as we prepared our station to welcome guests, I had a long conversation with Larry about what makes a person wealthy. He shared that only twice had he ever prayed for money. And, both times, his prayers were answered with unexpected acts of generosity. But, regardless of his sometimes overwhelming material need, Larry considers himself to be extremely rich. Not only that, but it’s extremely important to him to only accept what he needs and to help out his ‘neighbors’ whenever he can.
Both Stacy and Larry exhibited a depth and strength of faith that fills me with wonder. It seems to me it would be so easy for each one to blame God for their circumstances. Yet, instead, they are both overflowing with joy and love and generosity. The invitation to share in this outpouring of gratitude is, at least for me, one of the true gifts of CityReach.
In closing, we’d like to share the prayer that was composed near the end of our experience:
We are thankful for growing this community of love as we share our time together. We have broken stereotypical boundaries by learning about patience, hospitality, and gratitude. Through hope, we’ve found joy from overcoming hard times.
Spreading laughter and kindness through peace shows us the blessings of compassion and humbleness. Serving people who are homeless has taught us that life isn’t all about money and it isn’t as scary as you may think. It’s very courageous to step forward and advocate for chronic homelessness, and to be kind while doing so.
We pray that with God’s help, someday everyone will have a safe place to stay.