I’m not really sure how the tradition began. Painting, decorating, choosing the right word and ultimately placing the finished brick beneath our Memorial Tree in the back yard of Grace House. For several years now, we have painted a brick for each of our homeless guests who have died.
Perhaps this “brick” tradition began with one of the guests I had known since before this ministry began ten years ago. She had a heart of gold and a sailor’s mouth. She was well loved in spite of her sometimes off-color comments. Perhaps it was my own desire of having this beloved guest be remembered that prompted me to place a brick under the tree for her. She had adult children, yet none of them wanted to acknowledge their mother had been a life-long alcoholic who ended up homeless and on the streets because of her disease. Placing a brick beneath our tree was a simple act of leaving something in her memory to help her friends know that God loves her and that we love each homeless guest at Grace House. I really don’t know how this tradition began for sure. Maybe the tradition began simply because of the bricks themselves.
One day, I noticed a stack of forgotten and abandoned bricks beside a wall of a church. The bricks had been sweetly decorated by children attending a Vacation Bible School. Many of the bricks were covered in dust from the various storms that had buffeted them over several months. Finally, I asked permission to take the bricks to Grace House as I explained to the pastor and Children’s Director that I had found a new use for them. Today, the children’s bricks surround the outer edge of our recently expanded brick patio in the back yard.
The bricks were decorated with hearts and crosses and words like “hope” and “faith” and “kindness.” In fact, if I recall, one of the children’s bricks placed beneath the Memorial Tree was the brick labeled, “kindness.” That’s the word most of our guests said “reminded” them of another guest and friend who had fallen and struck his head and eventually died from that traumatic accident.
Collecting the forgotten bricks is probably a pretty good description of what it’s like to be a missionary to homeless individuals in our community. Grace in Action welcomes the forgotten and abandoned homeless individuals of our community and invites them in. We remain present to them, no matter how covered in dust or grime or guilt and shame…and we remind them that God loves them and has a purpose for them. We remind them that God sees their unique beauty and has a special place for them in this world and in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Sadly, we have lost far too many of our homeless guests in recent months. The sheer numbers of guests who have died struck me when I could no longer find an extra brick from the patio to use for a recent memorial service. Our homeless guests were dying too fast and we had run out of bricks! In the past month, as I went to Home Depot I silently prayed, “Lord, please don’t let the salesperson ask me what I intend to do with just these three or four bricks.” I knew I would break down and cry if I had to explain the purpose.
A missionary’s work is not always happy work. Sometimes God calls us to do things we never wanted to do, but God continues to equip ALL of us to remain faithful to the call in this “ministry of presence” through God’s grace alone.
God equipped us to be present to our guests in the moments after the shock and despair of witnessing one of their friends run over by an Amtrak train. God held me, as I held another guest in my arms and lifted him up in his hospital bed the day before he died when his failing liver and resulting bloated body was suffocating him. And then there was the death of another guest who had desperately tried to leave homelessness. He was not eligible for the shelter while under the influence of alcohol, and he was trying to detox on his own. He died of an alcoholic seizure. We have no “detox facility” in Yolo County anymore. The County Supervisors didn’t think it was worth it, so they shut the detox center down. It would have been “worth it” in THIS case!
One forgotten and dusty brick, reclaimed from its place in an abandoned stack against a church wall, now bears his name under our Memorial Tree.
If you’ve read this far, you may be asking, “Why am I reading this? I only want to hear GOOD NEWS!” As my Godson would say, “Here’s the Real of It!” Being a Christian, serving in Christ’s Name, isn’t always about pretty cut flowers. It can get tough and messy and sad. Jesus never told His disciples it would be easy.
After the fourth death in just a few months time, I commented to one of our local pastors that I NEVER imagined God would have called me to be facilitating memorial services with such frequency. I lamented that I wasn’t sure I was up to the call. After all, I’m not ordained, or an official minister. He looked at me with such empathy and understanding and said, “In spite of that, you are their Pastor.” I’ve thought long and hard about that pastor’s comment. It feels like I’m a pastor to our homeless guests sometimes perhaps, but I think I’ll just refer to myself as the “Brick Bearer.”
For a brief time on this earth, we had the sacred opportunity to welcome a child of God who may have felt abandoned, beaten down by disease and shattered hope…and for a brief moment in time, they were accepted with God’s Love while they were here. Now…they are remembered. That’s the Good News.
This past week, we lost another wonderful soul, Alan Tobman, (see photo above) one of our long time volunteers. He was my right hand man at Grace House. He never left me alone there and was always confident when I was doubtful. He was always joyful when I was not. Actually, Alan was the one who held the sacred honor of painting our bricks. I painted his brick a few short weeks ago, after he lost his battle with cancer.
Too many bricks, but they hold a purpose. They remind anyone who sees them under our Memorial Tree, that each one of us is God’s beloved and we have not been forgotten. The bricks remind ALL of us that no matter how distant we may feel from God, God is not distant from us. God’s Word reminds us in Isaiah 42:3 A bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice.”
And to the broken and weary who pass through Grace House on their way to Heaven, we say “With this painted brick, we will always love and remember you.”
Cindy – The Brick Bearer