The Brick Bearer

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

 

Growing Hope

Hope can be a fragile thing. As we provide hospitality to the poor and marginalized of our community through Grace House, we often hear stories of fragile hope…hope that although still there, is tenuous at best.

Daily, our homeless guests bear the brunt of dehumanizing words when they are referred to as homeless trash, transients, drunks or animals. After the repetition of such ugly descriptors, our guests sadly begin to believe those words define who they really are. Rather than living up to the life-giving potential that God sees in them, they become dehumanized. Many begin to “live down” to the labels that society thrusts upon them. Hope, at such times, can truly be a fragile thing.

How many times have we also found ourselves in a place of fragile hope? Certainly, our hope seems fragile in the midst of a weakened economy, wars in various countries and legislative budget cuts that slash into the very lives of the MOST vulnerable members of our community. Yes, in times like these, hope can be a fragile thing!

Grace in Action offers the shelter of God’s hope and love. The hospitality we offer at Grace House reminds ALL of us that HOPE is still alive and that the Kingdom of God is not far away, or distant…but very, very NEAR! By providing a ministry of presence, we become active participants in Growing Hope in our community. Our hospitality to the stranger in our midst provides the setting for renewed hope as described in Isaiah 43:2.
A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.

We invite you to help us Grow Hope as we:

  • Equip and assist a 22 year old homeless woman as she learns how to mother her newborn.
  • Encourage our guests who have gone back to school or applied for jobs.
  • Express our gratitude to a former homeless guest who ran for a recent open seat on the city council.
  • Applaud our guests who make the choice to seek sobriety and shelter.
  • Help three young children with their homework as their mother flees domestic violence and seeks a safe shelter for her family.
  • Provide the only bus tickets in town to guests who must travel to Woodland for health care, prescriptions, and much needed social services.
  • Host Soroptimists International as they offer special activities for homeless women.
  • Provide meeting space for Legal Aid assistance for our homeless community members.
  • Visit sick or recovering homeless individuals in the hospital.
  • Visit guests who are in jail.
  • Equip local congregation members to minister to the most vulnerable in our community.

Through all of this and more, together we remind our guests and each other that “Nothing is impossible for God.” We keep the bruised reed from breaking and the flame of the smoldering wick of hope alive!

The Board of Directors, Administrative Volunteers and one staff member of Grace in Action, experience our own sense of fragile hope as we present our “Needs and Blessings” before God, our prayer team, church partners and faithful donors. We have no road map, no solid outline of where our daily bread will come from next. In fact, we often wrestle with the tension between charity and mercy, enabling or equipping, helping or hindering as we minister to homeless individuals. Yet, we strive to walk faithfully in this mission God has called us to, because we have hope!

We have hope in the promise that God will never leave us or forsake us. We have hope in the promise that when we ask in faith for our daily bread, our needs will be met. We have hope for a better world as you join us in Growing Hope in our community. We have hope that sufficient and daily grace will be given to us as we continue to offer the shelter of God’s hope and love to those who need it most.

With deepest gratitude for your prayers, support and participation in the mission of Grace in Action.

Cindy Burger, Spiritual Director

The Bloom of Stress

I’ve learned a great deal about landscapes, plants and new lawn in the past month or two. A recent newspaper article I read taught me even more–not just about plants, but about humanity in general. The title of the article was:

“Why has this plant stopped flowering?”

The backyard of Grace House has been transformed into a place of beauty and rest. We owe a debt of gratitude to Hal Sconyers and both Rotary clubs of Davis, to Lorell and Morley Hardaker, Cid Barcellos, Bill Sluis, Doug Houck, Covenant Carpenters and Summit Youth Group from University Covenant Church as well as the Rhythm Youth Group from Davis Chinese Christian Church and so many more. In addition, many of our homeless guests put in several hours of back breaking labor. The title of the article caught my eye, simply because unlike our Master Gardener Cid Barcellos, I am more inclined to have a purple thumb rather than a green thumb, when it comes to successful gardening. Suddenly, it was as if God were calling my attention to a deeper meaning in the answer: Continue reading

I don’t Think God would Mind

“That’s what I wanted to say to her Cindy…I wanted to tell her I didn’t think God would mind.”

One of our homeless guests who had only been out on the streets a short time, told me he was waiting for a meal at a local church. He was just “kicking it” waiting for the meal to begin. He told me that a lady drove up in her BMW and rolled her window down and asked him if he was planning to sleep on the church grounds.

Our guest had been telling me that weariness sets in for homeless people…they are always being told to “move on.” He was just sitting there waiting for a local organization to open the doors to the meal. He was able to reassure the wealthy woman that he would not sleep on the church grounds. Yet, as he talked with me, he wrestled with the mixed message this “woman of God” had given him.

Here he was, at a church…a place that is supposed to accept the lost and the weary, and one of the church members asked him, quite abruptly and somewhat rudely, if he was planning to sleep there. Her message was clear…THAT would NOT be okay! Continue reading

A Bruised Reed

A bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not snuff out… Matthew 12:20

The caller’s message on the Grace House answering machine rambled on, his voice trailing off as he told his general location….was a senior citizen…had some money…would be glad to donate if we would just help him out…needed a sleeping bag…someplace to shower and rest…just needed some help. Once again, he told us where he was…then the phone call ended.

To be honest, I was tired. We had nearly 47 people in the house during the day. The Ministers of Hospitality had just finished cleaning the Grace House, paperwork was completed after the doors were closed, gusty winds blowing…early evening lights growing dim. Maybe I can still find him. I had promised to meet and pray with another homeless guest. Her friend called me in desperation earlier in the day out of worry and concern. “She’s really sick Cindy.” “I will stop by after work to pray with her.” I promised. The man who called would be nearby, surely I could find him along the way. Continue reading

It’s Simple

It’s been some time since you heard from me. The good news is, we are busy at Grace House…the bad news is, that allows for less time to write my “Dear Friends” articles.

However, I am writing this morning to thank you for your prayers, support and encouragement for our homeless guests and the ministry of Grace in Action in general…and to offer an invitation.

As individuals, and as ministry, we continually move with the Spirit of God. As you well know, moving with God always involves change or transformation. Well, in our case…the transformation of reclaiming the focus God had for this ministry when it began in 2000. 🙂

There is a wooden sign on our wall in the office…nothing fancy…doesn’t need to be. A sign holding one word…

Simplicity Continue reading

Calling the Question

Mark Twain once said that he was most bothered not by the parts of the Bible he couldn’t understand, but by the parts he could understand. Sometimes, often in fact, we are called to step outside of our comfort zone to live the Gospel. Like Mark Twain, we are most bothered by the parts of the Bible we can understand. Every Minister of Hospitality (volunteer) at Grace House has had the courage to step outside of their comfort zone in order to live the Gospel…and we are grateful for their service. Yet, after they enter the house, they become more comfortable with our guests. Our Ministers of Hospitality are warmly greeted and appreciated for their service. They soon realize their serving hands are transformed into the hands of Christ…and the hands which reach out to receive…are also transformed into the hands of Christ. Continue reading

It’s Good to be on Your Knees

Every once in awhile, one of our guests at Grace House will say or do something that brings what I call, “The Holy” into clear focus. That happened this past week with a homeless guest named, Lisa. I asked her permission to use her name in this story because I wanted to give you a glimpse of her powerful faith.

Lisa has faced many struggles in her young life. Well, “many” is a misnomer! What Lisa has endured, would in my opinion, “do in” the rest of us…emotionally, physically and spiritually!

The purpose and “niche” of Grace in Action, is to simply be present to those who struggle on the streets of our community. Our mission is to offer “food for the body, food for the soul.” Simply put, we offer the love, compassion and mercy of God to those most in need in our community.

Lisa, and our other homeless guests, provide food for my soul every day! The spiritual wealth of our homeless community is a gift to me and our Ministers of Hospitality (volunteers). We are inspired by the faith, strength and joy of our guests…in spite of how they are treated and shunned by others in the community, or the struggles and burdens they face on a daily basis. Continue reading

On the Edge

Edges have been on my mind. I sit on the edge of the ocean bluffs, even now…sea breeze spraying mist into the spring air. Seagulls flying. North coast grasses waving in the wind. Butterflies dancing.

An edge…a place to get away to renew.

Jesus left the suffering crowds to renew and to pray. He left the edge of the deep pain of the crowds in search of healing. My spiritual director reminded me recently, that leaving the crowds is not only good for me in Grace in Action’s ministry to those who struggle, but necessary. Going to the edge of the ocean or a mountaintop or another place of sabbath rest provides balance in ministry. If I am to be any good at all, as spiritual companion to those on the edge of society, I must leave the edges of pain and suffering in order to renew and restore my relationship with God and this “temple” of soul and spirit from which God’s work is done. To be present as spiritual companion to the homeless, I seek the edges of seascape, rugged grasslands and rock outcroppings. Only then can I return to the ragged bluffs of heartache and sorrow of those living on the edge of our community. Continue reading