[Guest Post by Jeremy Nicholls of CCO]
Part 1: shocking news devastates a community
Heads hang as the news echoes through the ears of dozens of the Macon men, and quickly it filters into the Uptown homeless community. “We’re closing ….. Can’t be true ….. Can it? …… Why us? …… We can’t believe it!” The reality of our men’s program closing left many, if not all of them, despondent and feeling dejected. Grown, proud, street toughened guys were breaking down in tears. Triggered by fear, others gazed with blank stares. Trauma filled folk somberly prepare to take another blow by suppressing more emotion. Anger begins to slowly erupt as the news sinks in.
Already despised, snarled upon and rejected from nearly every facet of society, this news was another brutal kick to a man already down. The “powers that be” had listened to and heard the relentless pleas from a very fearful and merciless exclusive club. This group represented a relatively small number of people determined to promote hatred, fear and deception by painting negative pictures like violent ex-offenders living near innocent children. Nothing was investigated and propaganda had been used as a powerful tool, and the result was “no more funding!”
We, the workers in this flourishing harvest, were also flooded by an overflow of emotion and tears. Ironically and sadly, friends and foes, celebrated the impending closing, yet we cried to God, despised the political schemes and tried to be strong in the diversity. We fought against becoming bitter as we saw the suffering of “the least of these”. We had wept when they wept, suffered in their suffering, but we had also laughed and prayed together. As workers in the harvest, we consoled one another, knowing we needed to love our enemies, despite seeing the ugly reality of people rejoicing in the fact of an empty cafeteria and a bunch of displaced single guys.
The city agency came, picked them up and transported over half of these tired men to another shelter just around the corner. Some were housed, some were left in transient locations and a small minority, like Nick, ended up lying under Chicago’s hazy stars or roughing many nights trying to sleep on the “red line” train. Great promises had been made (especially to our many veterans) by a very elegant and pervasive speaker, and it sadly proved to be a lie, as almost all of the men were still without a permanent place to call home. Cornerstone’s normally noisy, chaotic and hectic cafeteria which nightly housed around hundred homeless men, was hit with a ghastly screaming silence.
The words of emotionally charged individuals summed up the tension and fears that resounded through them all: “We guys are already the rejected, the dejected, the hated and despised. We are feared. We are the bottom of the barrel. People fear us, but they don’t know us, they don’t talk to us, see us as human beings, as husbands, fathers, sons and grandfathers. You gave us that. You spoke to us as human beings. As a friend who loves us. You gave us hope. Hope in God, hope in Jesus, hope in love, in community, in friendship and in family. You helped us believe we can do and be something – get a job, live drug-free and find stable housing. Man – we need you guys and you’re all some of us have.”
The words, the fear and the emotion seen in these men added to the voice echoing in my head. “YOU WILL NOT BE FORGOTTEN!” God will never forget or forsake these men, and neither must we! Jesus gave me a mission to keep in contact, uplift, encourage, and share our love with these men and to be a voice for these voiceless souls.
Politics, money and fear had worked very powerfully, so in our mourning and weakness, we grasped the only thing we could; God through the power of prayer. We prayed a prayer embracing these men. We prayed that the three year journey would not be over. We prayed for doors to open. We prayed for a miracle. We simply prayed.
As we mourned the loss, it became essential to cling to the vision of hope. It resounded clearly within my spirit to outreach these men, not forget them and offer them a sprinkle of hope. Scott and I threw ideas back and forth, prayed and knew we needed to take a leap of faith. The emptiness needed to be filled, hopelessness needed to experience hope and the unloved needed love!
One day I decided to test the waters, so I wandered out onto Broadway and within an hour I was met with a threat and was cussed out by two different people. I was discouraged! In prayer, I realized it was the devil trying to stop me from walking out this calling, and though tempted to grasp the comfortable and give in, I knew what I must do deep within my being. Backing down was not an option and the Spirit said jump, so we jumped into the unknown world of outreach.
“Bringing Home the Macon” started as Scott and I left the lonely cafeteria one day and wandered the busy streets of Uptown to start fulfilling this mission. The commissioner’s speech of hope had proved only to be words of false hope and deception. The promise came true to very few. We visited these men on street corners, in various shelters, in their permanent or transient homes, under the trees, in the hospitals, libraries and wherever we could find them. We found nearly all of these men and were greeted by an overflow of hugs, handshakes and the gentle friendly exchange of fist to fist. Never again have I received the verbally violent reaction of that first day. Despite the worsening of their situations for almost everyone, they loved seeing our faces. We began offering these men glimpses of light in this world of darkness and deception.
The bitter reality of incarceration was ever-present since the conception of the men’s programs. Parolee after parolee had been released to our doorstep. Ex-offenders had been set free, but they now had no option but to live in a homeless existence. We had accepted them with open arms as our neighbors and with dignity, but when we closed, our high proportion of parolees ended up being offered very few services and housing was not even an option. When “Bringing Home the Macon” began it’s follow-up and outreach we discovered, that through our constant searching and listening ears, too many of our gentlemen were winding up back behind cold steel bars. Sadly, among these men, the recidivism rate was increasing at a rapid pace as the little stability we’d offered had vanished.
Digest this utterly false statement: “We’ve served our time and have been set free to live as a productive member of society.” Once a person is greeted into the cold angry cells of shame, that person’s rights are vanquished and they become a lifelong slave to societal fears, hypocrisy and prejudice. Guilty for life has been tattooed upon the foreheads of ex-offenders. The first strike law of public housing, mandatory minimum sentences, parole, the internet and the easy availability of criminal background checks have placed huge X’s upon every felon’s back. Sadly, the result is that housing and employment have been made virtually impossible. Thus, an endless cycle of grief and recidivism begins, and within that context, the lost sheep need to hear the Lord’s message of love, grace, restorative justice and hope.
The number of individuals we knew (and now know) incarcerated, on probation, parole and with felonies is astounding. Bringing Home the Macon added a new dimension, knowing and feeling God’s leading we dedicated ourselves to attending meetings, and to writing and visiting specific prisoners. Darrell had joined the team and the letters and cards served to offer hope and bless these guys as they fought for their own dignity and survival.
The pain and grief had embraced us, and we felt the Lord had specifically charged us to embrace these men. Contacts had been kept and relationships strengthened as we tried to live out our callings. Though, our knowledge and resources were small, we prayed and leapt in faith, by-passed the negativity and hunted the men down to proclaim the love of Jesus and let them know they were not forgotten. We had no idea where this path would lead; our requirement was to simply walk along it in faith, love and prayer.
Despite the dejection, we had tried not to fall into grief. Despite the rejection, we battled the demons of hatred and despite the negativity, we tried to stay positive and keep our focus on the Lord. It seemed to us that Macon’s Overnight Ministries had taken us many steps forward in the right direction, but only to slip back down seemed wrong, so with a stubborn determination we grasped any glimmer of hope we could. I strongly believed the story was not over, but I could see no visible light at the end of the tunnel. I had cling onto what little faith I had and believe He had not forgotten these men and also believe that Jesus still had a plan for me and my co-workers. We cried and prayed simple prayers of desperation!
Knowing “Bringing Home the Macon” could not be my full-time position; I transitioned to also become a caseworker of the families in the Sylvia Center. Through trial and error, I tried to juggle both positions, by venturing out on certain days, writing letters to prisoners at specific times and learning how to case work the families through it all. Familial casework tends to have an entrenching power, so it began to dominate my schedule. In many ways, it felt like I was abandoning the men, but I believe the Lord was preparing me and teaching me valuable lessons. Becoming a case manager quickly taught me to observe and assess the clientele, and from there; find resources and set all important goals. In other words; I was forming relationships that were more result orientated and had a specific direction.
There were many twists and turns from late 2004 until the present day. I was frequently given different programs to run, responsibilities and things to focus on. I would be wandering down one road only to find myself on another, yet each road had its own identity and lessons to be learned. Though, at times, challenging, confusing and difficult, the trip has been an exciting adventure. Though, at times, opposition arose and there were people who scoffed in my face telling me how evil the men were and how glad they were they were gone, I did my best to grasp a little faith and believe in the faithfulness of God. And there were times when God gave me glimpses of hope when the door seemed fastened shut.
As I look back, I can see God’s hand directing the path. In the middle of 2006, Dee and I were asked to run an outreach program for homeless families and individuals. It gave me an opportunity to venture out to the neighboring shelters and uninhabitable locations where people slept to outreach homeless men and women. Many of the guys I encountered were once housed by us. It was called the “Interim Housing Outreach Program” where the main objective was to find the clients more stable housing. IHOP had an added benefit; it formed a coalition with the Emergency Fund and we became a partner agency, which allowed us to help people financially with their security deposit or first month’s rent. Statistically, it was a very successful program, where a good percentage of the clients got permanent housing or were placed into interim housing. Unfortunately, the IHOP grant lasted only one year, yet we are still blessed with the Emergency Fund till this day.
Needs arose again and in some bitterly cold days of early 2007, we were asked to assist in the housing of some older and disabled men that could easily perish that harsh Chicago winter. We took in ten! A few months later, the local Salvation Army was sadly forced to close their overnight shelter and because of the frailty of some of the older residents, the city asked us to help and we increased our numbers to twenty five. Ironically, that was the same shelter that the majority of our men were transferred to in 2004. As 2007 neared its end and the temperatures continued to drop, we decided out of necessity and for the sake of people’s safety to increase our capacity to thirty five. I had been given the responsibility to watch over and casework these gentlemen.
Essential linkages were being made with other agencies, as we worked together for the betterment of the people we served. Outreach workers started coming and working with us. We formed strong connections and started fighting together for these voiceless souls. We were also going to meetings and gaining knowledge as we addressed issues regarding the bondage of a homeless existence. Coincidently, through these connections, we were learning and being trained to respond to and deal with very delicate issues; such as mental illness, medical conditions, imprisonment and addictions. This was in no way planned! We just continued to venture down this bizarre path and simply followed the unscripted directions. I did not have a clue where the path was taking us (or me), all I knew was this; I just needed to walk this exciting and mysterious adventure, as it seemed to glisten with a divine purpose and meaning. With a touch of faith, my job was to simply wander the mysterious roads of this bizarre journey.
Through all this, the men from Macon’s Overnight Ministries would come around seeking services. On the street, I would repeatedly bump into guys who had received letters from us while serving time, and they would flood me with emotion and hugs. Sadly, we were often all they had during their isolating time of incarceration. A walk in the neighborhood was never peaceful, as it always seemed to result in various forms of witnessing, prayers, laughter, gripes, outreach and casework. I was never alone!
2008 saw the final closing of the Salvation Army’s day time program. I was also attending meetings, trying to protect the Epworth Men’s Overnight Shelter from closing their vital doors. Because it’s easier to discriminate against homeless single men and use fear tactics against them by painting pictures of evil violent men, various groups were straining to push them out of the neighborhood. In a positive stance; activists rose, met, devised plans and fought for the oppressed. Some of us attended meetings and tried to be a voice for the voiceless, while still being a voice with the voiceless. Along with 2008’s huge State wide budget cuts, I was grieving for these men, as the Uptown services were getting very scarce. I feared for men’s safety!
The future looked bleak and the Chicago weather was getting far worse, but I was heading to New Zealand to visit my family, so there was only one thing I could do: In an act of faith, clinging onto hope, I needed to simply cry in desperation to God who loves and cherishes “the least of these”. It was all I could do!
While in New Zealand, we discovered that the Epworth Men’s Shelter would now be run by Cornerstone. What a shock and turn of events! Epworth Church wanted to continue offering services to the 65 men, but because of an ongoing conflict, they wanted a different agency to run it. With an ironic twist, the city agency which cancelled our funding in 2004, asked our director, if Cornerstone could take over the program. Seeing the desperate need in a freezing January, Sandy, our executive director, simply agreed!
I was not around for the birth of this new program, but a lot of effort and hours went into establishing it. The response may have been the simple word;”yes”, but Sandy rallied the troops into action and tackled every obstacle. Epworth United Methodist Church is located about a mile north of our Clifton location. Lined in three rows, the men sleep on thin blue mattresses of the gymnasium floor. Though it may be an uncomfortable night’s rest, we do our best to meet the needs of our 65 homeless men. It was also imperative to sustain peace with the “Gym’s” surrounding neighbors. The transition was relatively smooth as we basically used the same staff and model as the previous administration.
The weather was freezing and the gym was only open during the overnight hours. So questions arose; where could the men be during the day and where could they eat? It took another leap of faith to accept this responsibility. Miraculously a space became available in one of our Clifton buildings, allowing the men to escape the cold, attend classes and receive casework. “Jireh House” was designed to be its namesake: “a provider”; a safe place to rest weary bones, escape the chaotic streets and experience the beautiful reality of the homeless community. The men received added bonuses; three hot meals a day from the CCO cafeteria, access to the clothing free-store and some much needed case-management.
It was a bittersweet experience for me. Sandy had communicated to me that supervising these programs and case-working these men would be my new assignment. I was thoroughly enjoying a wonderful holiday with family and friends in New Zealand, but I was missing out on the induction of this new program. I had grieved and been angered by Macon’s closing in 2004; I had lost what little faith I had in the establishment, I had spent many hours weeping and questioning God as to how and why this happened. In my desperation, I found myself clinging to an ounce of faith, trying to grip that mustard seed and our faithful Lord suddenly moved a mountain while I was ironically relaxing in New Zealand, soaking in the hot January sun.
Upon returning, I knew a slow gradual return did not enter into the equation, I needed to immediately jump into the deep end and that’s what I did. My time was preoccupied by trying to understand and fine-tune our new programs, getting acquainted with new staff, mingling with and case-managing our new male clientele and, of course, reuniting with the many old faces I recognized from our Macon shelter experience. It was a blessing and an honor to be able to hug, shake hands and exchange friendly fists with these men I had known for years, but also a subtle tragedy to see so many still struggling with the bondage of being homeless. Naturally, this dilemma of chronic homelessness had become our dilemma and we continue to utilize all available resources to overcome the obstacles.
I will not elaborate on the many details of the programs, but I’ll summarize in saying that since March there have been many ups and downs, stressful and mellow times and periods of celebration and grief. All this is just the natural progression of running a men’s shelter and dealing with multiple people who occupy many different personalities, addictions, struggles, traumas, medical needs, mental illnesses and so forth. My mission as a case-worker and outreach worker is to simply absorb all this, assess the needs, live among and with our homeless friends and provide whatever support we can. In our little concrete jungle, our mission is to bring the compassion of Jesus while trying to live and love like Him!
This narration isn’t about me trying to fulfill my mission and loving the unlovable. It isn’t about us trying to represent Jesus to the masses and follow his example. It isn’t about us trying to become a voice for the voiceless and advocating for poverty stricken folks. It isn’t about me trying to display the evil forces that despise us and plead for our non-existence. In actuality, a little of all this happened, but that is not why I am writing this piece. This is, in fact, a beautiful love story; a story of God neither forsaking nor forgetting his precious children. This is a story of God loving and cherishing the “least of these”. This is a story of God nullifying the imposing forces of the “powers that be” and the people of influence that utilize propaganda and hatred to try and stop His work. This is simply a story of God’s faithfulness and love.
By opening a men’s shelter in 2001, we were called to walk along a difficult narrow path, which is mysterious and unpredictable. By faith, this narrow path should always be accompanied by the unexplainable and unspeakable joy spoken of in God’s Word. In 2001, God opened a surprising door and, with obedience, we tentatively walked through it. In 2004, God allowed that door to be shut, and in our carnal minds we almost gave in by believing the door was locked and the key was thrown away. Trying to cling onto a dim light of hope, we followed a bizarre, haphazard and narrow way where God opened and closed various doors until 2009; we were then shown that the previously shut door was now open, and with joy, obedience, intrigue and faith, we nervously wandered through.
We mustn’t forget that the journey and the other doors were formatted by our Heavenly Father who had a plan. It wasn’t a cruel joke from a sadistic god, but a compassionate scheme from a loving God. Looking back, the years of exile were incredibly profitable, as they served to prepare, train and strengthen us for the present tasks. We became better equipped to deal with the multiple issues of the homeless men we’d come to love dearly. It gave us direction, increased our faith, gave us hope, sparked us with new found courage and, most importantly, we were outpoured with greater love for both God and neighbor!
Conclusion: hope is walking through the door that beckons the future
But, the story (God’s love story for His children; the least of these) is not over. The journey is not over, as many more doors will be opened and closed. New possibilities arise daily because of the needs of the homeless society in desperate times. We, regrettably, turn away 30 men a day because of lack of space and the chronically homeless continue to sleep on loading docks, behind stores, in the parks, ride the “El” and a variety of uninhabitable places. Today, as the winter dawns and these extremely vulnerable homeless men and women prepare for the big freeze, we pray for their safety. Countless scenarios arise, Jesus knocks on the door of our heart and whispers “are you ready for a new opening, will you take that leap in faith and do you have the courage to walk through it?” The fight is to simply live by faith and to walk through the door opened for us. The fight is to courageously obey and keep hope alive throughout all the sudden changes that will continue to happen. The fight is to “love our neighbors as ourselves”, and our neighbors are the people who come through our doors and the folks we are called to serve.
The beautiful reality is that God did not forget the dejected, but continues to love and cherish America’s “least of these.” All praise to Our Faithful Father who never leaves us nor forsakes us and keeps opening new doors of possibility! Thank you Jesus!