My dear friend Katie is a real life sunshiney-care bear. Every time I hug her, I swear I get glitter on my soul.
During my recent visit to her home in Florida, she came home from work emotionally spent.
“We had a memorial service today,” she said flatly. “Who has a funeral at work?!”
Katie works at Matthew’s Hope—a ministry that cares for people without homes, people without jobs, people who struggle with addiction and people who have lost almost everything. It’s a place of new beginnings, extending hope and recovery to those drowning in despair.
Every day, this place provides hot meals, haircuts, toiletries, educational classes and daycare. Beyond the value of practical tools, meals and education, Matthew’s Hope offers a sense of belonging.
These community members may have different stories and backgrounds, but they share a common familiarity with pain, defeat and loss.
In five years, there have been 45 deaths in their community. One day a year, this nontraditional family comes together to remember those they have lost.
This particular day, the community gathered around a table displaying pictures of the five people who had recently passed away.
After the unconventional and slightly irreverent eulogies, five men carried five bricks to the candlelit table—bricks bearing the names of those who had died.
Everyone in this community knows the sandpaper-y fabric of difficult lives. Dying can be lonely, but so can being alive.
One man, struggling with alcoholism, had been a part of the Matthew’s Hope community for a few years.
A volunteer pastor recently found him sitting out in the cold.
“Get in,” said the pastor. “It’s too cold.”
“Nah,” the man said. “I’m ok.”
“Get in! You’ll freeze!”
“Nah,” he repeated. “I want you to know I’m ok. I’m really ok.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean with this whole God thing. I know he loves me. I get it now.”
This man had found a place of peace, even in a cold, unforgiving parking lot.
He died a week later in his tent in the woods.
Each person gathered that afternoon has their own story—stories of being in prison and gangs, stories of brutal abuse and neglect, stories of dropping out of bible school and falling into drug addiction, stories of losing jobs and families and hope.
It was in this setting that a pastor spoke about a divine Love. He stared at the pictures of those who had recently passed away, saying over and over again that these people are God’s children. His words were not empty comfort or forced hope.
His message was reality. Being the beloved of God was far more real than any of the labels or words these people had carried during their lives.
He reminded the community that the love of a Higher Power is not earned by living in houses or avoiding substance abuse or keeping a job.
We don’t do anything to earn belonging or love. God cares deeply about people who live in the woods, people who have group funerals, people who have suffered so much.
One younger guy stood in silence the entire day, and as the 5 bricks were added to the other sacredly placed 40 bricks, he spoke.
“Maybe being loved by God is all that matters.”
We sometimes forget that being loved by our Higher Power is all that matters. We forget that in the love of the Divine there is no hierarchy. Our pain, rejection, struggle and even recovery have nothing to do with the reality that we belong.
This kind of love and acceptance motivates us to change. It can be a catalyst to a new way of life. The old is gone and now hope and belonging push us toward freedom. We can be fully alive despite our mistakes and failures if we are willing to see ourselves not through the lens of the past, but through the reality of our Higher Power’s presence and deep, deep love.
And this is an incredible motivation to keep going, not because our Higher Power demands perfection, but because we are driven by a love that is far more for us than we could ever be for ourselves.
Chris Gibson, MDiv