Remembering Sally

Today was a sad day.

Just shy of three years ago, a woman walked through the doors of Mary’s Place looking for a coat.   She was quiet, overwhelmed, scared, but determined to get back on her feet.  After a nasty fall on an icy sidewalk, Sally found herself hospitalized, facing multiple procedures that drained her savings, her 401K, and eventually left her homeless.  Released from the hospital to the streets, she took an even harder fall, into a deep cycle of depression.   But within months of walking through our doors, Sally started to rebuild her strength, her self-esteem and her life.

She moved into a community house – 10 roommates, but a door of her own.  She started volunteering at Mary’s Place as a way to give back.   Sally started by working in Bon Mary’s, our incentive store.  Every Tuesday and Thursday she was there, setting up and running the store, helping women choose the perfect scarf or just the right perfume to spend their hard earned points on.  On non-shopping days, Sally could be found organizing the storage room, or creating incredibly beautiful gift baskets to be sold on the store.  I mean, seriously beautiful baskets.  People often commented that she should work for a boutique, the way she thoughtfully and artfully put items together was a true skill.

Slowly, Sally started teaching other women how to run and organize the store.  As she did so, she sifted into a role as Donations Queen.  She would stand at the door and greet every donor with the same genuine smile.   She kept the donations organized – a never ending task! – and made sure that everyone who came to us – a donor or a receiver, felt loved and appreciated.

A true early bird, Sally spent the early morning hours on Craigslist, trying to be the first to claim items she knew women would need as they moved into housing.  She would share the stories of the women of Mary’s Place, as well as her own, to these Craigslist sellers, and by the time the item was dropped off, they were our new best friends.  Many of our current donors and volunteers are here soley because of the relationship that Sally started with a simple email.

When Marty and I grieved at the number of women and children flooding our doors, homeless, we wanted to reach out to the faith community to start an emergency family shelter.  While we spun our big plans, Sally diligently worked the phones every day until we had 17 congregations who had stepped up to host a rotating family shelter.  One of those churches broke off from the rotating model to host a year round two-parent family shelter!   When she would call a church and get a “no” she would simply smile and say, “Well, they said no this time.  But I’ll eventually get them to say yes!  How could they not?”  Because of Sally’s compassion and passion, we have been able to house over 30 families in 9 months.

Always incredibly cheerful, Sally had a smile for everyone she met.  Her honesty was endearing and refreshing.  And her drive to change the perception of homeless women was unending.  Sally spoke every chance she could get about her own story – breaking down preconceived notions and myths about homelessness.  She welcomed in the lost, the lonely and the hurting, and connected them to resources, community and hope.

Two weeks ago, sitting in her chair, in her own apartment, Sally passed away after two months of battling various illnesses.  The shock that has followed her passing has brought many stories to surface.  Today, at her memorial, in a room packed with people who loved her dearly, women got up, one after another, to share the story of how Sally touched their lives.  Each person lit a candle in her honor, and together, we bid her body farewell.

But we know, we are confidant, that Sally has not left us.  Her legacy to Mary’s Place can be found in the mother’s relief when she finds a shelter bed tonight; and in the woman’s dignity when she shops for makeup on Bon Mary’s; and in all of those who look at homelessness with a little more compassion.

I thank you Sally, for the gifts you have given.  You will be greatly missed.

Full Circle

A couple of weeks ago I sat in a beautiful sanctuary, full of the kind of people most churches would never expect.  Listening to a woman many in certain segments of the faith community have shunned.  A woman that, as a teenager, I adored.  Jennifer Knapp was a Dove-award winning Christian artist, full of soul and spunk.  I had all of her cds and went to more than a couple of her concerts.  In fact, my very first “real” blog was titled after a lyric from one of her songs.  I was also a different person back then.  Conservative.  Quite conservative actually.  Evangelical.  I listened almost solely to Christian music, had Christian friends, went to Christian camps, read Christian books.  I was immersed.

And let me be clear.  I’m not bemoaning my upbringing.  I’m not looking at my past in shame.  I am proud of the way I grew up, of the faith community and church family that surrounded me and helped mold me into the woman I am today.  But in the same hand, that doesn’t mean it was not without its faults.

My faith journey has been one of many twists and turns.  One that has led me to a place where I now call myself a Liberal (living in a liberal city, working a liberal job, with liberal friends, reading liberal books).  And again, I am proud of the journey.  I am grateful for the community that has surrounded and shaped me.  For those in college, seminary and in my Young Adult Missionary community who have challenged me and encouraged me to keep asking questions.  Because of them, I am who I am today.  Again, an experience not without it faults.

So there I sat, in the sanctuary of a United Methodist church, listening to Jennifer Knapp tell her story about coming out as a lesbian after years as Christian music artist.  She shared how difficult that was not only because of her profession, but also because of her own faith.   For those who follow(ed) the Christian music industry, you may remember that at what seemed like the height of her career, Jennifer basically disappeared.  Moved to Australia, stopped singing, and wasn’t heard from (professionally) for years.  Her return to the States, and the music industry, came with a confirmation that she was in fact a lesbian, but that didn’t change the fact that she was also still a Christian.  Churches, pastors and other big names in Christianity immediately dismissed her, shunned her, called her a sinner and told others that to listen to her was to follow in her sin.  But sitting there that night, listening to her story, her honesty, I was moved.

“My faith has taught me that I am a person of value.”  Jennifer shared.  And I thought to myself, Is that not what my faith, my church family, taught me as well? Is that not exactly what we hope every person who walks through any church doors feels – that they are a person of value.?  If so, then why are we preaching anything else?  Jennifer’s faith did a great job in teaching her that she is loved and valued by God.  So that even in her struggle with her sexual orientation, she shared, she knew that acceptance by God was a non-negotiable.

“The biggest question I have for myself is, ‘How do I become the kind of person who loves others well?’ My tradition of faith taught me how to love.  I just forgot to check their gender first.”  That got a few chuckles.  “What happens when we assume someone else’s experience is wrong because it is not like ours?”   Those words sent me back to my teen and very early adult years.  A time when I would have been a person of faith who assumed that because she was different, because my “tradition” told me she was wrong, she was.

It has taken a lot of personal work to get to a place where I no longer believe that.  I now find myself in a place that I can confidently say God loves all.  Period.  No “so long as” or “if they confess.”  Created fearfully and wonderfully made, we are created to love God, and love one another.  And if we can’t do that, and if we can’t do that well, then what is the point really? Love is not pointing out what we perceive to be another’s faults.  Love is accepting the person as they are, recognizing their value and worth, and helping them to realize that in themselves as well.

So sitting and listening to Jennifer Knapp’s story, her journey that mirrored my own, even in its biggest differences, encouraged me to continue to love others, no matter the cost.   If I am going to follow a God that welcomes all, then I too have to welcome all.  I too have to believe in the full inclusion of all members in the Body of Christ.  And more than just believe in it, I feel am being called to help work for that holy goal.

At the end of Jennifer’s talk that night, she issued a challenge to everyone, “Break the silence if you have the luxury.  Ask yourself, ‘What does my silence say?’  This can be your opportunity to break the silence. I spent two years missing music and being afraid that someone would ask me (about my sexual orientation).  But wanting to avoid that conversation is disingenuous.  My calling in my life is to tell my story and share my music.  Can you break the silence?”   She was speaking to those in the Christian faith who, by not saying anything at all on the issue of homosexuality in the Church, chose a side whether they realize it or not.

So here I am.  Coming out.  I am coming out as an ally to my LGBTQ sisters and brothers.  I say here and now that no longer will I remain silent when others hurl words of hate and bigotry.  I will stand up whenever and wherever possible to let all know that they are welcome in the Church and into the arms of God.  I will work to build bridges of reconciliation, healing and justice for all those on the fringes.  And I will start by not being silent.