Last Thursday I was at our weekly morning prayer time at the rehab. We take this hour each week and just go through everyone’s concerns and blessings then go around the circle of about 15 women and each pray. It’s a very relaxed, intimate, honest group.
I think I may have mentioned more than a few times how drawn I am to the ministry of Morgan’s Mercy Mansion rehab center for women. I’ve watched the program evolve as they took their inevitable tour through the learning curve. With no experience they were plunged into that slippery spot where the rubber meets the road in 2005 when the city gave an abandoned nursing home to His House Ministries for a drug and alcohol rehab center. I’ve watched them remodel the building from a worn and tattered thing into a work of beauty. I’ve watched women go through the same transformation as they sober up and reenter society with the same transformation—from worn and tattered to a new creature in Christ.
One of the things we have all learned is that a woman’s chance of success really goes up if she can stay connected to the community of faith after her six-month stay is up. So they opened an unoccupied wing of their building and made it available for transition housing. The girls in Hall C have jobs in the community and gain confidence before they go out on their own. Sometimes they start with so little that they have no car nor even a drivers license. So their first job may be at the Brookshire’s grocery store because it’s within walking distance. (Give me a sec here to boost Brookshire’s. They have been incredibly generous in hiring the Hall C girls. If you ever have a choice of grocery stores, go to Brookshire’s. Their money is going to all the right places.)
Hall C is so popular that they’ve run out of room. The whole building is bursting at the seams. Sometimes they can’t accept new girls because there’s no room to put them. And the graduates were having trouble getting full custody of their kids while they are living in a group home.
So, when the house next door to the Mansion went on the market they bought it. The idea is to make this house available for Mansion graduates with children.
The challenge of this house is that… Gosh, I don’t know where to begin. The neighborhood, which includes the First Presbyterian Church, is one of the oldest in town. The buildings date back to the 30’s. So, we’re talking about 80 year- old frame houses. They have not been maintained. The foundation is brick piers and whatever they had on hand at the moment to keep the house from falling down. The neighborhood termite population is thriving. These houses have not been the most favored place in town to live. In fact, one of the early challenges the Mansion had was when the girls sat outside in the evenings they could smell the neighbors smoking weed next door. Not the best neighbors for anyone. There was a drive-by shooting in the house and an 8-year old girl was killed. The house was begging for someone to care.
So we had a challenge to rehab the house. Volunteers sprang up around the community and we pretty much gutted the house and put it back together piece by piece. I could stop by and find some of the girls from the Mansion painting the living room or one of the women from Bible Study measuring for bathroom tile. The father of one of the Mansion girls put in a new sub-floor in the back bathroom. Beaven put in new ceiling fans. There was always something going on in the house. We left the front door unlocked mostly because the doorknob was in such bad shape that it didn’t really work but also because there was never really anything valuable in the house. Whoever was working always took their tools home with them at night.
So, here’s what happened at prayer last Thursday. One of the girls told us she had looked out the window of her room one morning and saw a woman and a little girl carrying a single blanket walk out of the house and continue down the street. Clearly they had spent the night sleeping in the vacant house.
A woman, a little girl and a blanket. I’ll give you a minute to absorb that picture.
The woman telling the story said she went to the staff at the rehab and told them. And here’s where the story gets tricky. They installed new doorknobs and started locking the house at night.
And I’ll give you some more time to digest that thought.
I know this was a hard thing for the Mansion staff and residents to think about. A whole lot of the Mansion girls have been homeless themselves at one time or another. A lot of them had been in abusive situations and had to find somewhere safe to sleep. Here we had a house we were getting ready for the specific purpose to house women just like this. And they were locking the woman out. I could feel the agony of this situation.
I know the heart of the Mansion so I know how difficult this was for them. And I know the realities of the world. And so do you. So I’m going to assume we all understand why they put locks on the door and how hard it was to make that decision.
And I figure that you know that now the homeless problem became Jane’s problem--and Peggy and LeeAnn’s problem because we were the three “outside” women who shared the leadership of Thursday Morning Prayer that day. And we are all connected to the Presbyterian Church across the street-- Who, coincidentally, was considering the purchase of another house in the neighborhood. But we suspected the plan for that house might be to tear the house down and put in a parking lot.
So you won’t be surprised to hear that the three of us marched across the street to our home church to talk to the Pastor. On the short walk over, I couldn’t help but think of the scene in MacBeth where the three witches gather around the cauldron chanting, “Double, double, toil and trouble.” We were a preacher’s worst nightmare: bold and unapologetic. John took us into the conference room and we talked for an hour.
I learned a lot about my new hometown. I learned what “Invisible” Homeless means. There are not enough of them to notice unless you know what to look for. Sometimes they just live in the woods. I learned what part of town has the most vacant houses. I learned where the drug houses are. And I learned about “couch hopping.”
At the end of the meeting each of us had a list of things to do and people to call. And I was just about maxed out emotionally and spiritually. I was feeling overwhelmed. Where could we possibly get enough help for such a huge undertaking?
So I decided to go to the coffee shop for lunch. Art & Espresso is the social hub of the town as well has purveyors of a darned good sandwich. They have recently moved to a new building with huge windows where they can see just about everything happening in town.
After I ate I continued to just sit there staring into space collecting my thoughts. Marilyn, the coffee shop owner, called out from across the room to ask how I was doing today. We started talking and she came over to my table. After a while, her husband joined us. And she started writing down phone numbers of people who could help. Every once in a while she or Jim would turn a bit to look out the huge window. I realized they were watching a man and a woman sitting on the curb.
Their coffee shop is popular, visible and welcoming. And many times people come to them looking for help. They’ve learned all the scams and tricks but haven’t allowed it to harden their hearts. I could tell they were watching the couple sitting on the curb not out of suspicions but out of concern.
I learned there are a lot of caring people here in Winnsboro. From Brookshires to Art & Espresso. The list Marilyn gave me represented churches all over town. Peggy and LeeAnn and I won’t have to carry this burden alone.
I’m growing to love this little town. It’s big enough to have an espresso shop. Big enough to have its share of big city problems. Small enough to work together to on our problems. My kind of town.
Increasingly the graduates from the rehab have decided to stay and live in Winnsboro instead of returning to where they came from. We are changing the makeup of the town. And who wouldn’t want to live in a town filled with clean and sober women who understand redemption and restoration?
My kind of town.