Occasionally I meet a holy family. This is my term for a homeless family with a baby. I call them holy because I always think of the traveling Mary and Joseph, rejected and forced outside, exposed to the elements, with the task of doing something Divine.
Such a family walked into the community meal with a baby boy, not quite a year old, with blue eyes and blonde, curly ringlets. The couple had become newly homeless and were living in their car. I tried many different techniques to help them get into housing, working with other agencies, helping them with paper work, but nothing stuck. Even with all my best efforts, it seemed I was unable to find a solution for this family. The layers of their predicament were thick and seemingly impenetrable. They would appear and disappear with great irregularity.
Randomly, they would come into the meal, covered in grease, dirt, and the fatigue of the streets. I would hold the baby, give them supplies, sometimes put them up in a hotel—and my heart would break again. The church did as much as we could financially to help them but after a year of coming and going, they just couldn’t get on their feet. It was so discouraging.
One Thursday night, one of my new mothers from the church came to the meal and noticed that the baby, now almost two years old, had blackened feet. She took a wash cloth and some soap from the kitchen and washed his feet. I had bought two gallons of milk for the meal that night, and she filled a bottle with fresh milk and fed him. The baby laughed at her, feeling safe in her arms. She noticed the dark circles under his eyes, and how tired the baby seemed. She called me that night after the meal, crying.
“I don’t know what to do, I can’t stop thinking about this baby,” she said through tears. “He just looked at me with his eyes, it was like he was crying for help and I just feel like I have to do something.”
I tried to console her. I knew she had made a connection with the baby boy and that he reminded her so much of her own little boy. Her heart was genuinely breaking over the situation.I assured her I would check further into what some of the options might be, though there didn’t seem to be any great ones presenting themselves immediately.
There was the Department of Children’s Services that we could call to come and investigate options for the baby’s safety. I explained to her that I’d done everything in my power to try and get them to commit themselves to the family shelter, but they would have to split up and they refused to do so.
She wouldn’t let it go, her heart had become involved. “I have some money if you think it would help, I can get together some supplies for them, whatever you think.”
“I’ll look into it this week,” I said, and thanked her for her generous offer.
The next day I made some phone calls, tried to track down the couple, but they were nowhere to be found. They had no address other than their car, no one seemed to know them, they were part of a hidden population and they were hidden well.
After church on Sunday the young mother lingered, sitting in the back of the church crying.
Now there are few women in my church from Africa, they are refugees of war-torn countries like Sierra Leone and Sudan. They knew something about the dangers of being homeless with children in tow. One of the mothers, Sarah, from Sierra Leone was forced from her home during a rebel invasion. Sarah’s baby was ripped from her arms and murdered in front of her. The atrocities they have lived through put our problems in perspective.
These two African now American mothers, Josephine and Sarah, began to comfort her and talk with her about this baby’s condition and what might be done.
“In Africa, we would never let a baby live on the streets,” Sarah said. “He would be taken to an auntie or a cousin. Someone would take him in. I don’t understand how we let this happen here in America. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
The three of us were standing around the young mother who was sitting in the pew, trying to comfort her and come up with a solution. I shook my head. “I guess in America, we are a different kind of village. We have to have the system step in, if we call DCS, the baby will be taken into state custody and then put into the foster care system, it’s not guaranteed that the baby will have one home, it may have many in that system, it’s not perfect, it’s just the system we have, but it does often work out in favor of the child’s safety.”
“I just want to take him home,” the young mother said. “I want to feed him and bathe him and make sure he feels safe. It’s killing me that he’s not.”
“We have to do something,” Josephine said. “We can’t just let these babies live on the streets, we have to intervene.”
The women reasoned through the situation and decided that we should, as a church, call DCS. The only problem: there was no way to locate the couple, and she was expecting another child, due in two weeks.
The next community meal, the couple did not show up. Perhaps they intuitively knew something was going to happen. I haven’t seen them since, and as I asked around—no one knew where they went. I had no words of comfort for the young mother. Only, that these are just the kinds of situations we encounter when we do this type of work. It’s hard, but sometimes all we can really do is pray and keep searching for some kind of miraculous solution, giving what we can give, doing what we can do while we wait. Sometimes, even I have a hard time heeding this advice because my heart breaks, too.
I grew up in a very small town. In a small town, there is a culture of remembrance. People remember your personality—the things that made you unique—and your family. There is a deep well of recognition. Even in this day and age, there are no homeless people in my hometown.
But in the city, people fall through the cracks. I don’t know where they go. There are places to hide, even in plain sight, where no one will ever find you. It haunts me just like it haunted this young mother that a baby did not have what it needed to survive, that a little one so tender could be at risk in a great big world. This precious, new life, in danger of slipping through the cracks.
As an urban pastor, I’ve tried to create a culture of remembrance, but it’s hard because sometimes I feel as if my one, precious life is slipping through the cracks, too. There is something exciting about being in a city with its opportunities, but if you are from a culture of remembrance, it’s difficult to stay in that forgotten place.
I often admire the African refugees in my church because they stick together. They are surrounded by their culture here in the city. Even though they joke with me that they have “left the village behind” to fit into the urban culture, this is not really true. The village lives inside of them like my hometown lives inside of me. It guides them to take care of their neighbors’ children, to look out for one another, to be kind, and to protect the vulnerable. They have always carried the village in their hearts and as long as they do, they will never feel lonely.
I’ve learned so much from them and they have become the very heart beat of my church and ministry here, they have so much to teach us about how to love. They are so grateful to be living in what they call a “great country,” free from the kind of violence that drove them from their homeland. Here, they can use their gifts, pursue their humble dreams, educate their children, and make a life for themselves. And yet, they do not understand why we have so many holy, homeless families.
I’m not sure what will happen to the holy, homeless family but I pray for their safety and for the well-being of the babies. I pray for a new world in which we cherish all the sacred, holy families in our communities. I have learned that the only home we truly have is the one that is carried in the hearts of others.
About the Author:
Sherry Cothran, M.Div., is a speaker, musician, author and ordained minister. In addition to her ongoing work as senior pastor, Sherry has been featured in USA Today, UMCorg, been the keynote speaker at several conferences and performed her songs and stories on many stages. She has received two grants from the Louisville Institute for her creative projects in Bible, faith and spirituality. She was the Artist in Residence at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. Her sermons and blogs have been featured in Good Preacher, Abingdon Women, Interpreter, Ministry Matters, Alive Now. An award winning recording artist, her most recent collaboration with indie film maker, Tracy Facceli, “Tending Angels” can be viewed on Youtube.
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