Katie is one of my best friends from seminary. She’s a real life sunshine-y care bear. She’s passionate, deeply kind, and every time I hug her I get glitter on my soul. I recently got back from a two-week stay with her in Florida. On a particularly rainy day during my visit, she came home from her job, noticeably non-glittery and emotionally spent.
“We had a memorial service today,” she said flatly. “I mean, who has a funeral at work?!”
Katie works at Matthew’s Hope in Winter Garden, Florida—a ministry that cares for people without homes, people without jobs, people who often struggle with addictions and people who have lost almost everything. Every day, this ministry provides hot meals, haircuts, and toiletries. In the back, you’ll find a shower trailer monitored by Rickie, who takes his job very seriously. Matthew’s Hope is one of those rare places that holds grace and tough love in healthy tension, providing both mercy and practical tools to fight addiction and poverty.
And maybe just as important, Matthew’s Hope offers community. People who show up here belong here. It doesn’t matter if you’re coming for toilet paper or an occasional meal. It doesn’t matter if you are a part of the job program or if you work the community garden. It’s a place of belonging for those typically marginalized or misunderstood. 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 the Matthew’s Hope community. One day a year, this nontraditional family comes together to remember those who have passed away.
And I sat with Katie on her couch hours after the latest memorial service. Five people had died this year and today, homeless people and a mix of volunteers gathered around a table displaying pictures of the deceased. After the unconventional and, at times, irreverent eulogies, five men carried five bricks to the candlelit table—bricks bearing the names of those who had died.
The mood was heavy, and even those characterized by deflective sarcasm and abrasive exteriors were now serious and reverent.
Everyone in this community knows the sandpaper-y fabric of difficult lives. Dying can be lonely, but so can being alive. Some died from alcoholism.
Some died of illnesses in the midst of making healthy changes. One man, particularly defensive and rough around the edges 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,” said the man again. “I want you to know I’m ok. I’m really ok.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean with this whole God thing. I get it now.”
This homeless addict 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 dropping out of bible school and falling into drug abuse, stories of losing jobs and families and hope. It was in this setting that a pastor spoke about the gospel.
As he looked at the pictures of those who had recently passed away, he kept referring to them as God’s children. It almost felt like a forced word of hope.
But the more he said it, the more it became clear that 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.
Those gathered heard it, too—the deep reminder that God’s love is not earned by living in houses or avoiding substance abuse or keeping a job. God’s children don’t do anything to deserve their place as those who belong. God cares deeply about these people who live in the woods, these people who have group funerals, these 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.”
In all the suffering these people had endured, through all the ways they had been defeated, marginalized, wounded and rejected, at the end of their lives, the words that were spoken were those of belonging. Maybe the world would give a critical or pitying eulogy, but today, in the moments of reverent silence, those who had died were remembered as God’s deeply loved children.
And this was a reality that trumped any harsh word or feeling of regret or even a lonely death in the woods.
Maybe we forget that being loved by God is all that matters. We forget that in the love of God there is no hierarchy. Maybe we should aim to see people through the lens of their belonging to God. Only then can we live in solidarity with the broken. Only then can we experience God’s heart for the pain of this world.