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Chapter 3-3: Sacred Spaces

Sacred Spaces
Artists have not only placed in these outposts their offerings of sculpture, stained glass windows, paintings and tapestries, they have also taught classes in art, storytelling, poetry, quilting and dance to children and old people, and to the sick and homeless, so that everywhere creativity abounds.

The institutions born of the churches are themselves works of art. They, too, impart spirit-energy and make way for others. As I write this, the newest, Lazarus House, a renovated four-story building that will accommodate eighty-one homeless men and women has opened its doors to receive the first eight residents. They tell me that they are dancing in the halls for joy, which is not hard to imagine if one has been to Lazarus House.

When the building was dedicated we all had a chance to walk on the thick carpets with their designer patterns, and to stand in the rooms with their pastel walls. Each room has the same heavy, wooden finishing, the kind you might find in a retreat house, and its own refrigerator, heating and air conditioning. The single bedrooms, arranged in clusters of six to ten, give to men and women used to shelter dorms the unexpected gift of privacy. Each cluster of rooms has a common kitchen, living room, two or three bathrooms, and laundry facilities. They are obviously designed to facilitate the creation of small communities. Part of the covenant of Lazarus House is that residents will participate weekly in support and counseling groups meeting in the staff offices. Church services are already being held in a large community room and are open to all who want to attend.

The dedication of the building was a tearful time. At last everyone could see the fruits of long labor. The funding and renovation of the building were provided by dozens of city businesses and foundations, whose representatives said one after the other that they were ready to do the same thing for another building. The miracle was not only in the beauty of a building that had been uninhabitable for years, but that the gracious rooms were going to provide help and space for once homeless men and women struggling to put their shattered lives back together.

In the entrance hall of Lazarus House is the art work of Lee Porter, a member of the Jubilee Church. It tells the story of the good Samaritan. The wall hanging speaks for the journey that we are all on, and the miracle of love that unexpectedly we found in our hearts for men and women who were once among the earth’s outcasts.

The writer, William F. Lynch, believed that “if love is being restored, so is hope, for our greatest hope and wish is to be able to love.” This is another of the miracles of the missions. We set out to restore the lives of others and find our own lives redeemed.

Hard to remember back to that time fo years ago when The Potter’s House was our only mission. Around one of its tables Jubilee Housing was planned. After the first two apartment houses were renovated and converted into clean and affordable housing for low income families, Jubilee Jobs was formed to help unemployed tenants find the jobs they were so desperately seeking.

A chance visit was behind the story of The Columbia Road Health Services. Allen and Janelle Goetcheus were waiting for a visa to go to Pakistan when they came to visit the The Church of The Saviour and were taken to see Jubilee buildings that were being restored. Knowing that Janelle was a physician, her guides for the day shared with her the health needs of those living in the buildings and neighborhood. She and Allen returned home and, after a number of months, made the decision to go to Washington instead of Pakistan. They were uncertain about what would happen, but they knew they were going to a community that would support their dream of working with some of the poor of the world.

Allen, a gifted United Methodist minister with a major in drama, took a job as manager of The Potter’s House, while Janelle worked in a suburban hospital several days a week to help support their household which included three children and a dog. The rest of the time she worked in an inner city clinic and planned Columbia Road Health Services. It first opened in a vacant commercial flat and then moved into space that became available in The Potter’s House building. By that time the health team included three doctors, several nurses, a social worker and a receptionist.

Janelle and her colleagues quickly became aware that many of the people they were seeing were living on the streets. The shelters gave them beds at night but during the day they had to walk the streets in all kinds of weather. Some who had a virus when a doctor first saw

them would, on their next visit, have pneumonia. Others, released from hospitals with leg fractures, were trying to live on the streets with full leg casts. Still others had been released to shelters after having had major surgery, such as a coronary artery bypass. “Little by little,” said Janelle, “we began to know that we could not continue to turn people away after treating them. We needed a place where they could stay until they were well. We also wanted to know our patients in more depth. We wanted not only to do for them-we wanted to be with them.”

When a large gift made possible the purchase and renovation of a vacant building that the staff had stood in front of and asked God to give them, three doctors and their families moved in along with their sick and homeless patients. “Be careful what you set your heart on,” James Baldwin’s grandfather is said to have told him, “because you will surely get it.” They named the coveted building Christ House.

Today it is not at all unusual to look into a room and see a doctor’s child engaged in an intense game of chess with a friend he has made on the ward, or see the children wander among the tables at the supper hour which, on Thursday nights, is open to visitors. At each plate there is always a Scripture hand-written in calligraphy by a former patient. In the worship time residents share how the verse relates to their lives and experiences. As I listen to them my own fearful heart gains a new perspective and is restored to praise. This seems to be the common experience of visitors. I think of these sharing times when communities fight so fiercely the placement of half-way houses in their neighborhoods. The inner poverty of those self-enclosed streets seems so great and the lives of their citizens so deprived of experience that it is not at all clear who are the rich and who are the poor, who are the well and who are the sick.

One great difficulty, however, arose at Christ House. When you “make real friends with the poor,”* as we are instructed to do, you don’t put those friends out into the street, even if they are well. It followed as the night the day, that someone in the faith communities would hear the call to provide transitional housing. In May of 1986, Samaritan Inns put up its first sign on the door of a row house around the comer from The Potter’s House, and a year later put its emblem on a second house a few doors away. A third Inn soon followed, and then had come the grand undertaking of Lazarus House, offering less structured and more independent living.

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