My feet, hands and the dried tears on my cheeks were frozen by the time I made it back to my car.
I had pretty much assumed my extremities would suffer as we chose to undertake our mission on what turned out to be the coldest day of winter, thus far. But the frozen tears were another matter.
Actually, I had also assumed our Sunday morning religious sojourn would be a heartwarming episode as we were fulfilling not only the Christian charge of our small church—House of Grace Ministries— but a central decree of God (Nyame).
And in retrospect, I was spiritually fulfilled, and my heart was gladdened by our endeavor. But there were other emotions that touched my soul on this day, generated by sights of nameless people forced by circumstance and societal disregard to squander in makeshift tents along a street named after a Milwaukee native who had traveled to the “heavens,” astronaut James Lovell.
How ironic, the thought occurred to me later, that on the street named after a beneficiary of a billion-dollar tax investment, that we were called to help citizens for whom the only visions of stars were the knots and stitches of canvas or nylon woven materials bond together to provide shelter and protection from icy cold winds, snow and temperatures that on this early day of winter reached far below freezing.
“Tent City,” as it has become known, is the home for hundreds of lost souls who congregate along James Lovell Street, which runs from the courthouse to the post office on St. Paul Street.
Most of the tents are on muddy ground, and those lucky enough to have resources creatively organize their five-foot square “homes” to accommodate a living room, kitchen and bathroom.
Few have radios to occupy their time, much less cell phones to communicate with the “outside world.”
Those lucky enough to have located under the freeway underpass have additional shelter from the coming snow and the wind off Lake Michigan, although the tradeoff is the excessive noise from the cars and trucks overhead.
Those located near the courthouse and McArthur Square are ignored by passers-by, including the police, even though most would be better off in jail (where at least there would be a warm cell and a hot meal… maybe!).
For most of the dozen members of House of Grace—including several children—who visited “Tent City” recently, it was an eye-opening experience, one that sparked a reevaluation of our comfortable lives, our familiar and economic blessings, and our safe, warm homes.
The tragedy inherent in that disparity was all the more apparent as we visited tent after tent, offering winter clothing we had purchased or collected, and later in the day, food brought to the southern boundaries of “Tent City,” that was collected by fellow Christians who described their visit as “something that touched our hearts,” explained Olethia Weathersby, who was joined by Kezia Jones and Heather Franceschi.
The trio had purchased sandwiches, canned goods and snacks that they asked us to help distribute.
A few minutes later, we embraced a young White couple from Hales Corner who said they too came to fulfill their Christian obligation, to uplift the needy and to introduce the downtrodden to the blanket of Christian fellowship.
Their presence offered me a glimmer of hope that others who proclaim Christianity as their religion were at similar sites to carry out the central mission of our faith.
But I knew that was not the case.
Church has become a social affair to many so-called Christians. It is a talent show, an orchestrated production complete with music, dance and entertaining speeches.
In far too many instances, Sunday morning services are facilitated by “false prophets” who sell “heavenly insurance” for the small price of 10% of your income.
And the seats are filled with quasi-Christians who never study the Bible, which they believe is an evolving document they can manipulate, amend or ignore as they see fit, or to justify their lifestyles.
It is a bold statement that most so-called Christians belong to the C.M.E. church, not the Colored (later changed to Christian) Methodist Episcopal domination I grew up in, but an anonym representing the only days when most quasi-Christians attend church: “Christmas, Mother’s Day and Easter.”
Remarkably, they somehow think that’s enough to get to heaven. But, as I often say, “heaven is NOT gonna be a crowded place.”
That reality clouded my vision, as did the thought Tent City should be filled with followers of the Christ as we approach “Christ-mass”. That instead of purchasing expensive toys they can’t afford and cooking a large ham and chitterlings dinner that isn’t blessed, they should be here, or hundreds of similar places offering hope to the hopeless.
One of the occupants of “Tent City,” a young white man who fell on hard times, told Rev. Clarence that he needed to purchase medicine for his wife but didn’t have the $15 co-pay.
Later that day, Rev. Clarence returned to the site and took the man to Walgreens. Afterwards, they prayed together.
That anonymous gesture goes to the essence of what “The” Christ taught.
While I deplore the commercialization of Christmas, that element of the “holy-day” that compels us to “give” is intrinsic within our faith.
The Christmas event is also about family—both the family of Christ, and the family of blood and humankind.
That was how it was introduced and instilled in my immediate family by my mother, herself a minister and one of the few “true and sincere” Christians I have ever known.
Reverend Sideena Holt brought us—my siblings and I—presents, but she also instructed us on the real meaning of “Christ-mass”. It was also important to her to use the occasion to bring together family, to count our blessings, and to thank Him/Her for our gifts.
We in turn, were required to show our love for Him/Her by giving or doing deeds for the poor, the widowed and the orphaned child (a literal translation from the Bible).
So much was my mother’s love for this “Holy-Day,” that we held her funeral two years ago on Christmas Eve.
I initially opposed that idea when it was introduced by my sister. But in retrospect, it was a profound sentiment and execution of what my mother stood for: family, blessings and the word of The Christ.
My mother’s funeral provided an opportunity to bring together our larger, extended family in Nyame’s House, on the eve of His son’s birth.
How profound is it that the tears that flowed two years ago with family were followed by a new set shed for people I didn’t know, and many I didn’t see because most only extended their hands outside the flaps of their tents to accept our gifts and blessings.
Maybe, it was the cold that prompted that reaction, or maybe it was shame rooted in their desire not to reveal themselves and thus acknowledge their plight.
Whatever the reason, it was a painful experience, to be on the giving end of our responsibility to help the needy, witnessing the byproduct of a society that exemplifies what the poet Tupac once said: “we can find money for war, but not for the poor.”
Or maybe my fellow Christians and Muslims and Jews and Buddhists don’t know of Tent City. If not, surely, you’ve heard of the Hunger Task Force, the Salvation Army, the American Cancer Society, the House of Peace, St. Jude’s, or a thousand other charities.
Each provides an opportunity to fulfill a mission or call it a God-quest if you like.
This past Sunday, Rev. Debbie led us in prayer that focused on our doing more to help the needy, which will include our return to “Tent City.”
She also asked Nyame to provide us with what he provided Solomon—wisdom.
I, in turn pray Nyame provides that special gift to you this Christmas— the wisdom to think beyond toys and trees and holiday cheer. To utilize this day to bring together family in the spirit of the newborn Christ and to carry out Nyame’s mission by extending a hand to someone in need.