A Story from Mark

The other night after work, I rode my bike over to Union Market to meet my wife for dinner. After a tasty meal I was putting my bike on the rack to drive home when a young man approached us and asked us for change. He quietly told us he was was not on drugs, holding up his stick-thin arms to show the absence of track marks, but that he was HIV positive. “I’m a good person” he said. We didn’t have any cash but told him we’d be happy to take him where he wanted to get some food. He got in our car, his backpack on his lap, and we set out for McDonalds.

At first we drove in silence, none of us seeming to know what to say. He broke the ice first. “It’s a beautiful night.” “Yes it is” we agreed. I asked him where he was from. He grew up on Duke Street in Alexandria. When he came out, his father kicked him out of the house and he’d been homeless ever since. He apologized for not smelling good but said he hadn’t been able to wash his clothes for a while. He’d been raped at one of the local shelters and so refused to return there. “The shelters are bad places for gay men”, he said. There were some other places he’d heard about that were better for gay men, but he needed an ID, had lost his and, since he collected just a few dollars a day, hadn’t yet saved up the $10 to get it replaced. For now he was staying in a tent under a bridge, “where nobody can find me.”

At McDonalds he ordered two McChicken sandwiches and a Coke for $6.00. It occurred to me that his meal cost a fraction of just one of the items from our dinner at Union Market. I had offered to buy him more, whatever he wanted, but that was all he ordered. It didn’t feel like enough. Wasn’t there something else we could do? He said he could use a clean shirt so we drove to Walmart where he selected a single t-shirt priced at $3.00. “Are you sure you don’t need anything else?” I asked. He was reluctant but eventually said “maybe some socks.” In that particular Walmart, packages of basic socks are one of the few items locked behind glass. Fresh socks are worth the risk of stealing. Not wanting to disturb the employees to unlock the case, he selected a pair in the unlocked “dress” socks section, grey with embroidered orange tigers on them. “I like these colors” he said, “are these okay?” At $1.89, they were the cheapest on the rack. As we walked to the checkout I asked him several times if there wasn’t anything else he needed. We managed to convince him to pick up a bag of Lay’s potato chips, sour cream and onion. “These are my favorite” he said. “Mine too” I told him. The total came to around $8.

In the elevator back to the car he stood next to a man holding a baby. “She has beautiful eyes” he said, “she gets them from you.” They smiled at each other. We drove him back to where we’d met him, with his turn-by-turn directions and a guided tour of the area with information you’d only get from walking a month in his shoes. “Turn here”, he said, “that hotel over there will let me sit for a while on the benches across the street, as long as I don’t disturb their guests.” We pulled the car up to the curb and I turned off the motor. He told of a job opportunity washing dishes that he was hoping to get. “I’m a good person” he said, repeating a phrase he’d used several times since we started talking. “I know you are” I responded, but I doubted hearing it once from me would undo the constant message to the contrary that he must be getting all the time from the world around him. Timidly, tears in his eyes, he asked if he could give us a hug and said “God bless you.” I hugged him, feeling the frail thinness of his chest, my own eyes wet with tears. “I’m already too blessed” I told him, “God’s blessings need to go to you.”

In case you’re thinking “what a nice thing Mark did” please know that’s not my point in writing this. In total, we gave him about $14 in McDonalds and the cheapest clothing money can buy. I’ve spent that much for a few pastries at Boulangerie Christophe. Perhaps you’re thinking “I wonder if he was telling the truth.” In the hardened parts of my heart I had the same thought. At some point during our drive I picked up the $150 Maui Jim sunglasses from the center console and moved them to the compartment in the door. It was almost a reflex, but I was conscious and ashamed of doing it. There was so much I didn’t do. I briefly considered bringing him back to our apartment so he could have a shower, wash his clothes, sleep on our couch instead of his tent under a bridge, but we didn’t.

A good story will take the reader on a journey, leaving them at a different, even better place than before. I don’t know how to do that here. Right before he got out of the car, I told him about the Georgetown Sunday Dinners. He asked me to write down the address and time, which I did, on the back of the receipt from Walmart, after I tore off the bottom that showed the last four digits of our credit card. Another conscious reflex?

He is a beautiful human being, cast aside by his family, pushed to the margins and beyond by the kind of misfortune most of us can only imagine. The sparse generosity of the people he meets who give him a dollar here, some loose change there, along with some public assistance, is enough to keep him from starving to death and to address his basic medical needs. That is perhaps a lot, compared to many parts of the world, but it is a huge contrast to the life I am privileged to enjoy, living just a few miles from where he sleeps under a bridge. I hope he comes to the GSD so I can meet him again. He’s such a good person. I hope you get to meet him someday too.

A Message from Pastor Rachel

“Did you watch Chris Pratt’s Generation Award speech at the MTV Movie Awards this week?!” …is a sentence that I never thought I’d say. But here we are. Pratt (character-actor-turned-super-star) won something called the “Generation Award” this week. His speech was disarming, charming, heart-felt and faithful. He used his four minutes and his influence to inspire viewers. You can watch it here. [Fair warning, the speech isn’t overly crude, but I would rate it PG.]
Recently the country has had to deal with more than its share of death, suicide, depression, and trauma. This week, Latesha, Pastor Chris and I have heard more than a few people saying, “I’m tired,” “I don’t want to be here anymore,” “I want to give up,” “I just don’t know the point,” “It doesn’t make any difference.” I suffer from depression and anxiety (“brain allergies” as my kids call them!), and I know what it feels like to just want to give up. There are times when our human limitations are painfully apparent, and during these times the church is more important than ever. We support and we are supported by our brothers and sisters in our community. 
In his speech, Pratt said, “If you’re strong, be a protector and if you’re smart be a humble influencer.” I was encouraged by Sunday’s witness to our church’s decades-long commitment to refugees. I’ve read articles by members and friends of GPC urging justice and prudence and compassion; I’ve followed the demonstrations and rulings at our denomination’s General Assembly; I’ve prayed alongside fellow religious leaders and GPC members. As Christians we use our influence to point towards our gracious savior. As children of the promise, we can proclaim that the suffering of this world is unacceptable, and that evil and death will not have the last word. Scripture reminds us that nothing–not even death–can separate us from the love of Christ. And that is something worth talking about. 

World Refugee Sunday Reflection from Mark

In December, 2016, the GPC staff took a field trip to visit the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture. It was a deeply moving experience for all of us. The museum is organized chronologically with the beginnings of the slave industry in the basement, to the top floor featuring exhibits displaying the cultural, political, and societal achievements of African Americans in modern times. I was particularly impacted by that top floor. Out of the historic ingredients of injustice, inequality and persecution displayed on the floors below should have come something equally ugly. Ugly in, ugly out, right? Instead, exactly the opposite is true. The contributions on display represent the defining examples of beauty and joy that our country has produced.

This Sunday, for World Refugee Sunday, one of the GPC choir baritones, Jim Williams, will sing two African American Spirituals. As with the top floor of the NMAAHC, the Spirituals are the logic defying results of profound meaning and beauty emerging from the horrific ingredients of slavery. The slaves were the ultimate example of a dispossessed people. From their circumstances we would not have expected musical beauty to arise and yet it did.

Life is challenging for all of us, in different ways. I pray that, from my own life’s struggles, I can follow in the example of those who wrought beauty and joy from unspeakable cruelty and hatred.

2018 Leadership Intensive Remarks from Pastor Chris

This week marked the final week of the 2018 Leadership Intensive. Pastor Rachel has been leading this class along with Pastor Camille, myself, and others for three years now, and each year I end the six week intensive with a renewed sense of hope. We study prayer, Bible study, conflict management, pastoral care, and beyond, and each year I leave reminded that our church is in many, many good hands.

I was struck this year by an attitude this year that was shared throughout the participants. During the six weeks, we have all run into areas of Christian discipleship that feel more difficult than others, whether it’s prayer, engaging conflict, or visiting a hospital room. But instead of shying away from those things, I noticed that everybody was moving towards the things that made them uncomfortable. Instead of maintaining the safety of comfort, I saw people engaging where it’s difficult.
Perhaps that is the lesson of Christian discipleship that I, and perhaps you, need to hear today. That Jesus calls us to where we feel less safe, but that undoubtedly, Jesus has already gone there ahead of us, and will continue to walk with us. Jesus is with us on the growing edge.

Pastor Camille’s Sabbatical Farewell

The familiar psalm paints a beautiful image of sabbath rest.  He (the Good Shepherd) makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.  
Today marks the beginning of my summer sabbatical, a gift of time set aside for rest and restoration of the body and soul.  I am truly grateful for the opportunity to seek out green pastures and find some still waters.  
Jesus says, “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty again.”  For me, it is time to return to the well.  I hope the summer will give you the opportunity to do the same, even if in smaller doses.  
Blessings upon you and your summer seasons.  I will hold you in prayer and I welcome your prayers.  See you in September!
In Christ,