Saturday, January 27, 2018

There (but) for the grace of God

This winter, I've once again been volunteering with Georgetown's Hypothermia Outreach Team (HOT), a joint effort between the university's Center for Social Justice and a local non-profit called Georgetown Ministry Center (GMC). On nights when the city activates its hypothermia alert, we walk a route around the neighborhood, talking to folks experiencing homelessness. We check in on people; we encourage them to seek shelter and connect them with transportation if they're interested; we have some snacks and water, some socks and hats, some hand-warmers to give out. If they haven't heard of GMC, we give them info about the services offered there. At least once or twice every winter, we end up calling an ambulance for someone suffering from the first stages of hypothermia.

In a way, it's not much -- preventing hypothermia deaths is hardly a long-term solution to homelessness. The hope is always that the consistent outreach provided by GMC and HOT will connect people who otherwise exist largely outside of the city's network of services to housing and longer-term solutions. On many nights, that doesn't happen. But we keep going out, because on some nights, it does.


There are all sorts of reasons why I started volunteering with HOT, but there's one in particular that I've been thinking about more and more lately as I layer up to head out into another cold night. (I hate being cold. This is not a natural choice for me. It takes me a lot of layers.)

Most, maybe all, of the folks we talk to on a given night have some sort of mental illness. These aren't folks who have simply lost jobs or been priced out of affordable housing. (Though there is a lot of that in DC, too.) These are folks with multiple challenges, experiencing chronic homelessness and major mental health challenges. Of course, there's a chicken-and-egg question here: does serious mental illness lead to homelessness, or does the trauma of living outside lead to serious mental illness? Both, of course.

So as we talk to folks under bridges, huddled in sleeping bags in storefronts and alcoves, even tent-camping in Washington Circle, I am constantly aware of my own mental illness. Our experiences are so different in so many ways, and yet on paper, I share a diagnosis, a disorder, with many of them. I am much more like the homeless "them" than most of the outreach team "us" realize. These folks are, in some sense, "my people." The fact that I am "doing outreach" while they are the ones "being outreached to" is pure luck. A couple of ticks in my genetic code, a couple of facts about family life -- there's not much that inherently separates their lives from mine. It's a thin line between our lives, and yet a massive chasm of privilege and circumstance.

Living in the same neighborhood, we live in entirely different worlds.


There is a phrase which perhaps you have heard. It's sometimes attributed to an English Reformer named John Bradford, who apparently muttered it to himself while witnessing the execution of a group of prisoners. (Thanks to Wikipedia for that tidbit.)

The phrase is: "There but for the grace of God go I."

The expression is supposed to communicate that my own fortune comes by no merit of my own, that I have not earned my life. It has been given to me as a gift.

But there's something wrong with that expression, at least in my book, at least in this instance.

It is not grace that separates my life from the kind gentleman sleeping under the bridge, who always thanks us for the visit but ever-so-politely declines our offer of shelter. It is not grace that separates me from the couple sleeping in the tent near GWU, who says they came to D.C. from Houston after the floods. It is not grace that separates me from the angry man who tells us, in no uncertain terms, to leave him the f**k alone tonight (which we do).

If I believe anything, I believe all of these people are as much recipients of God's grace as I am.

Look to luck, or to privilege, or to systemic injustice, or to the contingencies of life on this "not-yet" side of heaven's reign if you seek an explanation for these circumstances. But do not blame grace for this.

So instead -- as I have walked around Georgetown in the freezing temperatures, talking to the people who are willing to talk to our teams, checking in even on the folks who tell us, night after night, to go away, just in case, just in case -- I have been repeating a different phrase to myself. A slight variation, but more accurate, I think.

"Here, for the grace of God, we go."

We go here, because this is where the grace of God lives. Under this bridge, on this park bench, in this alcove. God lives here, in these homes we call home-less. "Foxes have dens," Jesus once said, "and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Human One has no place to lay his head."

It is not the grace of God which separates me from the experience of those sleeping outside. It is the grace of God which connects me to them.

And so I pray, as we walk and talk. Pray for this grace to be felt. To be seen and heard. To somehow become more concrete than the concrete on which some folks sleep even on cold, cold nights.

There go I. For, not but, the grace of God.


You can find out more about Hypothermia Outreach Team by clicking here, or learn how to support Georgetown Ministry Center here. And if you're interested in hearing more about my journey with mental illness, check out my upcoming book, Christ on the Psych Ward.

Below, I've pasted some resources for the DC/MD/VA area if you encounter someone in need of shelter. If you're outside of the DMV, and want to share resources you know of in your area, shoot me an email
Hypothermia Hotline: 202-399-7093
D.C.'s Hypothermia Shelter Hotline provides transportation to emergency shelters, and distributes items such as blankets, gloves and jackets.
For more, see
Montgomery County:
Community Crisis Center: 240-777-4000
Shelter Services: 240-777-3289
Non-Emergency Police: 301-279-8000
For more, see…
Prince George's County:
Homeless hotline: 888-731-0999
Non-Emergency Police: 301-352-1200
For more,
Carpenter's Shelter: 703-548-7500
Non-Emergency Police: 703-746-4444
For more,…/economicsupport/default.aspx…
Arlington County:
Arlington Street People's Assistance Network (A-SPAN): 703-228-7803
Non-Emergency Police: 703-558-2222
Department of Health and Human Services: 703-228-1350
For more,
Fairfax County:
Office to Prevent and End Homelessness: 703-324-9492
Non-Emergency Police: 703-691-2131
For more,…/hypothermia-prevention-prog…
Falls Church:
Winter Homeless Shelter (217 Gordon Road): 703-854-1400
Non-Emergency Police: 703-248-5053
For more,

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