BY MEGHANN COTTER FOR THE FREE LANCE-STAR
A few years ago, there was a legendary homeless man by the name of Lonnie Coe.
Lonnie was the guy you went to when you got out of jail and had no place to stay. He would help you find a place to set up your tent. He would teach you how to sell your food stamps and “fly a sign”. And he would make sure you knew the “whoop, whoop” secret that announced you were a safe person entering the campsite.
If you found yourself short on a few bucks on a soggy, rainy night, it was Lonnie who would round up the crew and arrange day changes so everyone could cram into a run-down hotel room and stay dry overnight.
Lonnie didn’t like the shelters. Vietnam took the lead. Prison made him avoid enclosed spaces. And loss after loss of friends and family has left him quite selective about his people.
But if you were one of Lonnie’s people, after his 20 years of homelessness, there was nothing he wouldn’t do to make sure you got through the long, hard nights on the streets.
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His feet swelled up. His organs began to malfunction. And he was literally crawling out of his camp in the woods, struggling to support himself and unable to help others.
It was that night that little Peg Phillips – who was homeless herself at the time – helped me carry 250-pound Lonnie Coe to a hotel room. She would stay with him and take care of him. And in the days to come, we were going to work together to get a wheelchair for his friends to push him around town.
This is the scene, or at least one of them, in which our inner city churches entered into a relationship with our homeless community in 2005. It was the deep, deep water of a people forgotten, written off and abandoned by all other support systems. , including their own families.
I was barely 25 at the time and largely unqualified to guide Peg and Lonnie – both 20 years my senior – to anything of significance. But knowing what I know now, that night we carried Lonnie to the hotel room was a pivotal moment in understanding exactly what our churches had been called to and who was going to teach us how to do it.
Luke 5:1-11 uses a group of weary fishermen who meet Jesus on the shores of Galilee to ask us to present what it really means to be called.
It seems so unnecessary and demanding of Jesus to ask professional fishermen to cast their nets one more time after they had gone all night without catching anything.
Simon Peter had already prepared himself emotionally to return home and report to his family that his many hours of labor were fishless. Imagine his boost when following Jesus into the deep waters yields so many fish that not just Peter’s family, but the whole community could eat for weeks.
Much like Isaiah’s reaction to his own pleas, Simon Peter cowers in indignity.
“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” he said.
Jesus will have none of it.
Instead of pushing Peter away, he invites him to come closer, to trade the mess of fishing for the mess of getting personally and meaningfully involved with God’s people.
What I know NOW from the night that Peg and I carried Lonnie Coe to that hotel room is that God’s deepest and most wondrous call is confirmed by heavenly tour guides. They present themselves in the most useless and ordinary way. Their presence among us can sometimes be so subtle, unusual or even disruptive that we might even miss them.
Yet, if we let them, they are the people who will hold our hand as we wade through the deep waters of our world. The privilege of being in relationship with them is what erodes the landscape of our hearts and forces us to relearn everything we thought we already knew about love of God and love of neighbor.
In the end, Peg was just what that scared quarter-to-life needed all those years ago to even begin to know how to take care of Lonnie Coe. Alcoholism and divorce may have left her on the streets for five years, but even in her homelessness she was still a graduate of the University of Alabama nursing program which ran three intensive care units. at the peak of his career. In addition to her medical training, Peg was a mother and homemaker. Her housing status at this time in her life had nothing to do with what she had to offer.
Peg has long since emerged from homelessness. She bought a Habitat house. She has restored her nursing license and she has overcome many obstacles that remind her of this difficult time. Best of all, she became a key leader at Micah, overseeing our Ministry of Housing.
She continues to be a providential tour guide for our deep water efforts, every day.
But there were others, like Lonnie Coe, Mike and Pee Wee Cooper, Cathy McCullough, Cindy Hughes, Michael Hill, whose names echoed in the hearts of this community long before there was a Micah. Their names mean something because our genuine connection to their stories has called us to do more, to reach further.
Chaos is a nice word for the season in which God planted the mustard seed of Micah in the hearts of our churches. At the time, chronically homeless neighbors like Lonnie and Peg had been vilified and excluded from other programs in their community for their perceived social struggles. Yet their exclusion quietly inspired the churches of Fredericksburg, one by one, to radical inclusion.
I thank God that we have always had churches ready to roam the deep waters of this community, not only to save the people who hide there, but to listen and learn how God could use them to teach us better ways to to fish.
Many prophets, Amos, Ezekiel and Jeremiah to name a few, spoke of fishing techniques in their transmission of God’s desire for mankind. Catching people was never about saving souls or getting more bodies on the pews. It was never about ending homelessness or solving any other social problem. This has always been a fundamental pursuit of “shalom”. That righting relationships with God, self, others and creation is a state of being that cannot be achieved for any of us until the most excluded, unqualified and the least desirable of our world experiences it.
And we don’t need to know what will come out of that deep water, or if there’s any fish at all, to get in there.
We just have to cast our net.
Meghann Cotter is the executive director of Micah Ecumenical Ministries, a faith-based non-profit organization that provides holistic care to the street-informed homeless in Fredericksburg.