It’s Friday again. The drive from the gym felt far too short. I barely had time to get some eyeliner on to my tired eyes before we came to an abrupt stop in front of the boxy brown building on Pennsylvania St. that is the Volunteers of America housing for their Fresh Start program. It’s hot today and we both stare out the windshield in front of us, wordless, watching the heat rise off the pavement. David grabs my hand from the driver’s seat, “We should pray….”
“Not yet. I need a minute…were still early!” I whine as I continue to stare unhelpfully out the window at the art gallery across the road. For some reason, I am immediately interested in the random exhibition of the month…something to do with abstract interpretations of furniture, seems impractical, but it’s enough to let me stall a few more minutes. “Early” as I interpret it, is mostly still late by David’s standards, but he squeezes my hand again ignoring my new found passion for the arts and begins.
“God we’re tired again…and distracted. Help us please…show people you…amen.” And that’s it. We’re on. Walter begins to bark from the back seat at a half dressed homeless man ambling past the truck. Like us, this dog is skeptical of the situation he’s found himself in. He’s whinny and unsettled and acutely aware of how short he falls of a proper therapy dog, but he’s getting hot now and would rather get inside no matter the details.
I hop out of the truck onto the street, resolved now that there is in fact no way out but through, and I dodge traffic only to be clobbered by my 90 pound dog as he scrambles out of the truck in a torrent of hair, and misplaced enthusiasm…Therapy dog my ass. I’m now covered with hair and my arm is scratched raw as I help David unload the large totes weighed down with a combination of workout equipment, snacks, and Bibles. I’m grateful for the days we have a few volunteers who can help with the totes and speakers, but a lot of days look like this mad scramble of shuffling and scooting until we at last get to the front door. Once there, the attendant may or may not remember we are coming or let us in.
There have been years this looked different. The first year we split up. I would come downtown early after work; haul all the equipment around with an awkward sense of purpose, workout with a few willing girls and then drive back to pick up David. We would then both drive back downtown to hold a small church service finishing up some nights around 9pm. Most Fridays the staff forgot we were coming, or would tell us the multipurpose room wasn’t available and could we just do it in the cafeteria that smells like stale hotdog water and regret (my description, not theirs).
There were times we’d have 50 girls through an evening and times when no one showed up. There were weeks we drove from one side of Indianapolis to the other for different residential programs. There were months I drove an hour to pick the women up, bring them to our gym for a workout, go through the futility of ordering food for 5 hyped up girls with mental health issues, and then drive them back again stopping as they chanted like children for gas station slushies and cigarettes. There were times we drove out 45 minutes at 10 P.M. to pray for a girl, who thought demons were in her room, or to listen to another girl’s nightmare, or to take another girl to Thanksgiving dinner just so we could stand on her porch while she never came out. She messaged later letting us know she was ok; that she had just taken too many pills and her boyfriend couldn’t wake her up. No harm, no foul.
So 5 years in we look different. 148 Ministries has 30 volunteers in 4 consistent locations. 5 years ago, I prayed for God to send people to help who were better at this than I was, and He did. And before you say, “Aw… they’re not ‘better’” Let me remind you of my aforementioned attitude and stop you right there; I know myself. Over the years these people showed up with talents and abilities David and I don’t possess. They showed up with fun games, and speaking abilities, and a gift for mothering. They showed up with kindness for the outcast, patience for the teenage girl, and an understanding of the felon. They showed up…all different kinds. And for the life of me, when I try to figure out what ministry even is, it always comes down to showing up, ready or not.
This Friday, we are not ready, but we did show up, and the guy buzzing us in knows who we are and I think may be starting to like us a little. For the longest time I was convinced he couldn’t stand us and would delay letting us in hoping secretly that we would give up and go away. A few times I seriously considered it. But today, he seems like he likes us and he talks candidly to Walter who is dragging me around while I try to wheel my overstuffed tote through the second set of locked doors. I push to get through quickly so this guy who is now patiently holding the door for me keeps on liking us, it has become my one goal not to irritate him; I am fixated on his approval in a fairly unhealthy way considering the relationship. I get through pretty smoothly and shout an overly enthusiastic “Thank You!” at him as Walter continues to drag me down the hallway. Whew…I think that went ok…I think.
And that’s where I am today, headed straight into a group of women who’ve lost almost everything. They need encouragement and hope that life gets better, while I cuss at my dog and obsess about whether the guy at the front desk is ok with me.
But I showed up. You get who you get.
The carpet in the multipurpose room is fairly new but the whole space still somehow has its own funk. There are tables and chairs grouped in the middle from the last group and we silently go about moving them against the wall, setting out the food, and finally the workout equipment. I do a similar circuit every time because this program has high turnover and because it’s easier for the girls returning to remember what to do. We bring in fruit, cheese, veggies and cookies because fresh food isn’t always available in these kinds of places. The girls seem to get particularly excited about strawberries and stack them as high as they can on as many plates as they can. I’ve only ever had to break up two fights, and at least one of them was over strawberries. We remind them that they can keep the whole tray when we leave, but it doesn’t matter. Years of scarcity and competition have trained them well enough to know they need to get when the getting’s good.
A girl or two straggle in. It’s now several minutes past the start time of 2:30 but it doesn’t matter anymore. A few more wander in non-commitally enough to let us know that whatever vibe they pick up in the next few minutes will decide whether or not they stay. You’re move. A few more enter and without fail at least one girl pipes up with an exempt from workout excuse.
“Hey I can’t work out with Y’all tho ‘cause I just had a baby yesterday…” or “Hey I can’t work out today because I gotta go to court later and I don’t wanna be sweaty.” Or my favorite, “Um, is it ok that I don’t work out because my boyfriend ran me over with his car and now my ankle don’t work.”
“Got it. Ya girl, sit this one out.”
We start when we think at least most girls are there and after I’ve sent a girl or a staff member back upstairs to make sure no one else wants to come down. A hard schedule doesn’t exist here… until smoke break…for that they have an internal siren in line with Greenwich Mean Time.
I start the music and it’s a tribute to 90’s and early 2000’s hip hop. I ’m not into Christian music for the most part and who doesn’t get turned up by Salt’n Peppa no matter the dismal situation they may be in. I’m yelling instructions and demonstrating at this point because attention comes at a high a price around here and I’ve got to work for every bit of it.
We worship to the musical stylings of Eminem, Busta Rhymes, and Missy Elliot. Most of the girls are old enough to remember what that music felt like in middle school or high school before life got real and the felonies and pregnancies started piling up. A lot of times they entirely forgo whatever exercise I had set up and instead break out into some improvised gyrating. We become a time traveling night club where everyone is sporting house slippers and at least on C- section scar.
Sometimes it’s the Cuban Shuffle, and they ALL get going. For some god forsaken reason, the dances I avoid at weddings are a big hit with the recovery crowd. Other times, a station that was supposed to be a bicep curl or ball slam becomes a twerking exhibition. I always try to get in on this one and match the moves, but either my tight hips or Baptist upbringing have physically compromised me and I am a thrusting nightmare of crippled sexuality. It’s hard to watch and we all start laughing. For a moment, everyone forgets why we’re here. And this is my favorite. This is the thing that I get out of the truck for. For a moment, tattooed and terrified women dance. They pick up a beat or a weight and feel their body again like it used to be before drugs or babies. They Dougie, or cartwheel, or twerk, or lift a weight for the first time since high school soccer practice…and Jesus is there, hand on the volume. They sweat and breathe then give up and try again.
If you can hold your insides still in the middle of the shouting and the excuses and the painfully loud music, you get to see these complicated stories get really very simple. You get to see what Jesus sees… girls, who, before they were hurt or angry or used, just wanted to dance.
The workout doesn’t last long; they don’t have the stamina to go much longer than 20 or 30 minutes. Then we stretch, which most of them prefer anyway, at least the laying on the floor part. The very pregnant and the injured come off of their chairs and join in. I answer questions about food or back pain or losing weight and then dismiss everyone for snacks before the bible study.
We pull chairs into a circle and the girls pile their small plates with cookies and veggies with lots of dip. David is up next and I wrangle Walter so he doesn’t steel anyone’s cheese. I sit somewhere to the side to recover from the chaos of the last hour. Both the women and I are glad that I’ve stopped jumping around and shouting.
David begins by asking the girls where they may have seen God working this week. Their recognition comes in the dismissal of a case or the health of a baby born despite drug use, or in one more day when they didn’t run out of this place. He goes on into one of a handful of different bible stories so paired down and simplified that the church language has been striped clean out of it. Over the years we have adapted to a different culture where you don’t use words like “sanctified,” or “transgression” and you sure as hell don’t make assumptions about a universal understanding of “Christianity,” or “God.” In the middle of a perfectly normal Bible study you are prepared to field questions like, “Is my brother in Hell for committing suicide?” or “can I talk to my dead mother?” or “Hey, what happened to the dinosaurs?”
You stick with Jesus in the muddy waters of reality and you listen and you push for focus on things like love, and forgiveness, and hope. You learn to look for the pulse of the God who weeps with those who weep and restores what the locusts have eaten. You tell stories about the God who waits on the porch and runs toward the worst of us coming home. The One who gets on his knees and looks a naked adulteress in the eyes and asks “Where are your accusers?…” The One who dips his bread into the bowl with his betrayer, and doesn’t try to change things. The God who looks at a man past hope and says, “This day… with me… in paradise.”
We don’t go on about consequences much or use Jesus as a bullet pointed sermon on how to live a good life with no mistakes…it’s a day late and a dollar short for that kind of talk here. But we speak about what we know; that grace has claws for holding on, and that God likes them…terrible parenting, felonies and all. They already understand Hell and consequences, they’ve lived it. But we show up for a moment of their lives to talk about a God who calls us “daughter” in the midst of the bleeding and lets us come back home again.
When it’s over we clean up and drag our totes back out the alarm triggered doors with even less grace than we drug them in. We’re tired and we all have to pee, especially Walter, so we scramble to the restrooms and then exit. Back in the truck, driving home, I’m tired and questioning whether we’re doing anything worthwhile or if any of it matters. We didn’t fix anything. We didn’t get anyone a home or a job, or childcare. We can’t be there every day to solve the overwhelming demands that are going to befall these women the moment they leave the shelter. Most of them will relapse multiple times, they will end up back at VOA or another court ordered program, or they will go back to jail or overdose for the last time. We see them through the years. We get to see the good times and the bad with the ones who stay connected. We don’t fix it for them. We’re just there. And sometimes that just feels useless.
Those are hard little selfish spirals for me. I want to know that I am the best kind of savior and it’s a little nauseating for everyone involved, especially me. But again, if you can hold your insides still in the midst of the demands of the day, the noise, and your screwed up motives, you get to see things get very simple.
Jesus walked the earth for a short time, His ministry lasted 3 years and in that time, he walked around a relatively small geographical region of the earth. He healed hundreds and yet walked past thousands. He forgave, made the blind to see, the lame to walk, and then kept walking. Then He left with one heck of an exit. But He didn’t really fix anything, not at least how everyone thought He would. There was no revolution, no freedom for Israel, no end of persecution. Even the ones who received the miracle of sight were left to figure out what to do with themselves the next morning. Er…get a job, I guess… And what about a year later, when the ability to see just opened their eyes to the suffering around them? What were they supposed to do with that?
And here we all are, tired, scared, and wondering whether we’re doing anything right. A part of us wants to change the world but when we try, we realize pretty quickly that were in it up to our neck. We’re so quick to look for the dove descending on our good deeds from above and we want the solution; the end of the pain for ourselves and others. But a timeless God gave humanity only a moment for a savior. He stopped for a moment and looked us in the eyes to say “I’m the answer…go love like I love.” From that point on it should have been pretty simple. The world was as wrecked then as it is now but the call never stops being simple. Just go. Show up. Bad attitude, wonky emotions, stiff twerking and all. Go do love in whatever way you can.
So that’s what we do. We show up, and we invite others to do it with us. The whole thing starts looking like one community reaching out to another with little to offer but their gaping hearts wide open. No coffee shops, or concerts, or cushioned seats and mostly it doesn’t feel like it’s under any kind of control. But, ready or not, cue the music. Just start moving. After a while, you get over yourself and the hips loosen up…it starts to look like dancing. And you start to realize it’s the only kind of thing worth doing.