She was shaking when she told us. As Rev. Tina and I sat with Clare in a booth at McDonald’s, she told us the story that had led her to homelessness just the week before. Her voice was weak and jumpy, so we leaned closer to hear.
Just a short time ago, Clare was a soccer mom, transporting her five children to various activities in the grassy suburb where she and her husband lived. All her life she had struggled with panic attacks and extreme anxiety that made being in public a challenge. She never had a bank account or a credit card. She didn’t go to appointments alone or walk in a mall. Her husband wanted to handle all those responsibilities. In fact, when Clare tried new therapies and began to get better, her husband was not supportive. He got angry when she opened the mail or asked questions about their family finances. And then he became physically abusive. Finally, when he put his hands around her throat and began to squeeze, Clare found the strength to leave.
Like many women who leave abusive marriages, Clare’s economic status changed instantly. Initially, she stayed with her mother, continued working on her mental health, and enjoyed joint custody of her children. Eventually her mother could not tolerate this new level of energy as young kids jumped around the house and on the living room couch. Clare was told to leave her mother’s house which resulted in her becoming homeless and her husband gaining full custody of the children.
I wish I could tell you that this is an unusual story to hear over a cup of morning coffee at McDonalds. But it isn’t in our ministry. We feel honored when a person new to the community graces us with their narrative of loss. These are not easy stories to re-tell: a truck driver who injured his back and developed an addiction to his prescribed pain killers, eventually loses his family; a librarian who loses his job and housing after a relapse of clinical depression; a 19-year-old man gets stuck in the grief of losing both parents in one year.
The good news is that Clare is a familiar and vibrant member of our community now. She comes to our weekly meditation group, works on the quilt we are making at the women’s shelter and brings new shelter guests to meet us at McDonald’s. She has also become her own best advocate, scheduling appointments with mental health counselors, social workers and her lawyer! “I’m actually living a more independent and social life now,” she told us. “I’ve always been a people person, but now I have a community to belong to.”
As Chaplains on the Way turns ten this year, I’ve been experiencing a mix of emotions. I’m deeply grateful to Rev. Joan Murray who came to Waltham and began this ministry by simply walking the street with an opening heart. I’m grateful for the many students and staff who have continued that walk. And I’m forever thankful to the donors, old and new, who have supported us in the walk and enabled us to grow and respond in new ways to the needs we see.
And also….sometimes I just can’t believe that, as a society, we still allow such dear and vulnerable people to slip through the cracks of all the safety nets intended to save them. How can we let people become so alone and feel so forgotten? How have we let this go on for another ten years? I am easily overwhelmed when thinking about the task of finding housing, treatment or just safety for those that we love in our community.
And then someone like Clare comes along and reminds me that our mission is not about tasks and saving people. It’s about listening and being a consistent, loving presence. It’s about mirroring back the inherent worth and dignity, the sacred gift from God, which we discover inside each person we meet. Our mission is to love and to pray unceasingly.
So Happy Birthday to all of us in the many overlapping circles of the Chaplains on the Way community: donors, volunteers, people experiencing homelessness in Waltham, those who have made it out, seminary students and staff! May we continue to be blessed with our connections to each other. May we strengthen and lift each other up. And may the grace of God’s love, surprise us and save us, just when we need it most. Amen
Rev. Rebecca Sheble-Hall
Executive Director & Chaplain