The phone rang at 5:00 am yesterday. I’m often up at that time, but not since it’s been getting lighter later. I was still in a midnight haze. It was Alarmwatch. The alarm went off at the church. Since I get the call about once a week, it was enough to get me out of bed, but not enough for me to get my clothes on and go to work.
When I did get to Western, I found out the alarm was for real. Someone climbed down into the stairwell outside of the church and broke through the double-pained plexiglass window that looks into our multi-purpose room. They took a huge tank of gasoline, poured it into opening, and lit a match.
Thank God, the sprinklers kicked in, the fire didn’t last long, and it was contained to a wall of the room. If it weren’t for the sprinklers, the fire department said it would have been massive. By the time I got in, John Wimberly, the HOS, had been there for hours. He and a few homeless clients cleaned up the water and damage.
It was heart-breaking to see. I mean, I’m certainly thankful because it could have been much, much worse. But still…. When I walked down, that nauseating smell of smoke lingered in the air. The window glistened where it had been broken as the light got caught in all the jagged edges. The grey floor had a gasoline stain that looked like the shadow of a ghost. The ceiling tiles were curled charcoal. The wall was black, except the bulletin board and the giant menu stood empty.
The reporters who came quickly labeled it a hate crime. The space where the fire took place is where Miriam’s Kitchen feeds 250 homeless people each weekday morning. It’s also the place where about 200 Muslims students gather to pray on Friday afternoon. And it’s the place where an Ethiopian Church gathers for services in the city. It’s a busy room. And I guess with the Muslim students gathering, they wanted to link the incident with recent hate crimes at GW.
John quickly tamped out that fire. He told them that we don’t know the motivation. He’s right. I mean, we serve 250 people each morning, most are chronically homeless, and many are mentally ill. Many have a chemical dependence, and all are frustrated. We have good security and very few incidents. But it can be difficult for the social workers and counselors who work every day.
We’re always having healthy conversations at the church, balancing between hospitality and security. Over the hearth, we have that Scripture from Hebrews etched in stone: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” I walk by it several times a day. Meditate on it.
My relationship with the homeless is meeting with them and praying with them. I teach art at another homeless shelter in town. I don’t have the same kind of contact that the social workers do, so I lean more on the hospitable side, while they understandably worry about safety.
The posted menu may have been empty, but the real food was served. Thanks to the homeless men,the amazing volunteers, and Miriam’s efficient staff, everything was cleaned up, cooked, and ready to go by the time the clients arrived.
photo’s by Mrs. Maze