Calling the Name — A Ministry of Presence

Yesterday morning we called the name of Whitney Jeffries as she was laid to rest at Hills of Calvary cemetery. Most of the time we know very little about those who we pray over as they are interred, but I knew Whitney.

Whitney was a regular at our Showers of Blessing program (our homeless services center) and showed up at the door many, many times over the years looking for help. Whitney was addicted to drugs, alcohol, and I’m sure other things, and those addictions made it difficult to find stability in her life. Whitney was tallish, lanky, blondish, and life on the streets had aged her well beyond her years. She had a variety of health problems, and every so often we would wander up to Kroger to get the prescription of the week. She was a troubled soul who was damaged by her addictions and the trauma of street life, but one with a good heart.

My last memory of Whitney is from the week before Advent. Like most churches, we were in the process of decorating the building for the season and Ronald our building guy had set up a tree in the lobby and left the decorations for our folks to use the following Sunday. This was on a Wednesday when Showers of Blessing was in full force and Whitney and a friend wandered through the lobby on the way to see a caseworker. When they saw the tree her eyes lit up and she asked to be allowed to decorate the tree. When I arrived a few minutes later, Whitney was smiling and her eyes were lit with joy as she engaged in something that surely brought back memories to an earlier time when addictions weren’t always on her back and when she woke up in a warm house rather than camped out in some field or behind a business. I think it may have been the only time I ever saw Whitney laugh.

Sometime after Christmas, another friend on the streets asked me if I had heard about Whitney. She has been in the hospital and was released with morphine to control the pain. That wasn’t enough, and she took something else on top of that, numbing the pain until she breathed no more. And, some 4-6 weeks later, after no family had claimed her, I stood beside a grave, wished peace and joy in the other world, and asked God to surround her in love and light.

The hard part for me is that we tried to help Whitney move to a new reality in this life. She was on the list to get into our Housing Navigation Center, but for various reasons, she kept getting bumped down the list as others were moved ahead of her. I can’t help but wonder if we had been able to get her a warm place to stay, a regular shower, and the presence of folks who cared for her and were trying to help her succeed if she might not be alive today.

The reality of the city I live in and have called home for over 50 years is that there are far too many Whitneys and not enough places or loving hearts to try and move them from street life into something else. There are not enough resources for the treatment of addiction and mental health issues. And, for all the lip service given in the press to the “problem” of homelessness, I fear we are far too willing to allow the Whitneys of our town to die on the streets rather than provide the help they need to find stability and joy.

Whitney, you were a mess . . . but a mess that was deeply loved by God. I call out your name today, knowing that your presence will be with me throughout the rest of my days until my own name is called.

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