“Now Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” He replied, “My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice.” – Luke 8:19-21
In October, we met our friends in the woods. We had just formally launched Redemption Church of Bristol and we had heard rumors of a homeless community living in the woods of our older suburban community. So we gathered up a few people to go check it out. At first it was awkward. We didn’t know who they were, nor did they know us. Most of them were older than us, from different backgrounds, and after our encounter, stayed to live in the woods while we returned to our apartments and homes. There were obvious signs of alcoholism and mental illness, but also a community that deeply cared for each other.
At Redemption Church, we have always taught that the church is family. We are not just friends or even partners in ministry, but mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. We are called to this level of intimacy with one another in how we share our lives. But what to do with our homeless friends, especially as they started coming to church? Often they told incoherent stories. Sometimes they came a bit drunk. They are different than most of us who started Redemption Church. And families tend to look alike.
Kathy and Leo have been with each other for 15 years. While times have not always been good, they have stuck with each other through the rigors of homelessness. The first time I met them, their love was apparent. Leo showed me two toy frogs: a boy and a girl. One was missing a leg. The other, an arm. But they were obviously meant for each other. Leo told me, “That’s us.”
On February 27, 2010, Leo and Kathy were married. Lori and Rebekah offered dresses for the bride to wear and Lori and Susan prepared the bride for the big day. Butch, another of our homeless friends, was the best man. Matt played music with Susan who also filled in at the last minute as the Maid of Honor. Forrest read scripture and helped Josh usher. Kristen made the bouquet. Brian was the photographer. The chairs were filled with the various members of Redemption Church, the homeless community, and a group of college students who have also been working in the woods. Dorie prepared the reception, in which we feasted on cookies made by her mother, donuts delivered by Rebekah, and a cake donated by Cheryl. And I had the honor of officiating over the whole affair.
When it was all said and done, nearly 2/3 of our congregation participated in the wedding. Of course, this depends on where I draw the boundaries of our congregation. Is it really those who worship with us on Sunday nights? Or is it the homeless folks we meet with and pray with in the woods? Is it the college students who go to other churches, yet who we encounter in the woods in common mission? What about the church that let us use their building for free? Perhaps my congregation, my family, simply consists of those who hear the word of God and put it into practice.
The week after the wedding, we visited our friends in the woods. No longer were we outsiders awkwardly inquiring about their lives. No longer were we the givers of charity come to take pity on the poor. Butch saw us coming and casually said, “How’s it going?” We were now family. They are our brothers and sisters who just so happen to live in the woods.