When I was a child, my mom was very active in a church community. As a result, my sister and I attended weekly Sunday School classes, participated in Vacation Bible School each summer, and stayed at sleep-away church camp when we were old enough to be gone from home for a few consecutive nights. We three ladies also sang in the church choir (my mom in the adult choir, my sister and I in the kids’ group), played hand bells in the instrumental choir, and participated in the Christmas play every year (many of which my mom organized). We also took part in additional opportunities that arose: everything from making and selling pretzel doves during Easter, to babysitting kids in the church nursery, to walking in the annual CROP fundraiser. While I don’t necessarily agree with all of the theology that I encountered during my childhood, I do have many positive and happy memories as a result of various church-related experiences from my youth.
When I went off to college, I dabbled in a variety of faith traditions. Upon graduation, I moved to Minneapolis – a city that offered me a promising job, but a location where I knew literally no one. Eager to make friends (or at least acquaintances), I quickly sought out groups to which I could belong. Christians are supposed to be accepting and loving people, so I located a church that felt like a decent fit, and became a member of their choir.
Following my mom’s example, I also participated in other opportunities and gatherings hosted by that church community. An event that particularly intrigued me was a monthly “peace walk”. I had never heard of such a thing before, and was curious about what a peace walk might entail. One evening I asked a fellow choir member if she knew anything about the peace walks, and she informed me that they were a time when members of the congregation met outside the sanctuary doors, then broke into pairs and literally walked the city streets surrounding the church with one another, silently praying for the well-being of all who lived in the area.
As a young, pretty, naïve white girl, I didn’t feel comfortable walking the urban (sometimes violent) streets after dark with another equally ill-equipped church member. I simply didn’t trust that our good intentions would mean much to a gang member should we all happen to cross paths. So I made the decision to pass on that opportunity, but to keep my eyes open for another chance to experience a “peace walk”, as I really was quite interested in the idea.
Fifteen years later, an opportunity to participate in such an event was delivered to my front door – literally. While reading the local community newspaper a few weeks ago, I scanned an article describing the area’s annual “Sleep Out” events. The Sleep Out is a fundraising campaign for a nearby nonprofit organization. Hundreds of Sleep Out events occur during the holiday season (this year the campaign runs November 9 through December 31), with the most visible endeavor being a physical display of homelessness: citizens trade their comfortable beds and warm houses for a sleeping bag and tent, and receive donations from sponsors for every night they are able to endure the winter air (and sleet, and snow, and whatever else Ma Nature decides to throw down). A big block party/educational gathering formally starts the campaign – and before the festivities begin, everyone in the area is invited to participate in a prayer walk to help set a proper intention for the two-month-long operation.
I’ve been a fan of the organization’s work for many years, but know myself well enough to know that me sleeping outdoors in frigid winter weather just ain’t gonna happen. But, I can definitely help support the efforts of the group (and of all the volunteers who support the organization) by walking through a local neighborhood and spreading thoughts and feelings of peace and love for families that might receive help from, or offer assistance to, the nonprofit group. Now that I am older (and at least a little bit wiser), I no longer have so many of the concerns that I did as a 20-something. That, and the area I live in is quite a bit safer than the inner city streets. (This isn’t a prejudiced comment, but simply a fact.) Anyway…
The afternoon of the kickoff event was cloudy and gray; by the time 5 pm came around, the sky was very dark. In addition to the somber atmosphere, the evening air was cold (37 degrees F) and incredibly windy. I bundled up in my long red coat, wool socks and hat, and heavy mittens – and hoped for the best.
I arrived at the non-profit’s main building at 4:50 pm – and only 10 other walkers were present. I suspected the turnout for this event wasn’t going to be massive, so I wasn’t surprised to see such a slim number of people. Still, given the popularity of sleep out events in this community, I was a little dispirited that more people weren’t present to begin the experience with a strong start. However. At 4:58 pm, a busload of students arrived. They quickly exited the huge vehicle and spilled out into the parking lot, chatty and animated, borderline hyper while simultaneously a wee bit aloof, in a wonderfully complex balance that only 12-15 year olds can muster.
The lobby of the nonprofit building quickly transformed into a quasi middle-school hallway, complete with all of the kidding, jostling, spats, and quick recoveries that students of their age rapidly cycle through. Once the last kid had entered the building, a young minister gave a shout out to everyone for coming, then led us all through a very brief (i.e., 20-second) prayer. Once we all said, “Amen!”, we headed outside to begin our journey.
When I signed up for this event, I envisioned myself walking silently with other similarly contemplative adults, internally praying for the well-being of all sentient beings in the area. Instead, I was surrounded by incredibly talkative adolescents whose last priority was prayer. Unable to escape stories of awful teachers and tales of unrequited romances, I turned my thoughts to the kids around me, and hoped that they all made it to college without driving their parents insane.
In truth, all of the teens I encountered during the hour-long walk were really good kids – they were just, well, adolescents. They were trapped in bodies surging with hormones and impulsiveness, dealing with minds filled with insecurities and over-compensations, and managing hearts that desperately want to be loved – and I can’t fault them for any of those things. Actually, I think most humans are intimately familiar with these frustrations and desires – it’s just that these kids haven’t yet learned how to integrate all of this inner “stuff” into a sense of self that won’t drive them (or others) crazy. I’m confident most of the kids I observed will get there – it will just take some time. This perspective helped me smile at the cocky kids, and pray for the scared ones. Anyway…
With the support of a formal police escort, our group of 100 (or more) people walked a quarter-mile to a local church, and entered a large lounge. I wasn’t expecting indoor “breaks” in the evening walk – but I will admit that I was happy to get some respite from the harsh wind. Once our group was fully inside the building, a female pastor turned on a microphone and said, “Good evening everyone! My name is Jane, and I’m thrilled to see all of you participating in this prayer walk!” Immediately, the group of kids unanimously responded, “Hi Jane!” I happened to be standing next to the young pastor, and he and I looked at each other with genuine surprise. No one had told these kids to reply to any greetings they might receive – they just collectively decided it would be a nice thing to do. Under his breath, the pastor chuckled and quietly said to me, “Wow – that just sounded like an AA meeting.” I stifled a laugh – that was exactly what I was thinking, too! Funny.
Jane then proceeded to tell the first part of a story about a client who had used a variety of services provided by the non-profit organization. At the end of the three-minute account, Jane asked each person in the room to take a slip of paper from a nearby table and write a brief prayer for the client we just heard about. Jane would then take all of our prayers and create a paper chain out of them, which would be displayed in the non-profit’s main lobby as a visible sign of community support for their work, as well as for all of the individuals who use their services. A very nice gesture.
After the majority of us finished our brief written prayer, the young pastor rallied the group, and we headed back outside. We met up once again with the patrol officers who cleared half of the street for us, and walked another quarter-mile, arriving at a gas station. One of the station’s service doors lifted, and we were instructed to head inside an open garage space for our next break/prayer mission. At this stop, a different youth pastor shared another part of the client story, then asked us all to engage in a few moments of silent prayer for the client and her family, as well as to ask for guidance on how each of us could be of service to others in the world. I was genuinely surprised when all 100 kids stopped their perpetual chatter, and allowed silence to enter the space. At that moment, my being filled with a sense of appreciation for what we were cultivating. In a dirty, greasy garage, a crowd of young individuals wearing all styles of crazy attire were letting go of their incessant focus on self, and were turning their attention towards supporting a faceless stranger through an earnest conversation with the god of their understanding. The beauty of the moment almost made me cry.
After sixty seconds of silence, the lead pastor once again marshaled the group, the police once again managed the street traffic, and we walkers journeyed another five minutes to our next stop, which was another church. This time we entered the sanctuary of the building, where a female pastor told the final part of the client story, then engaged the group in a lovely call-and-response prayer.
After a few seconds of reflective contemplation, the primary pastor/leader “lit a lamp” (i.e., flipped the switch on an LED storm lantern), signifying that the light of god was now shining brightly and was to lead us through the Sleep Out experience. With that, the young pastor led our group out of the church and back onto the street, where our police partners helped us walk back safely to the non-profit’s main building. We returned on-site at exactly 6 pm. Wow.
When we arrived, we found the parking lot transformed into a festive outdoor party area. A live band was playing at the far end of the space, food trucks lined the opposite end of the asphalt, and the middle of the lot was dotted with fire pits and space heaters for people to congregate around as they enjoyed food, music, and camaraderie. Additionally, a sole yellow tent was pitched on a small plot of grass, ready to house the first brave souls who were willing to begin the “sleeping outdoors” portion of the Sleep Out.
As our peace walk group descended onto the scene, kids began to disperse. Our formerly single large mass of humanity quickly broke into small clusters, and a party vibe quickly replaced the previously contemplative mood. Not really wanting to dine on food truck fare, I walked past the party lot and continued one block to my parked car. As I entered the silent space, I engaged in a few moments of reflection. Certainly this experience was not at all what I expected it to be; but as I considered the previous 60 minutes, I realized I was quite happy with the experience I received. Actually, no, let me make a correction: I was really happy with the experience I received. If “the children are our future,” then I feel that we are all in good hands.
Here’s to a successful Sleep Out – and I hope we won’t need this event for much longer.