Characters Welcome! That’s the banner that could have waved above every church I served during three decades of ministry. The evidence was clear on any given Sunday.
Musicians from local bars played in our praise bands. An ex-homeless woman with an intellectual disability was our weekly greeter, passing out bulletins. A woman found sleeping in our parking lot became a prominent member of our outreach ministry. Addicts, alcoholics, and the mentally ill discovered that the love of our congregations was a boon to their healing. A recluse who had served as a tunnel rat in Vietnam came out of hiding and made meaningful relationships in our midst. We embraced all colors, classes, and sexual identities of God’s children, a rainbow coalition!
Given my affinity for broken people, born of my personal struggles, I led our members to seek out the poorest in our streets. One place we found them was at dilapidated mobile home parks, pockets of American poverty in our “land of plenty.”
To this day, the faces of precious people I met there are vivid in my memory.
I remember Don and Linda. Don was a Vietnam veteran, suffering from the effects of Agent Orange and his long addiction to alcohol. He finally got sober and was living in a shabby Winnebago in Pomona, California, an inner-city community racked by gang violence. We met him while circulating flyers at his mobile home park. Someone lovingly offered to drive him to church, where he eventually joined our family.
One day, Don met Linda as she was panhandling outside a grocery store. He gave her what he had, then invited her to come to his trailer for a meal. Linda was intellectually disabled, a lost soul, and she ended up moving in with Don. Nothing sexual, just an unlikely companionship, and it was the only stability Linda had known for years. Eventually, as Don’s condition worsened and he was confined to a wheelchair, she became his gentle caregiver. Some would say theirs was a match made in heaven.
One Christmas Eve, our church included their trailer in the route for our offkey but joyous caroling tour. I’ll never forget the sight of Linda wheeling Don onto his flimsy, makeshift porch. In the glow from a single string of lights, I watched their tears of gratitude at our presence. A pit bull on a chain from the next trailer strained to get at us, its barking a crude counterpoint to our tunes.
I remember Jeff, a young man who dreamed of joining a rock band, yet whose marijuana and meth habits drained his meager income and frail health. His lived in a small trailer in the high desert outside Littlerock, California. It was papered with posters from his favorite 80s bands—Depeche Mode, The Cure, New Order—but also classics he had learned to love from his mother, especially The Beatles. Both of them attended our church.
On one of my visits, he asked if he could play Eleanor Rigby during worship. Of course! Backed by our praise band, he offered his gift on a Sunday just before Christmas, a haunting acoustic version that mesmerized us. When he sang Ah, look at all the lonely people it was an admonition to see those who are often invisible on the margins.
I remember a woman and her children living in a squalid trailer park in Alice, Texas. Our congregation was passing out food and toys, and when we knocked, the woman cautiously peered through a crack in the door. The odor of cooking grease and old diapers seeped around her. Were we the police? Immigration officers? In Spanish, we assured her that we were simply bearing gifts. Her children hovered behind her. I looked past them to see that the ancient trailer was sloping. Her youngest boy was seated on a ratty couch. A hole in the floor at his feet revealed mud and debris beneath him.
I can still see that boy’s face. I don’t EVER want him to disappear from my memory!
So, this is my Christmas shout out to all the lonely, struggling, hurting people in our communities who deserve more than FB memes or occasional hit-and-run charity. They long for loving company—the communion of saints—which is the greatest gift any of us can offer.
Have a blessed trailer park Christmas, y’all!