The following reflection was written by Matt Bailey in late 2011 near the beginning of our work in a particular apartment community downtown. We ran this in our newsletter in August 2012, so you may have read this two years ago. But, since the tenants have recently had quite a set of victories and we’ve been able to join them in organizing and celebrating, we thought we’d run the story again as a way to reminisce, celebrate, and understand that the stories we tell are not finished.
During the spring of 2009, leaders of Grace and Main were feeling a call to spend more time with the individuals Jesus identified with, those who are neglected by respectable society. That is to say, with the poor, the homeless, prostitutes, and drug addicts. So, we went where they were. We began simply to walk the streets and alleys of downtown Danville—streets that are lined with abandoned buildings and derelict houses; littered with trash and overgrown with weeds. Streets abandoned by many and desperate for grace and mercy. We heard stories of abuse and addiction, of job loss and poverty, of homelessness and hopelessness, of hunger and pain. We were privileged to join the storyteller in their story for just a little while. We learned to listen.
On one occasion, I happened to be walking around downtown alone, carrying sandwiches and snacks for our homeless, near-homeless, and poor brothers and sisters. I turned down Lyndon Ave. to where I thought my friend Andy lived. I came upon a large stucco apartment building whose faded paint and neglected courtyard were more than a little ominous. I was planning on going up to Andy’s apartment, but I couldn’t remember which one was his, so I decided to ask one of the group of guys hanging around the courtyard. As I walked up, the men stared at me suspiciously. I felt uneasy, but it was a feeling that I had become accustomed to ignoring. But, this time the feeling was stronger, and so at the last minute I turned and continued down the street—in the opposite direction I needed to go to get back to my car.
I was pretty new to the downtown area and so I didn’t know many of the back streets yet. I was stuck; I had to walk back by the building no matter how much I wanted to avoid it. As I approached the stucco building for the second time, the same tense uneasiness came over me again. Only this time, the fellows standing in the courtyard started walking en masse toward me. I kept my head down, stared at the pavement, and prayed for protection. They came out to the sidewalk in front of the courtyard and lined up shoulder-to-shoulder, glaring at me. I didn’t dare look in their direction. Heart pounding and scared silly, I continued on to Main Street and made it safely to my car. I didn’t know whether the men standing in front of the stucco building meant me harm or were just hanging out, but nevertheless, I vowed never to return to that building or street again.
However, God had other plans. During one of our walks downtown, Steve (another Grace and Main member) and I began talking about Mother Teresa. We were reflecting on her words: “There are Calcuttas everywhere. You just have to have eyes to see.” Steve pondered aloud, “I wonder where a Calcutta in Danville would be?” As soon as the words came out of his mouth, we looked at each other knowingly. And knowing that we were both thinking of Lyndon Avenue and the stucco apartment building, I said, “No!” But there was a soft, loving peace I felt as we walked on in silence. Months went by, and we continued sharing lunch with our friends downtown. I continued to be careful to avoid Lyndon Avenue. We made friends with people we met at the library, on Main Street, and in the park on Green Street. They began coming to Grace and Main’s Thursday night community meals, and we began spending more time with them, sharing lunch, going to the library, taking walks downtown, and simply getting to know one another better.
Then one day, our friend Tyler invited us over to hang out. When asked where he lived, he replied, “Do you know the stucco building on Lyndon?” My heart began racing. “Yep, I know the place,” I answered, remembering my first encounter on that street, at that building. Steve and I glanced at each other. “Let’s go then,” Tyler said joyfully. We walked and talked with Tyler about how long he had lived there (several years) and who else lived there. He began mentioning names of many of our friends we had met downtown: Coco, Darius, Eli, and David. I couldn’t believe it! God had been forming a connection between Grace and Main and our brothers and sisters at the stucco building without our knowledge. Even as I planted my feet and said “no,” God was planning for my eventual “yes.”
We continued on, and when we arrived at the stucco building, I was nervous but still very much in awe of the Lord’s fingerprints all over this “coincidental” connection. My fears were immediately dispelled by the welcoming smiles and cheerful greetings we received from the friends we knew and the ones we had yet to meet. Once again, I felt the soft, loving peace I had felt the day Steve and I remembered the wisdom and words of Mother Teresa.
The word “Calcutta” may bring images of filth, despair, poverty, and hopelessness to mind. But I think what Mother Teresa found in Calcutta was that appearances are deceiving. Calcuttas aren’t places of hopelessness; they are places that are filled with hope, love, and beauty. But they are neglected and under-nurtured. They are the abandoned places of our world. And that is exactly what we found on Lyndon Avenue: a community of beautiful people who are hope-filled and love-filled—people who continue to show us daily that Jesus is there with them, He has been all along, and He will be always.
And so we continue to spend time together, reminding each other of Jesus’ love and presence within each of us by sharing lunch, planting flowers, and sharing stories. And Jesus continues to remove the scales from my eyes to see, not the Calcutta the world sees, but what He sees—a place of hope, beauty, and love in the stucco building, a beautiful little Calcutta in downtown Danville, Va.