On Sabbath Rest and What God Wants For Us
by Mary Ellen Mitchell

I often look to the Old Testament to imagine what God was designing for humanity, albeit re-told through the eyes and minds of humans. If we look to the Garden of Eden, theoretically the best version of life God could offer, we lived outside unencumbered, were provided for daily, and were friends with the Creator. From here, we fell, out of a desire to know more, to have more agency, to taste of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. We were then consigned to wearing clothes and working and suffering and knowing conflict. “You want to know about the awful details, Ok!” said an already weary deity.

I have no trouble imagining that the world we have is the not the world God wanted for us. I think that’s the quintessential message of the Garden of Eden. It didn’t have to be this hard. It didn’t have to be this fraught. As I prepare to leave Lydia’s House for 5 months this fall, I’m struck by the ways the world is much harder than it has to be. I’ve limited myself, in media, to the Christian Science Monitor and the Atlantic, though perhaps should go further, as I wade through random gun violence, climate change, Ukrainian destruction, insurrection of our Capitol and the conservative swing of the Supreme Court.

Over the past months, I’ve been doing a “deep dive” into abortion with our guests, asking them how we might support them to see their pregnancies to term, plan pregnancies that work for them, and build a support system before (or after) conceiving children. This comes on the tail of ten years of the work of Lydia’s House: buying and renovating property after property to house single moms, attending many, many meetings about family homelessness and housing shortage, moving families in, celebrating victories, grieving losses, calling child protection services, reading hundreds of articles about anti-racism, redlining, marriage outcomes, mental health and shrinking real wages. There was no way for me and Meridith to do the work of Lydia’s House and see the suffering of families living in cars and not ask “Why, Why, Why?!” A changing landscape around reproductive rights may be new and interesting for much of America; the fallout of an America that doesn’t support mothers and children has been our daily landscape for a while.

This journey has left me exhausted. Not more exhausted than the families we serve, but exhausted none the less. It was coupled with my own personal journey of bearing and rearing 3 children (ages 2, 6 months, and not conceived when we started; ages 12, 10, and 6 today), renovating and managing our own properties as a couple, the inevitable hardships of broken bones and child tantrums and school changes and friend changes, conflicts and disappointment with extended family, city officials and each other, and (of course) the pandemic.

I take some solace in knowing that I, personally, didn’t make the choice to know how broken the world could be; that decision, also known as original sin, came with my birth, with all of our births. Theoretically some people in a garden long ago made the choice; we just live with it. Once born into a broken world, one can go full force into it or hide from it, waiting for heaven. The church I was raised in tended towards the cloister and wait for heaven mode; my adult choice, obviously, has been to go all in. I think it’s a choice that God endorses, as He/She lays out rhythms for work and rest for the early Israelites. Six days you shall labor; on the seventh day rest. Labor was taken seriously; back breaking farm work happened for six full days a week, but so rest too was serious, the blessed seventh day. Among orthodox Jews, some will not turn on a light switch on the Sabbath! Not only was a sabbath offered every 7th day, but in Leviticus God asks the Jews to leave their land to rest on the 7th year and to take a full year off and redistribute the land back to its original owners on the 49th year, the year of jubilee. I’ve tried to take rest well over the decade, as any that follow my vacation plans can attest, but weeks off typically fail to turn my ever ruminating brain off. So I will be taking a sabbatical starting August 1. It’s not quite a 7 year on: 1 year off ratio but perhaps 5 months off matches more of a growing cycle rest;  regardless it’s what we can offer our staff, and more than Meridith was able to take.

For the month of August, our family will head west with our camper, stopping to visit friends in St. Louis, Bloomington, and Wichita, and my 92 year old grandma at her Dairy Freeze in Arkansas. We’ll also camp in Western Arkansas, visit the Crystal Bridges Art Museum and Bentonville bike trails, and spend a week in Rocky Mountain National Park. God willing, we’ll lose the Wi-Fi signal or our phones completely. Following this journey, for four months I will be in New Mexico as an “alumni in residence” at my former high school, the United World College of the American West. This job will entail some helping with student community service, living on campus and getting to know the international crew of kids and teachers that populates this lovely place, and offering occasional teaching on social justice to 16 and 17 year olds who are hungry to make a difference. For the first part we’ll be together as a family of 5; for the New Mexico residence I’ll have Annie and Jacob with me. Sam is staying back in Norwood with Ben to continue school at Good Shepherd Montessori and participate in his first love, sports. Ben will keep working on developing affordable housing in Over the Rhine. Ben needs a full sabbatical too (!) but I was unable to convince him to take more than a month as he has projects under construction.

As I go, I ask for your prayers and for your work. The hardship of holding the brokenness requires that we all alternate in to the mess, holding it in different ways. While I’m away I have no doubt that many of you will continue to attend council meetings, build housing, and host the homeless. You’ll read the articles, call your congress people, and deliver meals to shelters, including ours. That’s the only way this gets better. And of course, you’ll pray, for an end to family homelessness, for a world that cares not in the abstract but on the ground and in person. Pray that I rest well, able to come back and do this at this pace until the 49th year, when I’ll take a full year off (?) and I’ll too hold the work of accompanying homeless families in my prayers, even as I step away from the day to day of our Norwood neighborhood and Lydia’s House.

Thank you to all who make this break possible. I’m grateful.

For logistics purposes, Meridith and Ebony will be taking over most of my job. If you have questions that you might have directed at me, send those to ebony@stlydiashouse.org. I will likely check my work email occasionally, but am hoping to do that rarely and respond only to vital needs.