The following is the speech Mary Ellen and Meridith gave
at our Feast of St. Lydia Event, January 26th 2014
A year ago we stood before you in a room very similar to this one and told you that we believed that women and children should have a decent place to live. We shared with you that, more than a decade ago, we met as volunteers at a Catholic Worker House in Atlanta and had our eyes opened to a new way of sharing life with those in deep need, and that we’ve never been able to shake that experience. And we humbly asked you if you might give us some money so we could open a house like that one in Atlanta, but in our neighborhood here; a house where poor women and children would find a refuge, and where you and I would be changed as well.
As a result of that night we raised $17,000, which we combined with the funds we’d long been saving to make an offer on a large single family home in Norwood. We made that offer and signed with the owner on February 13, 2013, still $3000.00 short of our agreed-upon purchase price of $40,000. The next day, an anonymous donor sent us a $20,000 cashier’s check, and we danced in the cold streets of Norwood as we stared at the zeros in disbelief. And perhaps one could say the rest was history. But it would be fairer to say the rest has been a story of work and prayer, of trusting in the Holy Spirit, and of asking you again and again for help.
When we looked back at the year that was for Lydia’s House, the most apt Biblical metaphor we could think of was that of the Mustard Seed. The entirety of the substance of Lydia’s House was so small this time last year, more of a tiny seed than a plant of much bearing. But like the biblical shrub, somehow this dream has grown into a beautiful creation, complete with six rooms in which those with no home will find one.
To draw you into our story a bit more, we’d like to show you a video of Lydia’s House, starting with initial photos and leading up to the present
The miracles of the last twelve months are many, but perhaps the most noteworthy is that we’ve not only brought a house from near ruin to almost beauty; we’ve created a community that will hold this house and the sacred lives within. We’ve turned out twenty plus people to the city of Norwood zoning meeting for what one member told us was “ the most well-organized and convincing appeal for a variance he’d ever seen.” And we were granted the variance to let us legally do group housing on a residential street, unanimously. And then the zoning board member that complimented us sent us a check. No kidding.
This year has seen a renovation, indeed, but as important are those that renovated. There’s a crew of folks that we refer to as the “Master renovators” who’ve come again and again, nearly every Saturday, to pull weeds or paint, to tear down and to build up. If you’re part of that crew we’d like to give you a round of applause. These people hold a sacred place in the Lydia’s House story: their blood is on nails pulled out, their sweat on paint and plaster.
This year, this tired year, has been home to umpteen fundraisers, hosted by us and hosted by many others, where by some mustard seed miracle we’ve raised over $200,000. Our early notes seem almost sweet, with handwritten scribbles that read “$30,000 raised” followed by lists of possible sources of the rest of the funds. Many of those sources never panned out, but instead each week we would find ourselves looking at checks received in the mail and asking each other “Do you know Mary Smith in Portland, Oregon? She sent us $2000.” And then exclaiming “I wonder how she ever heard of Lydia’s House.”
This has been a year of filled dumpsters, of wet work days, of cheering for indoor plumbing when it finally arrived. It has been a year of sleepless nights, of fretting, of planning and scrapping plans, of one word prayers like “help” and “wow”. There were Saturdays of hosting college students all day followed by speaking engagements at night, followed by appeals at churches all day Sunday. And there were many declarations of “never again.” This was a year when our family grew, when Annie might be with Meridith and Sam with Rick, so that Jill Stoxen could pick up lunch and Ben run to Lowe’s while I finished the final draft of the newsletter. Meanwhile Jane heads out to buy the bowls we needed for the soup.
This was a year of mishaps and cutting it close. I’ll not soon forget wandering Xavier’s campus, trying to appear as sane as possible while pleading with random able-bodied students to get in my car and help me pick up a refrigerator in Covington. Our skepticism of the post office still remains after we received a batch of mail including checks three months late. We huddled in the garage as a surprise wind storm lofted our tents to total destruction at the family carnival. We horrified the entire Bellarmine congregation when baby Sam extinguished an altar candle with his bare hand during a presentation (he was fine, though startled by the resulting commotion). We accidentally gate crashed a gated community to pick up a donated Christmas tree. There was a lot of learning, combined with a lot of making due, with a good number of panicked phone calls/pleas for help thrown in.
Even with all the misadventures there has never been a moment when Lydia’s House seemed anything but guided by God’s hand. From the beginning this ministry has felt less like a start-up and more like tapping into a movement that was already in progress, more like being caught up in a current than painstakingly digging a well. Look at the speed with which the pieces have come together. Look at the faces around these tables, many people we did not know before we started this work. Even the size of this gathering reflects a power larger than ourselves at work, in that we outgrew our initial space with our very first celebration. If that’s not mustard seed action at work I don’t know what is.
During Advent I read the following reflection by Rev. Scott Gunn. It caused me to think about what all of us are endeavoring to do together with Lydia’s House:
We are not, nor were we ever, called to maintain the world, to keep it treading water. We were not given talents that we might bury them and bring nothing forth. We were given the gift of God’s love, the fire that doesn’t consume but inspires, so that what was thought a mustard seed might grow beyond imagining: that out of the parched earth might grow the Kingdom of God. In this abundance, with this promise, why would we simply hold on to what we have, instead of going forth into the world armed only with faith to watch God work with it wonders?
Growth beyond imagining. That’s a good description of the year that was for Lydia’s House. Now we have a space, a beautiful home that you should all make time to come out to see if you haven’t yet. We have a deep, varied community of supporters who holds this ministry with prayer and with deeds.
As we stand here tonight we are so much further along than we were at this gathering in 2013 but in another way we are in the same place. Last year we believed we had half of what we needed in hand to buy our future home, and we asked you for the other half. And tonight, after we count all that is left from the renovation and all that was received year end, we have $40,000, half of what we need to operate for 2014.
Our vision for the year is the number 40. We’re hoping that we can have forty individuals or groups that will sign on to give $1,000 this first year of hospitality. Forty donors at the $1,000 level would see that the needs of the house were abundantly met. With forty additional backers signed on we could do the work of the house without worrying about how the light bill will be paid or how we’ll put gas in the van.
$1,000 annually translates to about $84 a month. This is not negligible, we understand, especially as we reach out to many that have already given. There are people in this room who adopted rooms, gave again and again, or sent very generous donations year end, and we are grateful. Thank you. We gather tonight both to celebrate that generosity and to share that we have a ways to go. If you are able, please consider this level of giving, and if you aren’t think perhaps about partnering with friends, faith communities or families to make it to that goal. We aren’t asking you necessarily to give $1000 tonight, but to commit to coming up with it in some way during the course of 2014—be that hosting a fundraiser, appealing to your church, or selling all that stuff you’ve been meaning to sell on e bay. We have seen it done many times over this year, and we’ve been consistently gratified to see those who have set a fundraising goal make that goal time and time again.
We’re asking you to prayerfully consider some way to give us or pledge to us $1000 tonight. And we’re asking you to do that because we want to get to the work we’ve long been called to do: being with the families we will soon house. We have literally given all we have to fundraising for 12 months straight and, admittedly, we’re tired. If we can walk away from tonight with funds committed, we can take a break and put our energies to finishing the resident manual, meeting with other providers, and doing the hard work or preparing for the hard work of hosting homeless families. And when those families arrive, we can be more with them and their deep need, which I think is what we all hope for in this endeavor.
We’d also like to ask you to think about giving of time. As you may know Lydia’s house is completely volunteer led. On the pledge card we’re handing out there are many boxes to check for specific volunteer needs we have. If you find yourself thinking “I’ve got no money to give,” we understand, but please think about time, of gifts of meals, or other ways you might contribute. Chances are we could use whatever gift it is you have to offer.
All that said, somehow all that we need to serve these families will come, that much we know. If there’s anything we’ve learned this year, it’s that we’ll be provided for. It’s God’s story and our story and your story. This mustard seed miracle is the story of Lydia’s House, and we thank you sincerely for your role in it.