Grace, Mercy, Love, Heartbreak, Change: Our First Year of Life Together
Mary Ellen Mitchell

It’s a Sunday night in Lent, and I walk into the Lydia’s House living room to hear Grace Marshall playing “The Wondrous Cross” on the guitar and all of the regulars singing along. Singing together tonight is followed by a reflection on the theme of the day: mercy. “What’s mercy?” asks our newest guest, watching her roving 11-month-old out of the corner of her eye. “Mercy,” I respond, “is when you don’t suffer the consequences of what you deserve. It’s the outcome of grace.” All around people are quick to chime in. One guest shares that mercy is what the police showed her when they down-graded her felony to a misdemeanor. She is earnest in her gratitude for this act, which will allow her to work. “Mercy,” says another, “is what Lydia’s House offered me when no one else would take me in. I called shelters in five counties, and literally they all said no.” “Mercy,” says someone else, “is what Rick offers me weekly, taking me to court and helping me try to move forward from the theft in my past.” “Mercy,” adds Meridith, “is what was showed to me all week when I skimped on my house chores.” We all laugh, mostly because Meridith does more work than the rest of us put together. And then Rachel continues our Lenten service by asking, “Can we offer a prayer of gratitude by naming one person that exemplifies mercy?” We go around and, mostly, we name each other.

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It’s hard to describe the first year of hosting at Lydia’s House, but the best metaphor I have is the first year of my daughter Annie’s life: sweet, impossible, exhausting, traumatizing, transformative, lovely… a blur. It’s something I would never give back and never ask to do again. It was a year marked by God’s grace and the generous extension of mercy.

By the numbers, we housed 10 women and three children for between 30 days and eight months. We saw two women give birth to their own daughters, went to the emergency room 10 times, hosted 51 Sunday dinners (typically with 14 or more around the table), bought 30 pounds of ground meat, got into one controversy that attracted national media, and, as a result, had one apartment building donated to us. We responded to 92 calls from women who were homeless and hoped to live with us, cheered for one six-month recovery anniversary and two 120-day employment celebrations. We grieved as one woman returned to a past abuser and two relapsed into long-held addictions.

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In June of last year, we welcomed Elizabeth Coyle as a core community member, and Rachel Kohl and Grace Marshall in a role that we’ve named “associates.” A year later we are preparing our hearts to say goodbye to Elizabeth as she steps away from this work to return to campus ministry. Although she found moments of deep joy and growth during her time here, she also struggled to prioritize self-care and balance in her life while living with guests who have often experienced so much trauma. With gratitude for her many friends at Lydia’s House, she has decided not to extend past her original one-year commitment. We are sad at the prospect of her leaving but grateful for what she gave us in 12 months: the faithful accompaniment of two guests through childbirth, long-suffering pastoral companionship to two guests with mental illness, patient volunteer coordination, the beautification of and name for the Jean Donovan House, impromptu guitar sing-alongs on the porch, dance parties, thrift store outings, emergency room overnights, spontaneous joy, neighborhood ballet classes, an unlimited supply of Fun Dip, readings by Rumi.

As of March, we learned that Rachel will also be leaving us in August to attend Loyola University of Chicago’s pastoral ministry program. From Rachel we’ve gleaned a steady and peaceful in-house presence, monthly e-newsletters, our first scrapbook, the hard and thankless work of managing pledges, a sweet love of the community’s children, and a heart that’s been open to, literally, whatever needs doing. We are thrilled for her and not-so-secretly disappointed for us. The world will be better as she continues to live into her vocation of ministry.

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As we look ahead, we realize that change will be a constant at Lydia’s House. The hard work that we do will necessarily mean that most volunteers will make a one-year commitment or less; guest stays are more typically 30-60 days rather than eight months. The reality of this is sometimes heartbreaking, but each woman that we get to know is a gift, even if we only know her for a brief time. The opening that each absence leaves is an opportunity for hope. This fall we’ll welcome new associates, and potentially a new core community member, Dr. Anne Housholder: dermatologist, theologian, expert baker, merit badge maker. She will live in the newly opened Jean Donovan House. We are also so grateful for the constants: our Norwood neighbors, the faithfulness of Vineyard Central Church, The Episcopal Diocese and Bellarmine Chapel, Rick Boydston every Sunday night (and any other time we need him), our board members, outside volunteers who come weekly, and meal angels that come monthly.

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This is our life, the life we’ve chosen, life together. As we celebrate its first birthday, we look to our liturgical traditions for a bit of guidance, saying wholeheartedly, “Lord Have Mercy.” Then we pause for a moment and conclude, “Thanks be to God.”

(Photos are from the one-year anniversary Cinco de Mayo party at Lydia’s House)