He wandered the aisles of the furniture warehouse, carefully assessing the items being offered for his new home.
After almost two hours, all we had convinced him to accept was a small bedside radio, from which he hoped to find the soulful ballads of “Free Bird,” “Stairway to Heaven” and other classics. For all he cared, it was an entertainment upgrade—high definition compared to the natural sounds of the wilderness where he had slept for the last 10 years.
Life as a homeless man had left him quite the minimalist. He simply could not imagine what it would mean to replace a sleeping bag with mattress and box spring, trade his backpack for a dresser and swap a tent-side log for a kitchen table and chairs. The process of going home, in his case, would be as frightening and shocking to the system as the rest of us might experience if we suddenly and catastrophically found ourselves trying to settle in a tent in the woods.
Countless times in our work, we have heard members of the Micah community express confidence that keys to an apartment will fix everything, only to find themselves overwhelmed by long-forgotten responsibilities and new problems that arise from having a place of their own.
Isn’t that simply the American way?
That fancy car will send a clear status symbol, but it burdens us with insurance premiums, gas mileage and lack of practicality.
That new outfit will turn heads at the big event we are attending, but its expense keeps it hanging in a closet, reducing the wear, tear and dry clean obligations.
That house in a particular neighborhood will connect us to the social circles we desire, but it’s a pain in the you-know-what to clean.
Time and again, the things acquired and the status achieved just increases our territory without bringing us any closer to the prosperity we have imagined.
In Jeremiah 29, the prophet addresses such a people who have left everything behind and journeyed more than 900 miles to pursue the promises of God. While Jeremiah assures the Israelites that circumstances in Babylon are better than the war-torn country from which they fled, they are now in a land whose language, food and customs they neither know nor desire to learn. As they would come to realize, their time in exile would last so long that adults of that generation would not live long enough that they themselves would ever return to the homeland.
Unknowingly, the pursuit of safety and security had made them strangers who were not simply escaping from a situation, but adjusting to a new one that they did not even begin to understand.
In this unknown, however, Jeremiah calls the exiles to a more hopeful narrative.
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce,” he says in Jeremiah 29:4-7. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you in exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
Exile of the Israelites to Babylon was not failure on God’s part to deliver promises to his chosen people. It was simply acknowledgement that in everything new there is a re-homing process—a reconnection and reimagining of how the next chapter is informed by the past and the present will contribute to a more prosperous future.
It is in this place that we often find solace for the neighbors we are moving off the street. Finding housing then collecting furniture and household items to fill it is one thing, but it doesn’t quite have the same impact outside of a re-homing process.
There is a trauma to living so long with so little in the shadows of a society that defines itself on ownership and belongings. To overcome that is a process of reconnecting to their roots and considering how even the momentary glimpses of things once important might inform a future of possibilities.
We all have these stories filed somewhere in our warmest memories of safety, stability and home. Remembering the objects and heirlooms situated within these stories can be foundational as those who have lost all hope seek to convince themselves that their life can be full of possibilities once again.
For me, it is the memory of weekend trip to my grandmother’s house. It smells like homemade fried chicken on her stovetop and tastes like tomatoes from her garden that have spent the afternoon ripening on her windowsill. It looks like puzzle pieces all over her patio table on a long Saturday afternoon and feels like the rise and fall of her breath on a creaky old sofa bed where I would curl up next to her and fall asleep.
It sounds like the songs of my great aunts, uncles and second cousins, when they would gather around the kitchen table to commemorate the tunes from our Irish ancestry. It would be that same kitchen table that we would celebrate weddings, holidays and key life events. It would also hold our tissues and carry our sorrows as the membership grew smaller in each of their passing.
We hear of similar connections from our neighbors in need these days, as they browse the variation of donated items available within in our furniture bank.
“My grandmother used to have an old rocking chair like this.”
“I once had a bed just like this when I was a little girl.”
“When my life was (fill in the blank), these are exactly the kinds of things I would have bought.”
It is those stories that have aided our passionate about the process of helping people off the street. The choices, the quality, the character of the item and the time to make their house a home all matters when committed to a re-homing experience, not just helping someone overcome their circumstances.
When a person can unlock the door to their apartment that first time and know they have a bed to sleep in, a dresser to store their things and a table to make new memories, home is not just a figment of their imagination and something they once experienced.
They have arrived.
And in its welfare they will find their welfare as well.