Nine empty tents, each illuminated from within by a flashlight, stood on the steps of Market Square in downtown Fredericksburg.
Each tent represented one homeless person who died in 2018.
On Friday night—the winter solstice, which has the shortest day and the longest night of the year—members of the Fredericksburg community gathered to pay their respects to these individuals.
Each one had at some point suffered the “profound, catastrophic loss of relationships” that leads to homelessness, said Meghann Cotter, executive director of Micah Ecumenical Ministries, which has sponsored the annual memorial service on and off since 2008 and continually since 2016.
But they were still part of the community, with friends and neighbors to mourn their passing.
“These are my friends that we are remembering,” Cotter said.
Candles had been lit along the steps of Market Square and fires were burning in two trashcans, in an acknowledgement of what it takes to stay warm when one is living outside in the winter.
Reverend Joe Hensley, rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church, spoke at the beginning of the service.
“While the rest of the world is running around, we’re going to slow down,” he said. “We’re gathering to grieve those who died and also the fact that we’re still learning the hard lessons of how to live and love together.”
Cotter said the average lifespan of someone who has experienced homelessness is only 50 years, compared to 78 years for the rest of the population.
“Homelessness literally takes years off someone’s life,” she said.
Most of the nine people remembered Friday night were between 50 and 70 years old when they died. Some found stable housing by the end of their lives and some did not.
“No matter what our financial circumstances or the breadth of our achievements, we all come into and leave this world the same way,” Cotter said.
She had a few words of remembrance for each of the nine. Ed Boone was “a stubborn old fella who lived outside until he started losing his toes,” and who loved to sit on his front porch and carve intricate designs in wooden canes.
Linda Blystone’s infrequent laugh was contagious to those who were lucky enough to hear it.
David Forest was an Army veteran and “gentle spirit” whose long white beard and round belly earned him the nickname “Santa” when he was living in Micah’s Respite Center following surgery.
After Forest was placed in housing, he returned to the Respite Center as a volunteer, Cotter said.
John Pumphrey was nicknamed “Happy” and could be seen flying around town on his bike. Michael Medley treasured a complete collection of Snowbaby figurines that had belonged to his mother and “always asked how you were doing, no matter how bad things were going for him.”
Steve Malicki worried constantly about the younger homeless population.
“These young ones gotta have somebody to show them how to survive,” he told Cotter when she visited him in the nursing home.
Calvin Thomas “collected friends and family wherever he went” and William Wobbe was a champion boxer who spent his last penny traveling around the world with his wife of more than 60 years after she was diagnosed with cancer.
And Norris Wright was a sweet man who Micah staff wish they had time to get to know better.
“We know there is a problem in the middle of these stories,” Cotter said. “What would it be like if we showed up in the middle of these stories, instead of at the end, and offered a relationship or participation?”
At the end of the service, Cotter challenged attendees to find some way to reach out to the homeless population in the coming year—whether by saying “hello” and making eye contact, visiting someone in the hospital or in jail, covering someone’s end-of-life costs, or eating regularly at the Micah Café, where community leaders and people who slept outside the previous night are both welcome.