I remember once hearing a homeless person say, “If you aren’t remembered, it’s like you didn’t exist.”
That comment and others like it I’ve heard over the years underscore the importance of Minnesota’s annual Homeless Memorial Service, hosted by Simpson United Methodist Church. Each year hundreds gather to remember, mourn and celebrate those from the homeless community who are no longer with us.
This year’s service, which occurred last night, had a particular impact on me.
An outreach worker, Brian, began the memorial with what he hoped would become a new tradition. Yes, later in the service we would read the names of those who had passed. And some would eulogize specific people they knew. But Brian began by noting that there were likely many other homeless folks who died who we did not know, whose names would not be recorded, whose stories would not be told. In some way, we needed to remember them.
He lit a single candle, which burned throughout the service, to honor them.
As my friend Deb stepped up to the podium, I noticed how packed the church was. Mourners filled the pews. Four long lines of occupied folding chairs spanned the back of the sanctuary. Scores more of us stood along all the available space along back and side walls. In our shared silence, I felt the love and community that filled the sanctuary.
Deb talked to us about the grace and honor and justice. She didn’t speak for long. But she conveyed the importance of our work to end homelessness and why, until we reach that day, we need to do the equally important work of caring for one another.
As she left the podium, a guitar started playing softly as my friend, Jesse, and colleague, Susan, went up to the podium and took turns reading the names of the 147 people we did know who died while homeless this past year. Candles were lit for each of them. The youngest person died a two-year-old. The oldest few reached into their seventies. This year the average age of death was particularly low, 40 years old.
Near the end of the service people offer remembrances of their friends. This part always brings me an awkward joy. The eulogies are so vivid and heartfelt. You really feel how compassionate this community is.
For instance, last night one outreach worker got up and started in tears. But by the end of her comments she laughing at how fun and spirited her homeless friends were. Soon, all of us are laughing with her.
The memorial service ended with Simpson’s Executive Director Steve Horsfield offering a poignant reflection. He can’t wait until the annual memorial service memorializes homelessness itself, because all of our friends are housed.