Rev. Tiffany Thomas of Charlotte had a dear friend who was homeless. Despite his struggles, he had his faith. He was the one who could probably use some reassurance, yet he would leave notes on Thomas's car almost every day, always signed, "God loves you and so do I."
On Wednesday, Rev. Thomas heard bad news about her friend and rushed to the police department. An officer confirmed: Her homeless friend had died Monday night or early Tuesday morning, in the cold on a bench in uptown Charlotte. His death had not made the news.
"I left the police station stricken with grief," Thomas says. "I left the police station mad as hell."
And she left the police station committed to doing something to help the invisible homeless who live in this wealthy city and fight against the bitter cold and try to snag a bed in overcrowded shelters.
Thomas is now opening her church, South Tryon Community Church, and providing cots to the homeless. She challenges other houses of worship to do the same, in this open letter to the community:
My name is Tiffany Thomas. I am the pastor of South Tryon Community Church, a United Methodist church that sits on the corner of South Tryon and Remount road. In this community, I have watched in horror as homeless persons lay down to sleep on benches, stoops and sidewalks up and down Tryon street. I have looked into the desperate eyes of so many who have told me that same story, "The shelters are full, there is no place to go." I have heard reports of people dying in the night, out in the elements- tragic tales whispered and lamented among this community where most are constantly endanger of losing their own places of rest and finding themselves in the same predicament.
"Am I next? Will it be me? Or my child? Will death find us in the street, where heat eludes us," so many have asked.
Last night, I went to the police department to find out what happened to a homeless man who is a member of my community, and dear friend of mine. He is a gentle soul, a Christian, he leaves an encouraging note on my car almost everyday, a scripture or a quote- every note is signed "God loves you and so do I." When my groundskeeper reported to me that my friend died on a bench in Uptown, Charlotte, I frantically sought help from the police station to find out what had become of him. The police officer could offer little help, "Yes," he said, "a homeless person has recently died.Yes, it was in uptown, Charlotte." "Yes, he died in the night, on a bench. That is all I can say."
"Why hasn't it made the news", I asked, tears of grief streaming down my face for the man who I may or may not know.
"Deaths of this sort rarely make the news," he replied.
Deaths of this sort. Deaths of the homeless sort. Deaths of the impoverished sort. Deaths of the voiceless sort. They die in secret in the middle of public squares. Their bodies hurriedly removed from Trade, from Tryon before the important sort, the wealthy sort, the high political clout sort are inconvenienced traveling from their warm homes to their warm corporate offices.
I left the police station stricken with grief.
I left the police station mad as hell.
The city of Charlotte is ill equipped to deal with the needs of our rising homeless population. It is time that we recognize and face what my constituents know all to well: The shelters are too small. Too many people are forced to brave the cold or to purposely get arrested as the jail house is the only emergency shelter in the entire city where one won't be turned away.
I am making a call to all communities of faith. It is time that we take seriously the needs of those with no place to sleep. It is time that we open our doors and exercise the gift of hospitality, an exercise that our God commands of us. At South Tryon Community Church we will be opening our doors and providing cots for people to stay over night when the weather drops below 20 degrees. I invite, I urge all communities of faith to likewise make the effort to provide emergency shelter to one, five, twenty-five homeless persons on the upcoming frigid winter nights.
For the Torah says " You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy, and to the poor in your Land" (Deuteronomy )
For Jesus says, "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me... when you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me’ (Matthew 25:35-36,40)
For Mohammad, peace be upon him, says, "And worship God alone... and do good unto the needy, and the neighbor from among your own people, and the neighbor who is a stranger, and the friend by your side, and the wayfarer." (An-Nisa' )
At South Tryon this is what we will do. Will you?