This article is part of Mennonite Church USA’s Cost of Poverty: Learn, Pray, Join initiative.
Danilo Sanchez lives with his family in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He is a co-pastor at Ripple church, the housing director at Ripple Community Inc and is part of Mosaic Conference staff. He enjoys youth formation, intercultural work and seeking justice in his community. Danilo graduated from Eastern University in 2010 and received his M.Div. from Eastern Mennonite Seminary in 2013. In his free time, Danilo enjoys outdoor adventures with his family and dog, playing guitar, and playing soccer.
I first met Wendy in the spring of 2018. She burst through our community center doors like a ball of fire, looking for a woman from the homeless camp. Yelling in Spanish, she said, “Where’s that woman spreading lies about me?!” I quickly interjected and asked Wendy to step outside and cool down. She stopped by the community center several more times in the following weeks and seemed to stir up trouble. Wendy had strong opinions that would often lead into arguments with others at the center. I didn’t get along with her well when we first met, but urban life is fairly transient, so I reassured myself that she wouldn’t be around for long.
To my surprise, Wendy stuck around. At the community center, you could always find her drinking Cafe Bustelo, playing Spades or crocheting. One Sunday, she came into church with one of her projects. “Pastor, look what I made!” It was a red and white banner with the word “Ripple” — the name of the church— in the middle of it. It was simple but a work of love. I put it on the worship table in the front of the room, and Wendy made sure to point it out to everyone who came to service that day. It was around this time that my relationship with Wendy began to grow. Despite her loud and opinionated personality, there was something about her that made me want to be Wendy’s friend. At Bible study, I learned more about her life and beliefs. Having grown up Catholic, Anabaptist values were so interesting, new and, at times, jarring to her. Wendy had unlimited questions, especially about the Holy Spirit.
She would often like to say how much we were teaching and changing her, but if I’m honest she was changing me.
Wendy had diabetes and liver disease, and being homeless did not help her health. In October 2019, she had to go to the hospital because her liver was worsening. Wendy asked me to go into her campsite and get her belongings. I ventured into the woods and found the small, two-person tent that she lived in. There were bags of clothes, shoes, jewelry and different keepsakes scattered about in her tent. I wondered how many people in her life had ever come into her tent. During my visits with her in the hospital, we talked about her life, her recent time in jail, family trauma and conflict, and drug addiction. I would offer different Scriptures to encourage and guide her, but most of the time, I would just listen. “Pastor, I’m not perfect, but being part of Ripples is making me a better person.” I smiled and nodded my head in agreement.
After a month of being in the hospital from complications from her surgeries, it was time for her to come home. The pastors didn’t want her to go back in the woods while still doing dialysis treatments, so we arranged for her to stay at a friend’s place, while we found a more permanent solution. Wendy received $770 in Social Security income each month, which was just enough to get a decent one-bedroom apartment but left no money for anything else. It took us two months to find a landlord who was willing to rent to her. I was in a meeting when I got her voicemail: “Pastor, it’s Wendy. I found a place. I need to pay $550 today, and the place is mine, but it needs to happen today. Their office closes at 5. Call me back ASAP. Ah, I’m so excited!”
For the next 3 months, I would pick her up every other Wednesday and take her to dialysis. Her body would be so sore that it was hard for her to get in and out of the car. One day, when I was dropping her off, she said, “Pastor I can’t do this anymore. My body hurts so bad. I just want the pain to end. I wish I could just get some crack and numb the pain, but I know that would kill me with all my medication, and I don’t believe in suicide.” I placed my hand on Wendy’s shoulder and prayed for her, asking God to heal her body and comfort her. Even with all her pain, she made an effort to come to Bible study, but she would end up snoring on the couch, which felt like holy work.
The day I got the news that Wendy died from health problems, I wept. Her life story — the joys, the struggles, the dreams — was cut short. It was hard to believe that the woman who first annoyed me, and had now become such a part of my life, was gone.
Wendy’s story is just one of many about people who live in my community, but her life illustrates the complex, chaotic, traumatic nature of poverty. At Ripple, rather than judge or treat people like charity, we practice the presence-ministry of Jesus. We sit and eat together; we share our lives and faith; and we carry each other’s burdens. In doing so, we are all changed.
Our church has worked for racial justice, affordable housing and equal schooling in our city, because the good news of Jesus isn’t good news if it doesn’t address the basic needs of the community.
As we live and worship with the poor in our communities, may we be changed by their stories, practice compassion and be faithful witnesses to God’s good news.
Mennonite Church USA encourages you and your congregation to participate in the Cost of Poverty: Learn, Pray, Join initiative as one way to learn more about the topic of poverty from theological and practical perspectives, as well as learn how to get involved.
Find upcoming webinars and ways to get involved at mennoniteusa.org/ministry/peacebuilding/learn-pray-join/cost-of-poverty/.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.