Reflections for the 2016 Annual Homeless Memorial
As a chaplain who has held too many funerals for our people this year, I am weary of coming here to mourn. I am weary of watching the death toll rise. Year after year as we gather here with the names of the dead on our lips, we toss roses and lilies into the swirling Cumberland and watch the flowers drift away. We listen to speeches that promise change and watch our city become a place where the poor and the stranger are cast out, where the un-housed are crushed beneath the wheels of progress and the cranes of luxury. And we watch the flowers drift away.
As I was reading over all the names, thinking about all the people I love on this list, several stood out to me. Jimbo, a musician who froze to death at his camp, was always doing everything he could to give back to others despite the demons he was battling. Tina, who was found in her apartment, was always cheering us on and raving about coming to protests with us. The last voicemail I got from Pontiac, who died of severe health issues, was about trying to get help for people who had just moved to town. And we watch the flowers drift away.
Sometimes, at night, the ghosts of my friends who have died on the streets visit me. They shake the slumber from my eyes and whisper of worlds past and worlds to come. Sometimes, I toss and turn, haunted by things they said or things I did or didn’t do. Sometimes, I can see their eyes looking into mine and I struggle to hold their gaze.
A few weeks ago, I woke early before the sun. Horace, a man on this list who was murdered just weeks before he moved into his own apartment, came to me. Some of his last words to me were, “Lindsey, get me out of here. I want to go home.” I want to go home, he whispered. Help me find a home. Help me get home. Home. It’s a constant cry from the streets, a constant longing. Home.
So I whispered back to Horace. I told him I would pray that he would find rest and home on the other side. I told him I carry him with me—that every day we labor for affordable housing and fight for a better world, a better Nashville, that his spirit and our memories of him would fuel our struggle.
The dead are not gone. They are as present to us as our own breath. They surround us and guide us. What will we do with their memory? What will we do with what they’ve taught us?
This year, as we watch the flowers drift away, as we let go of what we need to let go of, let us also hold tight, dig in, and find our breath. Let us breathe in our losses and breathe out hope. Let us breathe in our grief and breathe out a fierce commitment and love for one another. Let us breathe in the ashes of a broken system and breathe out a city that scatters the proud, lifts up the lowly, and fills the hungry with good things. The dead are not gone and death does not have the final say. Listen. Breathe. What will we do with their memory?
*87 people from Nashville’s homeless community died this year.