Battling the Noonday Demon - Part 2 of 3
How I lost the will to write (with all my heart and mind), cont'd
This essay is Part 2 of a 3-part series. You can read Part 1 here.
Story #4: A long, exhausting journey.
I’ve now arrived at the story I still don’t know quite how to tell. It’s the longest, most complicated one of all of them and spans a period of six years. In this piece, though, I’ll limit myself to discussing the aspects of it that pertain to my struggle with acedia.
In 2015, my husband, Peter, and I were in a season of exploring what life might look like if we were willing to take Jesus' more difficult teachings in the gospels seriously and respond to whatever human needs God put in front of us. At the time, I was posting a lot on social media about matters of justice (biblical, racial, economic, restorative, etc). At some point, I became aware of the fact that for the most part, I was operating at a conceptual level. Peter and I started wondering together, As people with resources, what would it look like for us to truly live and give justly?
It was amid this wondering that we ended up befriending Mike and Linda, a couple who were living in an extended stay hotel. We learned that for tens of thousands of families across the Atlanta metroplex, extended stay hotels had become one of the few remaining affordable housing options available. But it was only one step up from homelessness. A single late weekly payment could mean a night or more on the streets or in a homeless shelter—the latter if they were lucky and there happened to be beds available when they needed them.1
Mike was the breadwinner, but he had a hard time finding regular employment because he had a decades-old felony conviction for which he had long completed jail time. Most employers automatically exclude applicants who have had a felony record, no matter how old it is.2 He depended on being able to go from one temporary job to another to pay for food and rent, and of course, he had no health insurance. Linda had a mental disability that made it difficult for her to work at all. She had survived a serious head injury from a beating by her ex-husband many years ago.
Their tenuous circumstances became clear when Mike got meningitis and ended up in the hospital for three days. Even though he recovered enough to be discharged from the hospital, he remained too unwell to work for many weeks. Peter and I started helping them pay rent from week to week just to keep them sheltered.
During that time, we witnessed the exploitative practices of the extended stay hotel industry, particularly in under-invested neighborhoods. We also saw the way that criminal activity in and around these hotels impacted our friends and their many neighbors, including people who were trying to raise children and grandchildren there. It didn't set them up for success but kept them trapped and marginalized. Mike, Linda, and I threw a baby shower for one of their neighbors who was 16 years old and pregnant. Her mom was hardly ever around because she had to work two jobs, one of them at night, to keep them sheltered.
Due to various complicating factors, particularly Mike’s recurring meningitis, we ended up paying Mike and Linda’s rent for nearly a year. Mike didn’t have health insurance, so he never saw doctors for preventive care—only when he developed health emergencies. But because I was trained as a physician assistant, I finally recognized that his recurrent meningitis was coming from multiple abscessed teeth. Peter and I found a dentist for him and arranged for a full evaluation and treatment. Mike ended up needing to have all of his teeth extracted, which made him really sad. But he did stop having bouts of recurrent meningitis after this.
Increasingly uncomfortable with continuing to pour money into a wretched industry that seemed to grow by fleecing the poor, Peter and I started discussing how we might support Mike and Linda’s housing needs differently. In October 2016, after discussing several options with them, we bought a condominium close to where we lived and near one of the rail stations and invited Mike and Linda to move into it (they didn’t have a car and relied on public transportation). We intentionally didn’t make them sign a lease or any sort of legal contract. It’s not that we were naïve to the potential complications—we were quite conscious of the risks—but we had grown close to them and considered them to be surrogate family now. We wanted to practice hospitality, and putting a bunch of personal legal protections around the arrangement seemed inconsistent with that, so by faith we accepted the risks.
Many things transpired over the ensuing years, but I’ll touch on just a few of them. We moved to Dallas, Texas in June 2019. We weren’t sure if we would be able to continue maintaining the property from a distance, but since Mike and Linda’s alternative housing options had not improved, we ended up deciding to let them continue to live there. Linda moved out in 2020 when her relationship with Mike ended, however. And in February 2021, the board of the homeowners association demanded that Mike vacate the property due to two years of repeated and egregious violations of community policies and standards as well as numerous complaints from neighbors. The violations were documented through security camera footage and photos. We received fines. During that time, we consulted with a friend who was an attorney. She was convinced that our safest legal option was to proceed with eviction because the homeowners association had the power to put a lien on our property, proceed with an eviction themselves, and then force us to pay all their legal fees. We understood what she was telling us, but we didn’t want to do that. We hoped that Mike would be willing to leave on his own once he understood the situation. Unfortunately, he started ghosting us after we informed him of the association’s demand.
After a few weeks of being ghosted by Mike, Peter got on a flight to Atlanta to have a face-to-face conversation with him and assess the condition of the condo. When Peter arrived, Mike was extremely resistant and combative at first. He wouldn’t open the door but instead typed a long ranting email to us, then hollered at Peter through the door, “Read my email!” I was at home in Dallas on the phone with Peter while all this was going down. I got on my knees and started praying like crazy. Within the hour, Mike calmed down and let Peter take him to lunch so they could talk. After that, he let Peter into the condo. It had become a complete disaster. But so had Mike’s physical and mental health.
Evicting Mike through an attorney and the county bureaucracy certainly would have been the most expedient and hands-off thing to do. But we had started down this path with him 4.5 years prior as an act of mercy and hospitality. We knew there were risks when we started, and although we couldn’t have known exactly how those risks would play out, we were at least somewhat mentally prepared for a bad outcome. It didn’t feel right to do something extremely unmerciful and unhospitable now simply because the situation had become a huge headache and legal risk for us.
We prayed. I fasted. We put on our spiritual armor. We decided that Peter would stay in Atlanta until the situation was resolved. He patiently reasoned and worked with Mike day after day, and Mike started cooperating. He still trusted Peter, and he still knew that we loved him. The two of them spent four weeks sorting through his possessions, packing what could be packed, throwing out what needed to be thrown out, and moving the majority of his salvageable belongings into a storage unit. Mike voluntarily moved out of the condo and back in to an extended stay hotel on April 20, 2021. The prices for extended stay hotels had skyrocketed. Back in 2015, it had been $59/week; now it had gone up to $200/week. We helped him for another six months until he was able to come under the support of a group of Atlanta-based activists. And Peter made two more trips to Atlanta over that same period of time to manage the cleanup and remediation of the property to get it ready to sell.
This experience of walking alongside Mike and Linda taught us so much about God’s particular regard for the masses of people suffering on the fringes of society. It opened our eyes to the way our economic systems continually disadvantage people with no power and no resources. And it exposed the threadbare nature of the comfort-infused suburban-flavored Christianity we had walked in for decades.
Doing life with Mike and Linda and experiencing their hardships with them came with challenges, but the thing that made those six years exquisitely difficult for us didn’t even have to do with them. It had to do with how lonely a journey it was. We had little to no communal support from the churches we were part of during this long season, whether in Atlanta or Dallas. A major reason for this was that we had started this endeavor on our own when we were in-between churches. Even when we finally established ourselves in a church and started bringing Mike and Linda to worship with us, we were the only ones there who had substantive relationships with them. Although our pastor, David, made many attempts to build a connection with them, they never really opened up to him the way they did with us. As a result, Peter and I remained the only ones they would confide in. We remained the only ones at the church who could truly walk alongside them and shoulder the burdens of their lives—lives characterized by scarcity, inconvenience, closed doors, persistent health challenges, disenfranchisement, injustice, death, and violence—even as they spilled over into ours. Although we could count on a few discreet and trusted individuals to pray for us, Mike, and Linda, the feeling of loneliness persisted.
It got even more difficult to bear when we moved to Dallas where we knew no one. We would sit in Sunday school while people we barely knew shared prayer requests about sick relatives, a broken stove, or an upcoming job interview… and we would be at a complete loss about how to voice our prayer needs. At least three times during our first two months of visiting the church, I walked out of either Sunday school or the worship service, sought out a private corner, and wept. On one of those occasions, after I had pulled myself together and dried my tears, I sat on a bench just outside the sanctuary and listened to the sermon through the outside speakers. The assistant pastor, who was also our Sunday-school teacher, happened to walk by. When he saw me, he came over and asked if I was ok. In a paroxysm of unusual openness, I told him about Mike and Linda, our condo, and the anxiety I was having about some of the things that were going on at the time. He listened well, was present, and offered no pat answers—just words of encouragement and empathy. That pastoral moment was probably the primary reason we kept returning week after week for a year-and-a-half to a church whose theological convictions were vastly different from ours. That’s how much mileage it provided. We were that starved.
I realize now that what I longed for all those years but didn’t know how to articulate was a community of co-sufferers. In some ways, Mike and Linda had more of that than Peter and I did. Even though they had moved out of their neighborhood, they remained deeply connected to it. In fact, they continued actively serving their home communities on a daily basis and regularly worked with them to fight for municipal policy changes at City Hall. But Peter and I felt like total weirdos in both suburbia and our suburban churches. We had no community with whom we could lament. Without it, by the end of six years, I was burned out—not by the effort itself but by the devastating loneliness of it.
Just as I discovered that spiritual disciplines are difficult to sustain apart from the communal practices of the same, I’ve concluded that caring for the poor isn’t best done as an isolated endeavor of a single individual or family who happens to have resources. It’s best done as a collective way of life where rich and poor are reconciled by the gospel and are intimately involved with one another, reflecting our common baptism into Christ (Gal. 3:26-28), sharing both burdens and resources and together creating a community where no one—whether recipient of care or caretaker—suffers alone. Can anything like this exist in hyper-individualistic, nuclear-family-obsessed, racially and economically segregated America? My faith tells me yes, that such communities should be the fruit of the gospel wherever it’s preached in its fullness (as opposed to the Gnostic reduction/version of it that’s common in so much of American evangelicalism). Yet most of the churches I know of don't even have a vision for creating or cultivating such communities. I’m tempted to conclude that the bulk of American churches have been built on a Gnostic gospel. I have a lot to say on this, but I’ll save it for another time. Oh wait, I started writing a series about this in July 2021. I'll have to go back and finish it!
How do I wrap this up? I don’t know. Mike died on September 10, 2022, just two days after Queen Elizabeth II did. Maybe his death is what finally released me to write more about him. There are many parts of the story I’ll never end up writing about, things that will always remain locked in a vault. Even so, I’m sure I’ll have more reflections to share in the future. For now, I’m letting the gristly parts simmer on the back burner.
Read Part 3 here.
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The problem has only accelerated since then. Here’s a recent article on the current situation, and here’s an in-depth study that the University of Georgia conducted in 2019 of families living in extended stay hotels in Norcross, one of the cities in metro Atlanta. I’ve since learned that Dallas, where I currently live, has the highest concentration of discount extended-stay rooms in the nation.