More than 50 community leaders gathered Wednesday at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Westminster for its annual ecumenical Blues Christmas and Community Homeless Memorial Service.
The community leaders included first responders, law enforcement, religious leaders, and leaders who provide Carroll County with a social-welfare safety net.
St. Paul’s church explains the significance of the service on its Facebook page: “This service is for people struggling with the challenges of the holidays for whatever reason. And, with the help of various community agencies and local law enforcement, we will remember homeless people who have died this past year.”
Many of us are looking forward to spending the holidays with friends, family and loved ones. Yet, as St. Paul’s Senior Pastor Marty Kuchma shared at the beginning of the service Wednesday, “All around us it would appear that joy abounds during this holiday season. … But life, especially during the holidays, is not always as it seems. In every human life, there is more. … We have regrets and have made mistakes. We bear struggles and sadness. We worry and are afraid. We grieve and we know loss.”
Kuchma was joined at the service by Grace Lutheran Church Pastor Matt Pensinger, the Rev. Amy Williams Clark of Cedarhurst Unitarian Universalists, and the Rev. Erin Snell of St. Paul’s.
Clark remarked, “Try as we might to make it otherwise, life is messy. Let us … be honest with ourselves, accept ourselves, and love ourselves. In this sacred space … let us release familiar old burdens, find forgiveness and healing, and summon the courage to look toward a future bright with possibility and potential. Guide us toward next steps and bless us with help and the courage to accept it along the way.”
Brenda Meadows, executive director of Shepherd’s Staff, a Christian outreach and support center, took part in the memorial service as did much of the social safety net leadership of Carroll County, including Jenny Graybill from Human Services Programs of Carroll County, Amy Baker of the Carroll County Health Department, Celene Steckel of Carroll County Citizen Services, and Caroline Babylon, executive director of Carroll County Food Sunday.
Tammy Black, executive director of Access Carroll, participated by singing. Several other musicians performed, including Henry Reiff. According to information provided by St. Paul’s, “Reiff … has served as music director for this service since we started it together many years ago.”
Meadows shared that the Washington, D.C.-based National Coalition for the Homeless and its partner, the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, created the first National Day of Commemoration in 1990.
Donald H. Whitehead Jr., executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said the coalition estimates at least 13 people experiencing homelessness die each day in the United States, although Whitehead said this is a “dramatic undercount” due to “spotty record-keeping.”
“Many people in the general public just don’t realize that they often walk past people in homelessness without the understanding that this may be the last day of their lives,” Whitehead said.
Steckel shared that, “Relationships are dynamic and ever-changing. … May we find strength to reach out, when it is possible, to restore and repair relationships, forgiving as we seek to be forgiven, loving as we long to be loved. And comfort us in letting go, when letting go is all we can do.”
Baker explained, “For loved ones who have died we will have a special place in our hearts and in our lives this Christmas and every day. …”
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Law enforcement was represented by Westminster Police Chief Tom Ledwell, and, from the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office, Sgt. Russ Tourangeau and Master Deputies Kevin McGinnis and Brian Colussy.
Colussy’s remarks came from face-to-face interactions with the homeless community, in an effort to provide help and resources.
“Visiting encampments throughout the county, I have seen this firsthand, how resourceful these individuals truly are and how they find the suitable places to survive,” he said.
Colussy continued by quoting Dotti Kastigar, a Missouri-based community activist, who explained, “One of the toughest jobs we have is convincing some people that we’re not making up this problem.”
“According to statistics, there are over 7 billion people on this planet and almost half a billion are homeless. … No home, not much food, just surviving,” Colussy said. “Our homeless population continues to fight these challenges daily just to survive. … As we continue the good fight, we must remember this quote from [author and cultural critic] Daniel Quinn, ‘Don’t try to drive the homeless into places we find suitable. Help them survive in places they find suitable.’”
Colussy quoted author and clinical psychologist Asa Don Brown to further explain, “Tonight, as we take time to morn those who fell weak from the struggles of life and could no longer fight to survive, we mourn you. We should all take time to remember that, ‘Homelessness is not a choice, but rather a journey that many find themselves in.’”