Have you ever walked into a room full of strangers and felt uncomfortable? You know, that moment when everyone looks at you and your palms begin to sweat. You feel as though every step is wobbly. You hope and pray you don’t trip or stumble or do anything embarrassing. No one acknowledges you and they all go back to what they were doing. I have felt this social anxiety many times, particularly when I was in the church and when I was living out of my car.
I am a third generation Nazarene. My grandfather on one side helped build the local church in my hometown, while my other grandfather was a well-respected teacher and leader of the Nazarene church where he lived. I was groomed at a Nazarene institute of higher education, from which I received my degree in Christian Education. Three years of my college career were spent working as an intern on staff at one of the largest churches in the denomination, under one of the most respected theologians in the church. After graduation, I earned my Masters in Divinity from the Nazarene Seminary. Paying for school, I worked at the Nazarene World Headquarters and as an intern for another mega church of the Nazarene, under the leadership of one of the now General Superintendents (AKA similar to a Cardinal in the Catholic Church.)
Proudly, I went out seeking work after graduation. In my mind, any job could be mine because of my pedigree and glowing resume. Instead of having my pick of jobs, though, I was met with stinging rejection after rejection. Many times I was told that I wasn’t a good fit for employment because I was single, a woman, or my personal favorite: “You are too attractive and that may cause our congregation members to struggle.”
I watched as my male peers become employed and moved through the ranks of the denomination. As things became more and more bleak for me, I finally gave up my chosen field and took a job as an event planner in order to survive. This led me down the road to becoming a VIP host. But, in my heart of hearts, I still wanted to be in the church. The yearning to do full time ministry was always inside of me.
After moving west to Southern California, I found things started to look a little brighter. I was offered and accepted a position at a Nazarene University and then took a job working as a youth pastor. To pay off student loans and in the hopes of clearing my financial debt, I simultaneously began working with a talent agent. I discovered that, in just a few hours of modeling or doing work as an extra, I could earn enough to pay down my bills and build up some savings.
Is modeling something that a woman in the church should do? It didn’t seem wrong to me. But, the whispers began and snowballed into outright gossip about my life. Some questioned my history of working in clubs. I was under painful scrutiny.
The rumor mill churned out: “How could someone like that do church work?” “Merideth used to be
really lost, I’m glad to hear she got it together.” “Have you heard or seen the photos of Merideth? They are really bad.”
Some of these things were said about me by people who I considered to be my closest friends. The most stinging insult, at the time, came from someone I dated in Seminary. He said, “I forgive you for your past. I forgive you. Now I really understand what grace means. I’m extending grace to you and am willing to forgive your past.” Really?
After some of my modeling photos were leaked to my boss at the University- even though all my photos were very PG- I lost my job. He took me to court to deny my unemployment benefits, and I subsequently became homeless. In addition to struggling financially, I had to deal with the rejection from a church that I had grown up in and dedicated my life to. My own family had turned against me as well, and my mother cried and told me that I had broken her heart and disappointed her.
I became somewhat of a double agent; living out of my car, but still secretly hoping and praying that the
church would accept me back into the fold. It felt as though my whole world was collapsing. I spiraled into a cycle of depression as things became more and more dire. I hid my struggles from my friends, never confessing to them that I was living in my car. I went out to bars and became the life of the party.
I found myself drinking to excess and spending many hours looking out toward the ocean, trying to muster up enough courage to drive my car into it. I wanted to die. I can remember revving my engine one day as I was sitting in my car at Sunset Cliffs. “Today will be the day (I end it),” I thought to myself. I had prayed and prayed for help, but God hadn’t delivered me from my torturous year. Everything I held dear to me was gone and it was just me.
My hand, for some reason, turned on the radio. It was set on a Christian station. “How He Loves” by the David Crowder Band was playing. I listened with my heart wide open and, in that moment, realized that God had been holding on to my life the entire time.
Fast-forward to today and things are radically different. God has truly blessed me with a wonderful husband, who wasn’t burdened with years of biases and expectations because he wasn’t raised in the church. He loves me just as I am and encourages me to listen to and live out my calling daily. Together, we moved to Las Vegas a few years ago. It was difficult for me to transition from the San Diego area to here, but I now understand it was part of the plan for my life.
My current church home is Casa de Luz, a little congregation in the worst neighborhood of the Las Vegas valley. The place is full of people that have been saved from addiction, prostitution, gang banging and abuse, among other things. Casa is an ethnically diverse group of folks led by three pastors that are all former atheists. In essence, it is a rag tag bunch of people, many of which were once the misfits of society. They remind me of Jesus’ early followers, who were sinners, tax collectors and poor fishermen. Jesus was surrounded by the dregs of society. He was talked about and doubted. All the time.
Casa de Luz, House of Light, is such an example of grace and New Testament love that just spills out into the neighborhood. In the nearly six years the church has been in the Naked City, crime rates have dropped 40-80% in every category. The church operates one of the busiest food pantries in the valley. They also offer LV ARTreach and other programs for neighborhood kids so they’ll have an outlet and safe place to thrive.
After years of growing up in the church and never having experienced that true love and grace, I tearfully told Casa’s founders and my dear friends, Pastor Chris and Laura Chapel that, “For the first time in 37 years, I feel like I have a church family.”
Some of you may have read my first several paragraphs about being hurt by the church with disgust and smugly nodding to yourselves as you thought, “And this is why I don’t go to church.” Or, “Christians always judge. Doesn’t the Bible talk about not judging?” The truth is, there are people doing Christianity as it was intended and I am so fortunate to have found some of them.
To all of my readers out there, I share all of this because I believe there are strong parallels between my story and those of the chronically homeless. Instead of fitting in a church, they have fallen out and can’t seem to fit in with those of us that are indoors. They always feel like the stranger at the party. They never, ever feel wanted or accepted or comfortable. Try as they might, the chronically homeless can’t seem to overcome the hoops and barriers to housing put up by the very agencies intended to help them.
I was horrified when, recently, I heard a provider laugh and say aloud, “Well I bet my teenager wished they had housing with no rules, but they have to deal with it.” In my head, I thought, “Would you, as a grown adult, like someone telling you who you could and couldn’t have in your house?” What about what time you had to go to bed? Or, even worse, what if you were trying to get sober, but were told you couldn’t enter housing and end your torturous hell on the streets until you could, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get clean?”
“Housing First” is a new concept for some folks. This is the idea that meeting a homeless person’s need for shelter- with no rules or strings attached- will stabilize them. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development- after years of study in New York and Utah- realizes that this is a best practice. The federal government believes so strongly in this that they are requiring that all communities receiving federal funds switch to this model.
In Southern Nevada, we aren’t quite there yet. Many of our housing providers still have barriers or hoops to jump through before a client can enter. When folks ask me why we have so many homeless, I point to the many obstacles in the way of getting people indoors. Providers are slowly changing.
This past Memorial Day weekend, local shelters and outreach providers gave a heaping helping of Casa de Luz’ style of grace and love to folks on the streets. The outreach workers served all weekend- on a holiday weekend- to pick up and transport folks. The shelters opened their doors to accept clients after hours. Clients were shocked and appreciative that agencies cared enough to help them on a weekend.
For the first time ever, instead of making folks check out each day, beds were held. Then, on Tuesday morning, shelters offered shuttles to help clients get to their appointments. I’m thinking that a little grace, love and understanding may be what we all need to have our lives radically transformed. It’s certainly what we need to end homelessness in Southern Nevada. What do you think?
“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” Matthew 7:3