Curious about our history? In this post, Hugh tells the story of the beginnings of our ministry and community engagement center. Our worshipping community has been on hiatus, but starts up again this Wednesday, May 25th. Join us? Thanks, Jasmin
Yesterday, it hit me: here at Love Wins, we are now in our 9th year. I just wrote our 9th end-of- the-year letter. We are approaching our 9th winter.
Nine years is a long time. It is the longest I have done anything, in fact.
And in nine years, a lot of things have changed. And some things haven’t. Several people have said I should write a bit about the early days – back before we had a hospitality house and Love Wins was just Hugh and some volunteers.
What you have to understand is that when I started this work, I had zero qualifications to do any of it. I studied English in college, and my longest held job had been as a salesman of one sort or another. What I did have was a deep seated belief that community and human connection hold the solutions to the world’s deepest problems.
Luckily, that was enough.
I pretty much starved those first few years, so I did creative things to keep food on my table while I waited for the rest of the world to see the value in what I was doing. I did some freelance writing of the cheapest sort (for example, I once wrote fifty pages of PG-13 web content about nude beaches in the US, despite never having been to a nude beach anywhere). I sold hot dogs on the sidewalk in front of a leather bar and across the street from a hardcore porn video shop. I worked the overnight shift at a 24-hour gym, where my job was to hand people towels and say, “Have a good workout!” in a cheerful voice.
In the beginning, I was dating Renee (who I later married) and again, I didn’t have any money. I remember dates where we would go to the grocery store, sitting at the tables on the sidewalk and split a sub sandwich from the grocery deli and a diet coke.
I couldn’t afford a car, but luckily a local church bought me a red motor scooter. I rode the heck out of it until October of 2010, when I had a wreck and broke my collarbone. My little scooter was known everywhere; I still have people who live on the streets who ask me about it.
About that scooter – one morning I parked it on the sidewalk by a small park downtown, where I left it because I had some errands to do. I’d been to court that morning with someone, so I was gone until after lunch. When I got back, there were three folks I knew that lived outside standing around it, and they started giving me a hard time. It turns out I had left my keys in the ignition, so they stood there for more than four hours to guard my scooter so no one would take it.
In the very beginning, I just went to the park and hung out. My goal was one conversation a day. I would eat lunch at the soup kitchen, where I would often see someone I had had one of those conversations with, and we would talk some more.
I briefly (maybe six weeks?) volunteered with an outreach group from a super evangelical church, where we served a meal in the park each Saturday. There was a praise band, a “gospel” message and lots of praying. It was hugely manipulative, and myself and some others quickly left. However, it did shape the direction of Love Wins because for years, if I was unsure of how to do something, I would ask myself what that church would have done, and I did the opposite.
So, we started sharing food on the weekend (sharing, not “feeding”). We refused to have prayers before the meals, refused to preach, refused to allow “gospel tracts” in the hygiene bags we gave away. Jesus didn’t place preconditions around who he ate with, so neither did we. We just wanted to create a space where you could be yourself, where you could be welcomed, and where you could feel loved. We were pretty sure a praise band, prayers before the meal, and street preaching about the dangers of hellfire did none of that.
I eventually got invited to speak to some churches, and some of them liked it, and some of them didn’t. Most of the churches that supported us in the early days were very evangelical. That was mainly because of the decision making structure in those churches – if the pastor liked you, you were in the budget. I was good at making the pastor like me.
It was around 2010 when that dynamic began to crack. We had always been welcoming of everyone. As I said a lot in those days, Jesus didn’t discriminate, and so neither did we. We had learned that if you were LGBT, you had a much higher chance of becoming homeless. We learned that the main reason for that was the religious objections to LGBT people. We learned that some of our friends were homeless because they had been kicked out of their homes by their parents when they came out.
So we became bold and unapologetic about our welcome and affirmation of sexual minorities. And some of our churches objected. In 2010, we lost about a third of our income when a bunch of churches dropped supporting us over our affirming stance. We lost some of our most hardcore volunteers that year, over the same issue.
It was really hard to lose people – and not just because of the money. I lost friends that year. I was put on what amounted to a heresy trial by a church that supported us – and found guilty. I was dis-invited to local churches.
And that year I held a gay man who cried in my arms and told me that the love he felt from us made him believe God did not hate him, despite what his family had told him. This belief had kept him from killing himself. His name was Allen, and I often thought of Allen when I had to defend myself that year.
In retrospect, 2010 was a turning point for us. It was the year of losing. It was the year we defined ourselves. We declared our identity. We shared what our folks on the street face. We understood that you may decide you do not care, but you cannot say you did not know.
Two things happened in 2011 that changed us forever. The first was a random donation in the mail for $1500. At the time, it was the largest check we had ever received. I wrote the donor, thanking him profusely. That led to a lunch, where, long story short, he agreed to underwrite my salary for the next ten years. I cried in the restaurant, I cried on the phone with my wife, I cried that night when I wrote the email to my board. I sorta want to cry now, to tell you the truth.
After four years of straight up poverty, I would make a living wage (on the low end of living wage, but still) doing this work, and was guaranteed of that for at least the next ten years. I really can’t explain how much that changed my life.
The other thing that changed was in the fall, a local church called and asked if we could find a use for a building they owned. They wanted to give it to us, rent free, for three years. I cried again. After the previous year I’d spent feeling I was fighting the church, to have a church open their doors to us felt healing.
That place became our first hospitality house, when we finally opened the doors in 2012. And nothing has been the same since.
Nine years is a long time. We have lost friends, lost churches, lost volunteers and lost community members. I have performed nine funerals, and attended dozens. Seven different times, I have held mothers as the state took their children away from them.
But Lord, what we have gained. A worldwide following, with donors on three continents. A community of folks who have hope, who have a place to be, who have an outlet for the love they have. Taking on the city and making it be more compassionate to its most vulnerable citizens. Shaping the conversation around policies regarding homelessness here in Raleigh from one of antagonism to one of welcome and relationship. Eight weddings. A dozen baptisms. Countless newborn babies held and snuggled with. Employees who left to go change the world with their own ministries. I get emails from different communities around the country that claim us as a primary influence in founding their own.
Nine years in, it’s still a struggle. It is still tough raising money. It’s still painful watching people you love suffer. It’s still frustrating that I have to make a case for my community to even exist.
It’s still hard. But it’s also still worth it.
Related: Community Works