A New Chapter

I remember it perfectly. It was October 25th, 2015. Renee and I were on a bench overlooking the French Broad River. I was wearing a black hoody against the chill, and the leaves were changing colors in a way that only happens in the North Carolina mountains. It was the day after our seventh anniversary, and we were having a conversation we had never had before.

Renee was just three months out of the hospital. The story is long, but she had been born with a genetic heart condition that, at age 35, had her in heart failure. She was first diagnosed at 13. Her mother had the same heart condition and died at 45. We could not have children because the strain would be too much for her body, and the meds she depended on to survive would preclude it anyway. And while we never said it out loud, we fully expected her to die from this condition.

And then things changed. In August of 2015 we got a call at 10 AM that there was a heart available at Duke for Renee – could we be there in an hour? We could and did, and the following two weeks are their own long story.

But now, all that was behind us. We were celebrating our seventh anniversary and for the first time, we realized that we could have a conversation about the future that did not take as a given that she would die before age 50.

We had never had a conversation about retirement. About long-term goals. About what we wanted the future to look like. When you aren’t sure your wife will be with you when you are 50, you don’t waste a lot of energy planning that far ahead.

So, we sat on the bench and watched the water go by and talked about where we wanted to live, where we wanted to do, what we wanted growing old to look like. And the more we talked, the more it took shape.

We wanted a community of people. We wanted to live in a small city. We wanted children in our life.  I wanted to do meaningful work. Renee wanted to shoot photographs. We both wanted to be near our families.

It began to fill out.

* * *

Every founder stays too long. It is what we do. We build organizations by scratching and surviving, and then we convince ourselves the organization cannot survive without us. We over-inflate our egos and tell ourselves that we are the key ingredient. It is easier to do this when the people who started this work with you have moved on, and so you are the only connection to the beginning of the organization.

I began Love Wins Ministries in 2007. It didn’t even have a name then – it was just me and some friends sharing food in the park. But it evolved and grew and one day you look up and we had a staff and a blog and a community center and how did all that happen?

And then the city tries to stop you from sharing food with hungry people, and you decide to fight back. And you win, which gives you some profile and legitimacy. So like all successes, you grow and move to a bigger facility and… then your wife has a heart transplant and all your priorities change.

* * *

In the fall of 2015, sitting on that bench, for the first time since Love Wins began I thought about what leaving it would look like.

Over the next year, we would begin to work on it. We took our list of things we wanted and realized we couldn’t have the life we wanted here in Raleigh. It was getting more and more expensive to live here. Our parents were getting older, and they live 12 and 18 hours away, respectively. I had a nephew who was 10 that I had last seen when he was 2.

And if I am honest, I felt like I had accomplished here what I intended to do. We did demonstrate that a relational approach to homelessness works. We did change the City and how it approached homelessness. The attitude now in Raleigh vs when I got here in 2007 around homelessness? Miles apart. Anything I could do now was going to be incremental, and I am not an incrementalist.

So we looked around. Wilmington was nice. So was Charleston. Chattanooga would have been a definite yes were it not so far to the ocean. Last spring, we began to think about Jackson, MS. It is less than 3 hours to my parents’ house. The cost of living is low there. Two hours to the Gulf of Mexico. Two hours to New Orleans. Three hours to Memphis. An economically depressed city, so I would have plenty of meaningful work to keep me occupied. A new government in place that wants to change things for the better.

It ticked off all our boxes.

* * *

Last summer we went down to check it out. I met with some community leaders. I met some folks at a small church that wanted to change their neighborhood and their city, but they had no money and didn’t have the skills.

We agreed to stay in touch because I have the skills. And while I don’t have any money, I have raised money to make the world better for 11 years now – the prospect does not frighten me.

For the next six months, we would share ideas back and forth. Renee and I would look at houses on Zillow, and marvel that a house that would sell for $400,000 here could be had there for $120,000. We began to contemplate a cross-country move with three cats and a thousand or so books.

By the end of the year, I had a proposal sketched out for them of what I thought was possible. In January we went back down to visit, meet with the leadership team and work out the details. They are a small multiracial Mennonite church. They are in one of the poorest areas of Jackson, and because of the tension in my denomination over LGBT rights, all the conservative folks left a few years ago, threatening the church’s survival.

I told them that none of that scared me. Because to quote a bad movie, while I don’t have any money, what I do have is a unique set of skills, acquired over a long career…

Two weeks ago I got a letter in the mail saying to come on down.

We’re going to Jackson.

* * *

In June, we are closing Love Wins Ministries. The Community Engagement Center will continue operations with MaRanda Kiser as its Executive Director. I will remain on the board of the Community Engagement Center for at least another year to provide continuity and institutional memory. I plan to begin work in Jackson on July 1.

The truth is, I have outlived my usefulness here. I am a starter by nature and have tons of energy around the creation of a thing, and not much around the maintenance of that thing. I have done good work here. I feel good about the work I did helping Raleigh change how it addresses homelessness. I feel good about the thousands of lives I have impacted here, and the way I have done it. But my role here is over. It’s time to hand it off to someone else.

MaRanda will do a fantastic job. In her first six months, she has added a peer support specialist position that is filled by a person who was formerly homeless, increased the meals we serve here from one a week to 10 a week, drastically increased our volunteer engagement and amount of in-kind donations. In short, she is taking what I built and is making it better, and the best thing I can do is get out of her way.

As we wrap things up here, I am astounded by all the good that was done here the last 11 years. My feelings around all of this are complicated – excitement about what is to come, and sadness about what I am leaving behind. I hope you will continue to hold us in your prayers as I take the “Love Wins approach” to another southern city.

* * *

So that’s the story. We are in the process of selling our house (we have a buyer already!) and beginning to contemplate packing, figuring out what to take and what to lay down.

I am excited about the future. It is close enough to what I do to be competent at it, while different enough I will grow and learn. I am excited to be near my family again for the first time in 11 years. We are excited at the prospect of buying a nicer house than we ever dreamed possible and having a nice backyard to plant vegetables and flowers. Renee is already plotting out potential photo shoot locations.

And I am sad to leave here. But it’s time. Past time, if I am honest.

I will have a lot more to say over the coming weeks and months – it will be great to be able to talk about this thing that is consuming all of my energy. But right now, I am just grateful, and hopeful, and tired just thinking about moving three cats.