IF YOU’VE lived in Savannah for any length of time, someone is going to invite to be a guest at their church.
So when Rev. Kev (a.k.a. Kevin Veitinger) asked me to be his guest at the Sunday morning service at the church that he pastors, The Community of St. Joseph, I decided to take him up on his invitation.
I am not an early church person. I usually opt for the late service, but this church only has one service, with breakfast at 8:00 a.m. and preaching starting at 9:00 a.m.
I arrived about halfway through the coffee hour and was greeted by a casually, but well-dressed woman named Nancy. I asked her the obligatory question, “how are you?” expecting the equally obligatory response of “I’m fine.”
I was pleasantly surprised at her honestly of telling me that she is waiting on the results of a mammogram, but other than that, she had a good checkup with her doctor. It was refreshing to have an honest response, plus it was a good reminder to me that I too have an upcoming mammogram.
I took my seat in the back “pew” of the church which was a white folding chair. As a cool summer morning breeze blows across, the parishioner next to me greeted me warmly and handed me a three ring binder containing the order of the service — the same Episcopalian readings that would be read at all of their churches that morning — and the hymnal songs.
While I sat there waiting for the service to start, the praise band was warming up - a keyboard, a couple of guitar players, and even a ukulele produced joyous sounds. The praise band is mostly made up of members who reside in the encampments, but some other musical talent joins in too.
Suddenly I noticed a couple of cute kittens playing around my seat. I had heard about libraries and other places where people gather having cats, but never a church.
I think that this is rather awesome as I reach down to pet the friendly felines that toss, tumble, and tangle with each other.
Rev. Kevin Veitinger rings a bell to start the service — the chairs are full so there are a few people sitting on a wall or on the ground.
The service follows the traditional Episcopal format. It’s very similar to the Catholic service I was required to attend growing up, so I feel very at ease with the familiarity.
During the homily, a couple of young dogs start to play rough and tumble and knock over one of the guitar stands, and an older brown dog joins the pack causing Rev. Kev to briefly pause and say that the older dog is trying to discipline the young pups — and then continues with his homily as if this was a normal part of church and nothing out of the ordinary.
Veitinger continues with his homily, “The cornerstone of all scripture is loving God and loving neighbor.”
He explains that God will bring people into our lives that we might think that we want least as our neighbors. “Our neighbor is not just the person in the house or tent next to us - neighbor is everyone that God brings us in contact with.”
During the time that prayer requests are offered, Eunice prays for the safety of our military while a tear rolls down her cheek. Anita prays for non-violence and protection for everyone.
A few more prayers are offered and after each one the congregation sings, “Lord hear my prayer, come and listen to me.”
During the service, an occasional member will break off a piece of their breakfast and feed it to one of the kittens or dogs.
After the service concludes, I chat with some of the parishioners.
First, I talk to the man who had helped Father Chaney distribute communion, who introduces himself as Joseph. He tells me, “I have to stay prayed up, there is a whole lot of love down here in this ministry. Rev. Kevin is like a big brother to me and he brings the message each and every Sunday - I love that preacher.”
I meet Eunice, she was the one who offered prayers for the safety of our military. She tells me her husband died a few years ago, and that he was a Vietnam veteran, but now she is homeless.
It makes me think of my Dad, who also served in Vietnam and who died about the same time as Eunice’s husband. It is clear that Eunice is the matriarch of this encampment and I feel melancholy that the wife of a war veteran is sleeping in a tent now - not only have we failed out veterans, but we have failed their spouses too.
Eunice tells me, “This is the best church, you don’t have to dress up because it’s not in a building. God’s church isn’t four walls, it is the people.”
Chuck concurs and adds, “it’s the only church that I have been able to smoke in, as he takes a final puff of his cigarette. Chuck tells me that he used to own a home in the Georgetown area of Savannah before he fell on hard times, I reflect on my home, not too far from where Chuck used to live.
It is evident that Chuck is an intelligent man and well read. He explains to me that he faithfully reads Connect Savannah every week cover-to-cover. Chuck tells me he’d like to meet our editor, Jim Morekis, so he could let him know which columns he agrees with and which ones where he thinks Jim got it wrong.
Next I talk with Anita, who tells me that a number of chronic illnesses have lead to her being homeless and that she is in a lot of physical pain. She tells me she has Lupus, which I have heard of before - and Hypogammaglobulinemia, which was a new one for me and it sounds serious, but Anita explains that she learned Latin growing up in a Catholic home and she breaks the name of her illness down for me.
The cost of medical intervention for Hypogammaglobulinemia starts out at $23,000. She tells me that she struggles with a life of constant physical pain, and I can relate due to my own chronic illnesses.
Anita is in the praise band and she has a beautiful voice, when I compliment her, she gives me my own private concert, serenading me with a song that she wrote herself. She has a lot of talent, and given different circumstances, she might not be sleeping in a tent now.
Anita introduces me to Terry, who tells me that people call him Rambo. He is holding a guitar and is also in the praise band. Terry tells me that he has been living outside for seven years now. Anita and Terry both have tents at a different homeless encampment, but walk over to this service every Sunday morning.
Kevin Veitinger once told me that people need to stop saying that, “everyone is just one paycheck away from homelessness,” and he is right.
Most of us have a support system to fall back on - family and friends who love us and would provide a safety net for us if we fell on hard times.
But I did ponder on both the similarities and dissimilarities of some of the circumstances that lead some of the people of this congregation to be part of the 4,200 members of our community who reside outside in homeless encampments around Savannah — our homeless neighbors.
Many of the circumstances were beyond their control - these people that have fallen between the cracks, they are the neighbors that we have failed.
The closing song for the service was, “Surely The Presence Of The Lord Is In This Place.” As I watch Anita, Terry, and a few of their friends walk back to their homeless encampment, I must agree — it was the most spiritually honest service that I had been to in many years.
If you would like to join The Community of St. Joseph for a Sunday morning service, all are welcome and you can find out the details of the location on their Facebook page. It will be worth the investment of your time.