When Marie laughed you could hear the joyful noise blocks away. Her language could be rough and loud, but we never underestimated her ability to communicate with people on the street. She had assisted people on the margins since the late 1960s when she helped people suffering from HIV/AIDS on both sides of the San Diego/Tijuana international border.
I first met Marie one Sunday afternoon in Wells Park in El Cajon (CA) when Welcome Church without Walls gathered for worship. Our church includes people who experience homelessness, those in the leadership of Welcome Church, and others who happen to be in the park. At the end of our service, the altar that holds Sacraments of Holy Communion becomes a lunch table. We celebrate a church picnic for all who come – including all attending worship and anyone else in the park. We are the Welcome Church, and that means everybody is welcome.
At Welcome Church we view the Great Commission of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ holistically – body, soul, and spirit. We tell everyone that God loves them just the way they are. Love is not contingent on things they did in the past or will do in the future. God loves us just the way we are, right now, in this moment. Our fellowship includes encouraging conversation, listening and sharing, prayer and friendship, and includes assistance in helping clients find food, and referrals to medical care, rehabilitation, shelter, and friendship. It is church in action, every day of the week, not just on Sunday.
Marie had heard about Welcome Church, knew several people we worked with, and offered her assistance. It was not long before we realized what a gift she was to us. Tuesday mornings Welcome Ministry hosts our Loads of Love laundry ministry for people experiencing homelessness at a laundromat near Wells Park. Marie offered to oversee Loads of Love. She knew many unhoused people and those who sheltered in their vehicles, often assisting to find shelter, medical care, and counseling. She also worked with a local animal shelter to distribute organic dog and cat food to the unhoused and had a clever way of introducing herself that led to many meaningful conversations. Her ministry was dubbed “Paws R Us.” Marie made her rounds in Wells Park each Monday distributing free pet food. As she did, she registered anyone for the Loads of Love free laundry the following morning.
This past year Marie called me unexpectedly from a hospital one day. I unfortunately could not visit her because of COVID-19 restrictions. She had been diagnosed with stage-four cancer with, perhaps, six months to live. Marie wanted to continue with the Loads of Love program as long as she was able, which she did for four months. After her death we had an outdoor memorial service for Marie, and people from all over San Diego County came to celebrate her life.
Loads of Love is a success in many ways. The laundromat hired one of Marie’s first clients to help oversee the business and keep it clean. In the four months before she died, Marie trained Debbie to replace her. Debbie had been unhoused, a client of Loads of Love since its beginning. Since taking on the mantle of leadership for Loads of Love, Debbie amazingly moved off the street and now lives in an apartment.
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