Sunday, January 3, 2010

D.C. man finds blessings in mission to help homeless

The digital bank clock across from Capitol Hill United Methodist Church reads 7:25 a.m. and 27 degrees when Rob Farley, congregant, lawyer and aspiring Christian, jogs up to the church's icy front landing. Waiting for him in the chilly rain are the people who have transformed his life.

Jonathan George, a joke-telling handyman from the Bronx, is stuffing into plastic trash bags the sleeping bag, two blankets and cardboard he uses for a bed. Howard James, 51, and his "lady friend," Mercedes Dessaso, 61, are just showing up after a frigid, wet night wandering near Union Station. Melvin Johnson, with a damp sweat shirt and a cane, chuckles as he says, "We are wild animals."

Farley, slender and sweaty in black running pants, bears a smile, a front-door key and the mission he has been committed to almost every morning for a year: to provide breakfast, a clean bathroom, a group prayer and some dignity to a small band of homeless men and women who view this church landing five blocks east of the U.S. Capitol as a version of home.

For Farley, the routine has given his faith a purpose, his vow to be a better person a tangible test. The 47-year-old is feeding the homeless, and it's clear that they are feeding him, if in a different way.

This was a guy who, until a few years ago, couldn't remember going to church aside from the time that, decades ago, his mother threatened to take away his Super Bowl-watching privileges if he didn't attend. A guy whose initial intention was just to end his morning jog by waking the homeless and kindly urging them to move on.

Then God happened. Or something like that.

"Either you turn your head or you engage," says Farley, a soft-spoken Tennessean who doesn't easily talk about himself.

Although some of the folks have been going to the church for many years -- either to sleep under its overhang, attend weekly meals for the homeless or participate in regular worship -- the daily breakfast began only about a year ago.

It was a confluence of two things: neighbors complaining about the sometimes-disruptive scene on the landing, and Farley's baptism and increasing fixation with living his faith.

Growing up in the Bible Belt, and seeing what he describes as religion being used in national politics as a cultural sledgehammer, left him alienated but also curious. What was going on in churches? After the 2004 presidential election, his then-wife suggested that they browse a few services. They wound up at the United Methodist church near their home on Capitol Hill.

"I didn't think the church had much to offer, so I went more as an observer," he said. "Everyone else would bow their heads, and I would be looking around."

But if he was going to really explore church, that meant plunging in. Within a year, he'd been baptized and began asking a question he says he now thinks about constantly: How can I take the Gospel seriously?

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