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April 21, 2020
The Monday after Easter, the virus pandemic hit too close to home for our MRM family. Our team member and friend, Billy, succumbed to complications of COVID-19. Billy was a delight and a friend to everyone, fellow staff members and clients alike. He is profoundly missed.
What compounds the tragedy of Billy’s death is the incredible story of his life. Despite growing up as a talented high school athlete with a promising future, Billy suffered an injury in college that brought his dreams to an abrupt end. From that point on, Billy was launched on a path to self-destruction.
But by the grace of God, Billy’s life turned around at the Milwaukee Rescue Mission. His was a classic Prodigal Son story. He was returned to his parents and, in the words of Billy’s mother, became their “whole life” once again. And then, this Monday after Easter, their returned son who served his God and his community as a vibrant member of our staff was taken away again. It brought us all to tears.
I sat with motionless hands on my keyboard that evening, trying to compose an email to let our staff and board know this bitter news. I anticipated the impact, knowing all the mixed emotions that I myself was feeling—sadness, loss, fear. As I sat trying there, trying to find the right words, my wife sat next to me and played a video we had produced with Billy’s testimony. In that video, I heard Billy’s voice saying, “Now I’m free...” — and right then, that Monday after Easter, I thought, “Wow! That’s more true now than when Billy said that.”
If I were to describe in one word what MRM is all about, I’d say “Transformation.” Our friend Billy was one of the most powerful, inspirational and true personifications of that word. And his story of transformation will continue to impact countless friends, coworkers and guests here at MRM.
Sitting on my desk is an envelope with a letter from one of our program graduates. He wrote to tell me how much he’s going to miss Billy. He told me how Billy would often speak to him and the other men in our chapel right before breakfast. He wasn’t sure how, but in just 10 minutes Billy would find just the right words to encourage them and speak to their deepest needs.
How did Billy do that? I think I know. Two centuries ago another Prodigal by the name of John Newton wrote what is probably the best known hymn in English. In this deeply autobiographical song, Amazing Grace, Newton wrote words that made all the difference in Billy’s life, and in my life—the same words that could be the creed for our calling at MRM. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.
We miss you, Billy. But we are comforted knowing that now you are truly found, and now you truly see.
Praying God's amazing grace may comfort and guide you in the days to come,
Patrick H. Vanderburgh, D.Min.
April 7, 2020
It's Holy Week. The other day my wife Barb and I were shopping at Costco and right in the middle of the store was a huge and fabulous display of Easter dresses! When I saw it, I felt a profound sense of sadness and loss. Easter won't be for any of us what it usually is — a day of celebration and delight, going to church, gathering with family and friends, daughters wearing new Easter dresses. So much of what is familiar and cherished has changed with this pandemic.
Even at MRM, Easter will be so different. We had scheduled a community Easter Brunch at our North Campus for this past weekend. We still held the event — but it was drive-thru, our staff with masks on bringing packaged brunch meals for families as they pulled up in cars. On Easter Sunday, we'll still have our traditional Easter meal for our guests — but again we will be masked and "socially distanced" in our dining room. Think of it: on the most joyous day of the Christian calendar there will be anxiety, fear, loss and sadness. But I know that in the midst of disruption and anxiety, we must still hold to what we celebrate at Easter. Texting a friend who runs a sister mission in Chicago just now, I asked how he is doing and at the end of my note I simply wrote, "Peace! Christ is Risen."
As much as I regret how different this Easter will be this year — different from the familiar holiday, fixed to so many cherished memories — this year's change in celebration also seems fitting in a way. Especially in these days approaching Easter.
That weekend leading up to Easter — that Thursday, Friday and Saturday — was filled with anxiety, fear, loss and sadness... and filled even with social distancing as the disciples locked themselves in the upper room fearing what might come next. But on Sunday morning they began to hear the news, and by Sunday evening they heard it directly from Jesus himself when he stood before them in that locked upper room: "Peace to you!... Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself." (Luke 24:36,38,39)
In these days approaching Easter, I pray we could all find real comfort as we anticipate the profound truth of Easter: Peace! Christ is Risen.
Finally, I wanted to give you all an update about how we're doing at MRM this Holy Week. We've experienced our first positive COVID-19 test results for a few of our guests (for whom we've found good, safe places to send them where they can get well), and one of our staff members has also tested positive. As cases of COVID-19 increase and we encounter more challenges, it is important that we implement some additional temporary changes here at the Milwaukee Rescue Mission. In cooperation with the Milwaukee Health Department and the Shelter Task Force and in accord with state and federal recommendations, we have modified our normal open door policy for the well-being of our guests, our staff, our volunteers and our city.
Our top priority for the more than 300 men, women and children who are staying with us is to keep them safe and healthy while preventing the spread of the virus as much as possible. We recognize that a rapid spread of the virus in our shelter could create significant stress on local hospitals. Through the tireless efforts of dedicated staff and volunteers, we continue to do everything possible to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including following best practices as recommended by the CDC: enhancing cleaning routines, regularly disinfecting surfaces, monitoring symptoms and establishing quarantines, maintaining social distancing and using personal protection like gloves and masks. Thanks to the generosity of many friends, we are here to provide shelter and care for our most vulnerable neighbors — and we will continue to be here for them after the days of this virus have passed.
Happy Easter — Peace! Christ is Risen.
Patrick H. Vanderburgh, D.Min.
March 23, 2020
"Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid." John 14:27 NIV
I was getting ready to talk to a group of our staff this week about COVID-19. A term I only came to know days ago, but one that is now too familiar. They were nervous. Anxious. Scared. I was getting some advice from our leaders. "I think the hardest part about this whole crisis is how quickly everything changes," someone remarked. Yes, that is what so unsettles me, too. As we've marched through this week together I’ve thought to myself several times, "if someone had told me a week ago that..."
For instance, if someone told me a week ago that we would be on a conference call with rescue mission colleagues from around the country to talk with senior Administration leaders and public health leaders from CDC about how to keep homeless guests and staff safe from a pandemic... Or, if someone told me a week ago that we would have to send our 370 Cross Trainer Academy students home for weeks (maybe longer) and our school administrators and teachers would have to figure out in a couple of days how to teach them "virtually" at home for possibly the rest of the school year... Or, if someone told me a week ago that, even with the end of winter in sight, the numbers in our shelters would start increasing by more than 35% with over 300 each night and rising to 400 or more... Or, if someone told me a week ago that we would be spending hours each day in meetings trying to figure out where we could quarantine sick guests and how we could keep staff healthy enough to serve... Or, if someone told me a week ago that we would have staff meetings by telephone — even though we were all in the same building — in an attempt to make sure that if one of us goes down, we all don't go down... If someone told me a week ago that...
I'm sure it's been that kind of week for you too! But in the midst of so much uncertainty, there has also been such wonderful encouragement from our friends: notes, texts, emails, calls. It has become crystal clear that we are not alone. We have an army of friends surrounding us, praying for us, supporting us. So I am happy to report to you that, with your help, the MRM team is ready, able and willing to meet this challenge that has taken so many of us off guard. I've been so encouraged by the real servant attitude, courage and wisdom of the men and women who serve together here. I look forward to being able to tell stories of what God has done in and through us to serve so many neighbors in crisis and need — just as we've done for 127 years.
Maybe it's occurred to you, too, the incredible and providential timing of this crisis. As we approach our Easter Celebration in this season, this life-threatening virus is taking so many of us off guard. I was thinking about Jesus' disciples as he led them from the upper room where they had what we call the Last Supper. On the eve of his crucifixion, when Jesus was comforting them before his arrest, I wonder if any of the disciples thought, "if someone told me a week ago that..."
Just one week before — on Palm Sunday — Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem. Everything must have seemed right with the world that night. Yet on the eve of Good Friday, he has to tell his disciples, "Let not your hearts be troubled." He was right, of course. The events of that weekend are the good news we cherish and tell today.
In the last week or so, we have all been rudely reminded of the uncertainties of life in this world. But because of Easter, we too can believe and find shelter in the peace that Jesus gives, even in the midst of chaos.
Praying you stay safe and well and that you, too, find the peace that he provides.
Patrick H. Vanderburgh, D.Min.
March 12, 2020
As the COVID-19 situation unfolds across the country, I’m thankful for the support of our caring community. And, I take comfort in God’s promise to be with us in times of uncertainty.
"Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." Philippians 4:4-7 NIV
As this global issue impacts the Milwaukee area, we take our responsibility seriously to act in the best interests of our guests, students, donors, volunteers and staff while carefully monitoring the ongoing situation. Providing more than 300 precious souls with safe shelter every night and 1,200 meals to hungry men, women and children every day, it is vital that we take every precaution in meeting their critical needs – and we do not take that role lightly.
Because of our concern for you and our guests, who are part of a very vulnerable group, at this time we have suspended all volunteer and tour activities for the foreseeable future. And, in an effort to reduce the spread of the virus in our community, we have vastly increased the scope of our cleaning procedures to protect all who come through our doors.
Friend, as I ask you to pray for us while we navigate this situation, please know that we are also praying for you. Know that God is in control and that we can continue to trust in him, as he has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:4 NIV). Strengthened by God’s promises, we can encourage and comfort one another to remain fearless in the face of danger, and joyful in spite of uncertainty.
All of us here at MRM will continue to do all we can to keep our community healthy. If you would like to help MRM and our guests in light of COVID-19, please consider sharing surplus cleaning, hygiene and safety supplies with us. You can check out our complete list of needs or make an online donation at milmission.org/itemsofneed.
We appreciate any help you can provide, and we appreciate your prayers during this challenging time. Please feel free to contact us with any questions or prayer requests. Thank you for your support!
May God bless you and keep you safe,
Patrick H. Vanderburgh, D.Min.