By Jon McGinty
Lou Ness, 65, executive director of Shelter Care Ministries, an outreach program of Emanuel Episcopal Church in Rockford, recently completed a march to Washington, D.C., to call attention to the poor and homeless in America.
Ness began her trek April 1 in Rockford, ending at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., June 15, 76 days and 935.5 miles later. She walked for 67 days, averaging 12 miles a day, and used up four pairs of shoes in the process.
“This march was God’s idea,” says Ness, remembering the moment the idea began in August last year. “I was driving on the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago, ranting to God about the condition of the poor and homeless and the bureaucracy that makes it so hard for us to do our job. … I heard a voice which said, ‘I want you to walk out the doors of the church. I want you to walk to Washington, D.C. I want you to say, ‘You have not heard the cries of my people.’”
Two months later, after struggling with how to respond to such a calling, Ness accepted the idea, and by December had gained the support of the Shelter Care Ministries’ Board of Directors.
“I’m an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church,” says Ness, “and the vocation of Episcopal deacons is to stand at the margins [of society] with the people who live there. We bring their voice to the church. [The call] was perfect to my mission.”
In January 2014, a support team at Shelter Care helped Ness plan her route, and line up stopovers at various churches along the way. She stayed at nearly 60 Christian churches and one Buddhist temple during her journey and blogged about the day’s events on Facebook each evening on her iPad. The name given to the march was “Hear Our Cry: Marching for America’s Poor.”
Ness originally carried her belongings in a Burley cart, a towed bicycle trailer, but modified to be pushed rather than pulled. Her gear included a tent, tarp, sleeping pad and bag, clothing, tool kit, cell phone, iPad and some books. In Pittsburgh, she gave up the cart, and reduced her load to a 37-pound backpack by sending the rest of her belongings home.
“At first I thought I was going to die, carrying that much stuff,” she recalls, “but about a week later, I was walking like I’d always had 37 pounds on my back. It’s amazing how your body adjusts.”
According to Ness, she met many remarkable people during her cross-country journey, many who were poor or homeless or unemployed. Sometimes people would join her for a weekend or a week, but for the majority of the trip, she walked alone.
“Although I was by myself, I was never truly alone,” says Ness. “There were people praying for me, sending me money, arranging places for me to stay, sending me encouraging words and good cheer on the social media.”
Ness says she walked through some communities “where hopeless is so pervasive, it felt like it sucked the life out of you,” and others where small, rural churches were doing amazing things to help support and encourage the marginalized poor and turn things around for them.
“Jobs are gone from many of these small, rural communities, and they’re not coming back,” she observes. “The belief that anyone in this country can get ahead by just hard work is largely a myth. We live in an economy driven by capitalism, and we don’t want to tell the truth about what that does [to our society.] People feel invisible, maligned, forgotten. They feel abandoned by the very people they elected.”
When asked if she was ever hassled during her march, Ness recalls an incident in Canton, Ohio, when a heckler drove by, swearing at her, then stopped and jumped out of his car.
“I grabbed a Nerf sword off the top of my cart, turned around pointing at him, and yelled ‘Stay!’” says Neff. “He froze, then turned around, got back in his car and left. I figured he thought I was a crazy, homeless person off my medication, and he better stay away. I laughed all day!”
Another more life-affirming incident happened early in the march as Ness was passing through the outskirts of Gary, Ind. Hot, tired and behind schedule, she heard footsteps behind her and turned to see a “street person” following her.
“‘Can I help you?’ I asked,” recalls Neff. “The man’s name was David and he wanted to know where I was going, so I told him my story. He thought what I was doing was ‘really cool’ and asked if I was taking donations. I told him I was, but said he should keep his money, since he looked like he could use it more than me. David took out his wallet, showed me the $2 in it, and said, ‘I’ll give you one, and I’ll keep the other.’
“I still have the dollar,” she said. “I’ve made many contributions to causes in my lifetime, but never have I considered giving half of everything I have. The people who have the least, often give the most.”
In Washington, D.C., Neff was met by U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., and U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Ill., who congratulated her on the completion of her trek. Letters delivered to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner have thus far gone unanswered.
Ness admits the march has had a profound effect on her perspective about poverty and homelessness.
“I think the real message of the Call is that local people have local solutions,” she said. “The challenge is so much harder than I ever thought it was. It’s about giving up my biases about people that are poor, about my feeling that I know what is best for them.
“It’s person to person,” she added. “If we put good intentions into the world, then we can truly be a part of ending poverty in this country. If I let people know I see them as human beings with dignity, then I have done my job. It’s compassion and dignity that awaken hope in people. It’s about a conversion of our hearts, not just our heads.
“We say we are Christians because we believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ,” she said. “It’s our job to live that every day out in the world. If we really did that, there’d be no poverty.”
From the July 23-29, 2014, issue