When winter light blended into damp evening chill, the story of colorful blankets splayed on the U.S. Capitol’s West Lawn told of not only the love and concern that stitched them but also the stark need of the intended recipients. Held on the winter solstice, Dec. 21, 2022, the Homeless Remembrance Blanket Project was planned by the ELCA Lower Susquehanna Synod along with other Lutheran and secular partners.

“This art installation, which is a culmination of hundreds of thousands of hours of work, has two critical purposes: to offer practical relief from the cold for people who are suffering from homelessness, and to build awareness around the housing inequity in this country,” said James S. Dunlop, bishop of the Lower Susquehanna Synod.

The effort expanded from a localized Pennsylvania project in 2021 to now displaying over 1,000 blankets and quilts from all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Many Lutherans contributed blankets and helped prepare, including members of Lutheran Church of the Reformation on Capitol Hill, a main staging site for the project. “It was fantastic,” said Jarrod Jabre, director of operations for the church. “Blankets came from all over and were stacked to the ceiling of my office.”

After helping lay out the blankets, Matthew Best made another observation. Best, a rostered minister in the Lower Susquehanna Synod, shared in a blog post that the Capitol building appeared to nestle in the collective covering, “as if the building itself was trying to speak to the legislators inside telling them to … pay attention to what the blankets and the quilts were really about—loving our neighbors and caring for one another.”

“Blankets came from all over and were stacked to the ceiling of my office.”

ELCA leaders involved in the event affirmed the church’s commitment to both service and seeking justice in addressing homelessness and lack of housing. “We know that congregations and ministries around the nation are the backbone of the service providers, without which our problems and our struggles in this country would be much, much worse,” says Amy E. Reumann in a synod video podcast.

Reumann, ELCA senior director for Witness in Society, also notes that deep concern about access to housing is bipartisan. Federal public policy advocacy, she says in the video, is informed by “grassroots experience of our congregations and ministries, where we can amplify our voices together for public policy solutions that can address some of the root causes of this problem.”

The effects of the problem are keenly felt in communities of color and on tribal lands, Reumann emphasizes. “As we seek policy solutions, we need to look at [equity issues], fixes for bringing greater balance and opportunity for people to have housing which leads to opportunities for education and employment and health care outcomes.”

The stories that make a difference

Susan Barclay, a member of St. Luke Lutheran in Rockwood, Penn., noted that as she strolled around the display, “people stopped, asked questions, and wanted to know how they could help. Almost all agreed that we as a nation could and should do better.”

Reumann suggested that those interested in advocating for the unstably housed not only respond to service opportunities and partner with coalitions that can strengthen individual efforts but also share what they know with local, state and federal lawmakers. “What’s happening in your communities to people you know who’ve been made homeless or have had a hard time finding housing, and what your congregation is doing in response, [are] the stories that make a difference when lawmakers hear them.” Such stories, she said, make lawmakers aware of “everyone that they serve and all the needs that they have a responsibility to respond to.”

“All the quilts would be distributed to those who were served that evening at the shelter and/or kitchen.”

A few people who had stopped to talk about the display came back as the event was wrapping up to pick up and fold quilts with Barclay. She then boarded a chartered bus to deliver the blankets to those who might need them. Friendship Place, a housing service provider in the Washington area, was one such destination on that longest night of the year.

“The gentleman in charge at the shelter that evening got on [our] bus and thanked us for those who would receive the quilts but would be unable themselves to thank us,” Barclay said. “He told us that by the time we made our two-hour trip home … all the quilts would be distributed to those who were served that evening at the shelter and/or kitchen.”

After a long day, Barclay confessed, “the ‘thank you’ and the need completely caught me off guard, as I shed a few tears. I hope the quilts provided some warmth and a token of our love.”

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