My friend Rhonda Romero passed away this evening, Monday, September 9, 2019 around 6pm.
I met her a little over two years ago, shortly before Beloved Community Village opened and she moved in as one of the first residents.
I see her with her construction hardhat on, her browned arms swinging a hammer, black shirt blazoned with the Homeless Bill of Rights, earsplitting grin shining out of a well lined face. The words I can hear her speaking most clearly are “Come ‘ere Sparky“ to her tiny dog and constant companion who gave us all so much joy; and “I love you Nate.“
Rhonda fled abuse, fled addictions, fled who knows what all...she was truly one fighting a great battle beyond my knowledge, as all are. But wherever she showed up, she brought care and encouragement. She was always sharing food, always loving on others, always taking folks in. As her family sat around her tonight stroking her head, they kept thanking her for taking care of so many people for so long. Thank you, Rhonda. Now the Lord is going to take care of you.
Too many things in this world are set up to create a people we call “the poor” and then do violence to them. Too many things do violence to women, women of color like Rhonda above all. Too often those things find ways to crawl inside gentle souls, waging violence in their mind till they begin to do violence to themselves.
And still there is so much love. There is so much beauty and grace and laughter and tenderness, even among the poor. Especially among the poor. Among women, among women of color most of all.
Rhonda had FAMILY. And her family, by birth and by the village, stood in vigil with her this evening as the priest read her last rights and her last breath past away. Such beautiful presence to a passing I have never seen. Rhonda showed me Jesus so many times. I will miss her. And I am grateful.
A BEAUTIFUL VIDEO FEATURING RHONDA
What does recovery mean? Rhonda’s life questions our expectations, undermines our demands. We believe one must first kick the habit to reenter the community. Must first get well before being admitted to the circle of belonging. But Rhonda recovered home, family, and community even though she never fully recovered from her addictions. Rhonda’s story calls us to reject the notion that anything else should come first before shelter or before enjoying the embrace of love. Her’s is a tale that exemplifies what experts in the field call “harm reduction” — a vital and practical grace that saves and improves lives — but it goes beyond that. When the harm shrinks more space is made for all those things that make for fullness in life.
For the privileged, presence with the poor produces new dimensions of suffering in those who enter such communities as friend. This is the grief and trauma and struggle gained by the privileged who choose to move toward solidarity. Such things are not the goal of friendship with the marginalized — no, shalom is always the goal, truly peaceable community founded on restorative and transformative justice and healed, regenerative relationships; along with it’s predecessors liberation, reparations, reconciliation, mutuality, and knowledge among others. But they are byproducts we must grow comfortable with, learning to thank God for them as signs of genuine presence and love. If we cannot embrace the regular occurrences of suffering that accompany friendship with the oppressed, we will not cultivate the resiliency required to stand for a lifetime in the fiery forges of liberation.
The homelessness industry has come a long way to now count “housing first” as a mainstream concept. Yes, housing should absolutely come first before we expect people to be able to hold down a job, handle all the complexities of getting on social supports, becoming mentally and physically healthy, overcoming addictions, having careful financial management, or coming to Jesus. Such things are nearly impossible while living in the chaos of the streets, and putting them up as barriers to the human right of housing is a gross form of extortion. But we at Colorado Village Collaborative have also pushed back on the ways that housing first has become an ideology, hegemonized by government bureaucracy and consultants, to the extent that what was meant to be only a beginning metastasized into an complete end in and of itself. Of course housing should come first, but then dear ones we look onward toward the horizon where shalom gleams. A home is a necessity, but we are here to move beyond that into community and forging deep well-being. I’ve said that many times at conferences and on panels. But I’ve never asked the next question: what comes last? Surrounded by family—by blood and chosen—and supported in the best medical center in Denver, Rhonda showed me what the best imaginable end could be. There were nearly 30 people in the room with her, stand vigil, stroking her, telling her they loved her, thanking her. May we not be satisfied simply by providing what should by rights come “first,” and may we all be so blessed when the end comes.