On June 7th, 2012, Gwen Jackson was found murdered on the steps of a church. Reverend Lisa Anderson, Pastor of Colonial Cumberland Presbyterian Church and Director of Room In The Inn - Memphis, was asked to speak at her memorial service. Below is the transcript of Lisa's homily that day.
It is a humbling experience to speak in remembrance and thanksgiving for the life of such a humble woman. I am not here alone. Today my voice represents two congregations and other friends who have mourned the tragic death of Gwen Jackson. We met because grace brought us together. God’s call to be brothers and sisters without boundaries was lifted up to the Iona Community of Faith and Colonial Cumberland Presbyterian Church by Reverend Leo Chang. Iona began to feed Gwen and many of her friends each Tuesday afternoon and along with Leo, Colonial Church made a leap of faith to bring Gwen and her friends to our church as guests for fellowship and a warm place to sleep during the cold months of the year. Modeled after a ministry in Nashville we began a Room in the Inn, open when there is no other place to find a night’s rest. The first time I saw Gwen she walked into our church with the group, quietly, bundled up, carrying a book in her hand. She found a church pew away from the noise of introductions and greetings. I went over and introduced myself as the pastor of the church and Gwen stood up and threw her arms around me and said “I’ve been praying for you.” I sat with her the few minutes before dinner and she showed me her Bible and a couple of scripture cards she had tucked inside. I said that it looked like her Bible was well used and she said, “It’s my only map.” From that time her life was used in our church building to share the reality of God’s grace and mercy in life no matter where that map leads. Her faith lit up her face no matter how difficult the day had been and her deep thankfulness for even the smallest gestures taught us that life’s blessings are a gift we should not take for granted. Gwen was not a homeless woman in her soul, her home was in Christ wherever she laid her head. The many volunteers at Room in the Inn came to love her gentle spirit and to count on her prayers for us as we also prayed for her. She was a witness to the transforming love of Christ.
To ignore the cruel violence that took her life would seem to dishonor her memory. This woman of faith and child of God lived life on the streets because of a failure that we all must claim. The very people who got the attention of Jesus everywhere he went are overlooked and disrespected by the majority of our society. We worship God in buildings that are only sanctuaries to our own needs and interest instead of harboring those in need. Gwen’s life is a beacon of light in our lives but also a light that shines on the reality of her death.
My congregation is left with the reality that we stopped our Room in the Inn in April and failed to enlist another congregation for the summer months while we use our building and volunteers for a children’s summer day camp for parents who are struggling in our neighborhood. On that Tuesday night Gwen should have been safely locked inside her sanctuary where she had a bed in a room where the door closed and she said “felt like a real home.” She should have shared in a meal and prayer with friends who care. Instead my church sat empty and locked that night. But so did the many churches within just a mile of the last sanctuary she tried to find. She told me in our talk when I asked where she stayed on nights our Inn wasn’t open that she slept on the steps of St. Mary’s or First Presbyterian because she felt like God was there for protection. Maybe God thought our churches were there for Gwen’s protection. Her story is one of faith in God and faith in God’s people, we were blessed to have known her, she is a martyr of the streets and her memory a challenge to us to open our hearts and our places of worship for the safety of women, children and men who are vulnerable. Vulnerable to the evils of a dangerous city but also vulnerable to the love of God’s Church.
We will continue to bring guests into our small Room in the Inn, we hope more will join us, and we will miss Gwen each time we are together. May God embrace Gwen with eternal love and protection and walk with her brothers and sisters on the street keeping them safe while empowering them with us to do what only we can do, building a Beloved Community where all are safe and loved.
Rev. Lisa Anderson