Saw the most beautiful thing the other day.
It was death.
"What holy ground," said Sherry Campbell.
Days before Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez shot and killed five military members, reminding us of the tragic and violent face of death, I visited with Campbell to witness the sacred, compassionate side of death. We met inside a modest, four-bedroom home a few blocks from Brainerd Road. There, Campbell and Rachel Smith — both hospice and social work professionals, both with a humility and disarming humor — have created a shelter that's unlike any other.
Contact Sherry Campbell by visiting welcomehomeofchattanooga.org.
It's called Welcome Home of Chattanooga.
It's a place to die for those who have nowhere else to go.
"When you see what a good death looks like, how magical and sacred that is, you want everyone to be able to have a good death," Smith said.
Throughout the city, an unseen population of men and women die in desperate, lonely ways. With no home and no family, they die alone. In extended-stay motels. Or in alleyways. Or condemned, empty houses, surrounded by stray dogs and crack pipes.
Welcome Home interrupts that. With a preference to veterans and the homeless poor, Welcome Home provides compassionate, family-style love and care to the dying poor in our city, saying to them, your lives matter, and your deaths matter, too.
Since March, nine residents — with cancer, lung disease, heart disease — have moved in. Each is given his or her own bedroom, with artwork, handwritten notes and warm quilts over the bed. They share family style meals, cooked by volunteers. There is on-site health care. A back porch, overlooking a garden. A living room, with throw pillows, big couches and a TV. A guitar is always in easy reach.
The dying are whispered and sung to, prayed over, celebrated. As with any hospice work, Campbell and Smith are midwives of sorts, helping to usher the dying from this world to the next.
"We offer peace and safety," Smith said.
On good days, they may go fishing. On bad, they sit and hold one another through the pain.
"I had an uncle who was homeless and alcoholic," Smith said. "The last time I saw him, he was sorting through a dumpster. A week later, he was dead. He'd gotten so drunk he had died on the streets. It broke my heart."
In the years that followed, Smith continued to encounter people like her uncle. After many conversations with Campbell — "dreaming and scheming," she called it — both women finally committed themselves to creating Welcome Home.
"Through thick and thin, rich and poor. When no one else believes in us, we have to do this," they said to one another.
It all works seamlessly: folks once alone are now surrounded by compassion and care, which lovingly redeems their final days.
Volunteers, who do everything from cooking to cleaning to praying, are also transformed, able to witness and participate intimately with death and dying.
They then take their deathbed experiences and lessons out into the world — their homes, schools, churches and businesses — and help redefine death and dying from the taboo subject in our anti-aging, anti-wrinkle society into something we talk about in unafraid ways.
In the beginning, BlueCross BlueShield gave a big-hearted $360,000 grant over three years. Employees sponsored each bedroom, decorating and providing furniture.
Earlier this summer, Jack Zollinger, a local investment banker, stopped by. He's on the board of the Multifamily Coalition for Affordable Housing, a national nonprofit that supports affordable housing for low-income Americans. He presented Campbell with a $50,000 check.
"I just started crying," she said.
Soon, Americorps volunteers will be partnering with Welcome Home; the volunteer circle widens.
"They're really nice," said George Lawrence.
Lawrence has cancer; earlier this summer, he was living in an empty house in East Chattanooga; the water and electricity had been cut off. One day, Campbell knocked on his door.
"They found me," he said.
In July, he left his dark house for a warm bedroom at Welcome Home. There, he found a handwritten note:
"Welcome home, George. We hope you find a sense of belonging and that your time here is full of peace, love and rest. We are so glad you are here."
"Wasn't that nice?" he said. "Who would have thought of doing that?"
Your new family, George.
Contact David Cook at email@example.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.