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A church for everyone, even those on the streets

On the day last month they laid her ashes to rest in the garden of the beautiful old Tampa church, the skies opened up.

It poured as everyone waited, the reporters who hadn't known her and the homeless who had, poured as the people who work at Hyde Park United Methodist found an umbrella to hold over the head of Bernie Lieving, the pastor who would perform the service.

No, he said.

He stood in the rain to talk about Melissa Sjostrom, Missy to family and friends, a 33-year-old woman whose death would get more attention from the public than her life on the street ever did. A steady rain drenched the pastor's white robe and dripped from the end of his nose as he spoke, soaking the pages of the Bible in his hands.

Afterward, they asked why he went without an umbrella. He told them: She was out in the rain many, many times.

Just before Christmas as I stood looking up at the sprawling yellow-brick church with the downtown traffic whizzing past, a homeless man in a Mustang Basketball sweat shirt stopped to ask if I needed help finding the entrance.

Some of Tampa's oldest families may have called this church their own, but so do people from the street who come for meals and haircuts and help. They knew Missy here. She was here the day she died. That night, she was crossing a dark street not far away when a driver hit her and drove off.

The 16-year-old girl behind the wheel headed home to Davis Islands. She might have gotten away without punishment — her lawyer even got the traffic ticket thrown out — except for the homeless who kept Missy's name alive. Then came the headlines and the outrage, and finally Jordan Valdez faced a judge. "I know I was wrong," she said, and "I will keep Melissa in my heart forever." It didn't change what happened, but it seemed right to hear this.

For all the criticism her parents took about privilege and poverty and parental responsibility, the Valdezes came to the church that rainy day when some of Missy's ashes were put in the garden and stood by the rail, watching. There was grace in that.

A different ceremony came on a chilled night days before Christmas at a downtown park the homeless know well. People who cared enough to come gathered for a candlelight memorial and a reading of the names of 48 souls who died homeless in Hillsborough in the last year. Missy's was no doubt the best known, alongside guys called Crunchy and Murphy and the John Does, though she was not alone in having been hit by a car on the streets and killed.

Sometime next year, in the garden at the church, a plaque will go up with her name on it, the kind that mark the lives and deaths of others interred there. There is a marker for Burl Hoeft, 1913-1984. Twenty-five years have passed, but people at the church remember him, the homeless man in the donated suit who never missed services, the one the kids loved. His marker lies in a flower bed one over from Missy.

Past the iron gate that encloses the quiet garden, people hike by on Platt Street, tattered and dirty, hefting backpacks and hunkering down against a cold wind. They are a constant, a sad, steady rhythm of this city and cities like it, passing not far from where Missy finally rests.

A church for everyone, even those on the streets 12/24/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 24, 2009 10:35pm]
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