The memorial service had just started when the homeless man walked into the church, took off his shirt and started vigorously cleaning his feet. More than 60 people were gathered at Trinity Lutheran Church for the 4 p.m. Sunday service honoring homeless people who died in 2012. This was the fourth year for the memorial, organized by Celebrate Outreach, a collaboration of downtown churches.
"Today we are here to give the homeless something more important than the material goods they lack — respect," said Kathleen Korb, minister of Unitarian Universalist Church of St. Petersburg. "The respect for the decency of life that all human beings deserve."
As Korb spoke, the shirtless man scrubbed his feet with hand sanitizer left in the pews for people to use as they share prayer materials. Some people stared. Most ignored. He made ignoring more difficult by propping his feet on the pew in front of him and continuing to scrub, mumbling as he worked.
His ramblings seemed disconnected from the service until Amazing Grace, sung by Stacy Rush, 52, a former homeless woman from St. Petersburg. The man shouted "Like me" before Rush could finish the first line:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
He grew quiet, though, as the names of the dead were read.
Names like Natalie Rogers, who wanted to be independent despite her mental illness, according to pastor G.W. Rolle. Rogers, 53, died in May after a fire engulfed the vacant home she was sleeping in.
Names like Tanya Peterson, who used to live with Rolle, a former homeless man turned pastor of justice ministries for Missio Dei community church. Peterson was a drinker in her 30s, Rolle said, who "could never get out of her own way." She died of cirrhosis a few months ago, Rolle said, on someone's couch.
Names like Carl Gibson, better known as "Chief," because the short, bespectacled man was an American Indian. Gibson and Rolle sold newspapers together years ago. "Chief" wasn't much of a drinker back then, Rolle said, but that changed over the years. Gibson, 59, died Dec. 6 after he slipped and fell into Booker Creek and drowned.
The Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office gives Rolle a list every year of the homeless who pass through its Pinellas division. This year's list had 45 names, but Rolle knows that's not everyone. In death, like in life, some of them fall through the cracks.
"For the dead, it's important to remember them," said Rolle, 57, after Sunday's service, which concluded with dinner, a feast of chicken, ham, mashed potatoes, deviled eggs, raspberry cobbler, cherry pie and more.
"For the living, this is about hope," he said. "Every day you wake up, God approves of you. And if God approves of you, you have a chance to improve your life."
The service is part of a larger remembrance, the National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day, that officially takes place Friday.
As the service ended Sunday, the man who had cleaned his feet squeezed more sanitizer onto his sandals, lining them with soap before he strapped them back on. He reached into his backpack and put on a new shirt.
As he walked out, he told a stranger his name — David Kupczyk. He is 45 years old. His eyes were blue but cloudy, tinged red. He was asked if he knew any of the names.
"A few," he said. "I can't talk about it."
Then he left. Blue plastic rosary beads dangled from his backpack. They swayed from left to right as he walked away.
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or [email protected]