Wednesday, February 5, 2014

An Embodiment of Courageous Love—Lisa Jacobsen

Lisa Jacobsen with a load of supplies for Occupy Chicago.

Note: A little while ago I signed up to participate in a cooperative effort by writers, both ministers and laity called a blog-a-thon as part of the annual Thirty Days of Love campaign of the Standing on the Side of Love initiative.  The idea was to promote the variety of life experiences and perspectives of Unitarian Universalists bloggers, promote dialogue, and hopefully to bring participants to new audiences.  I have already contributed a couple of pieces.  But this is the one I originally “signed on for.”  It is in celebration of this week’s theme in the Thirty Days of Love—Building Bridges of Love and to reflect who in our lives do just that.  And I knew just who that should be.
When I first notice Lisa Jacobsen she was standing up in front of our congregation, then called the Congregational Unitarian Church in Woodstock, Illinois to be welcomed into membership along with several others.  She was a small, attractive middle age woman with a spontaneous explosion of blonde hair. 
She stepped to the pulpit as is our custom to say a few words of introduction.  She was, she explained, a practicing Sufi Muslim.  Pointing to one of the recently installed Centennial Windows which each celebrated a source of spiritual inspiration from which we draw—the one featuring a mosque cradled in a crescent moon—she explained that she was drawn to a spiritual home that could respect and embrace her beliefs as well as the others illustrated in the windows.  And, she added, because of our well established reputation in McHenry County for a commitment to social justice.
Well, I thought.  This is different.
We soon got to know each other.  I found out that she was a former editor and public relations person in the corporate world.  The rapid shift away from print media like newsletters and magazines and general corporate belt tightening had made her unemployed.  Her husband, Tom, was also having employment struggle.  She tried to keep afloat by the always iffy path of “independent consulting” and freelance work and by knitting and selling her colorful trademark hats.  It was a struggle.  How much of one, I had yet no idea.
I did know that Lisa threw herself into service.  She started volunteering at the PADS site we hosted every Wednesday night.  PADS is a rotating homeless shelter system in McHenry County hosted by a different church every night between October and May.  A lot of our members volunteered as well as folks from the community.  They laid out mattress pads on the basement floor, checked client in, prepared meals, monitored the place for safety, and sent everyone off in the morning with a good breakfast and a sack lunch.  But Lisa really bonded with the clients.  She took time to sit with them, listen non-judgmentally to their struggles, and help them find ways to overcome the daily indignities and obstacles placed in their path.  She respected them as human beings without labels.  And they respected, loved her back.
Within a year Lisa was site director of a new “overflow” shelter at another Woodstock church for women and children.  As the economy worsened in the Great Recession out shelter, like all of them were strained to the breaking point with the “new homeless” including once secure families in addition to the long term mostly males with substance abuse, mental health, and criminal justice system troubles. 
McHenry County was hit especially hard by the banking crisis and collapse of the mortgage system.  In the previous decade it had been one of the fastest growing counties in the US with subdivisions the size of many of its established towns springing up like mushrooms in the corn fields, filled mostly by young families betting their future on ever-escalating real estate prices and steady employment.  Soon page after page of the local daily newspaper the Northwest Herald was filled daily with foreclosure notices.
Lisa spring into action with the help of Principled Minds, a local group working on a number of justice issues, she helped organize support groups for those facing evictions and special training sessions at several locations around the county on how to try and prevent or delay foreclosure.  What I didn’t realize at first was that Lisa and her husband were facing the same crisis.
After the emotional battering progressive had taken in the fall elections of 2010 and the seemingly unending economic crisis unfolding around us, we were all greatly encouraged by the eruption of mass resistance in Wisconsin to attacks on working people.  Lisa was a leader in our Social Justice Committee in organizing a well-publicized support rally for the Wisconsin workers that drew about 200 people to the corner outside of the church.  McHenry County had never seen anything like it.
In the fall of 2011 we were all caught up in the inspiring example of the Occupy Movement as it spread from Wall Street across the country.  But out in the far boonies, we were remote from the action and most of us were at a loss what to do other than cheer from the sidelines.  Not Lisa.  She and Tom went down to the city where Occupy Chicago was trying to keep up a 24 hour a day presence on a strip of sidewalk in the LaSalle Street banking district.  They kept going back, getting to know the young protestors. 
Another member of the Congregation, Carrie MacDonald had a friend among the Occupiers. Impressed by their dedication as temperatures began to plummet and the police routinely confiscated blankets, back packs and gear, Carrie and Lisa decided to do something.  Through the Social Justice Committee she sent out an appeal to the members of the congregation for donations of items needed by the Occupiers—blankets, sleeping bags and pads, warm clothing, non-perishable food, toiletries, etc.  Within a week she had a crammed carload to deliver.  No other group outside of the city provided such support.
As a follow up in mid-November the Social Justice Committee sponsored a Rally for the 99% in front of the church which attracted over 50 participants and collected another large carload of supplies.  At that rally, Lisa went public with her own situation.  As described in a blog post about the rally:
Lisa Jacobsen eloquently shared her story of being one of the 99%.  A successful professional just a few years ago she finds herself at age 55 out of a job with no prospects on the horizon, without health insurance, her investments largely wiped out in the market crash and eaten up for survival, her house worth much less than what she bought it for, and is now in foreclosure.  Just one of many stories.  Several folks brought signs with their own stories.
The rally was also a last hurrah for social justice action at the old church.  In January we moved to a new location in a former restaurant building on the edges of the city of McHenry.  The Blue Lotus Buddhist Temple bought and moved into our old building.  The new location was not physically suitable for continuing to house a PADS site.  The Buddhists agreed to keep serving the homeless on Wednesday nights at least through the end of the year.
It was hard to give up a program that we had hosted from the beginning of the program many years earlier.  But it did not end our relationship with it.  Lisa and others continued volunteering.  She was named as our congregation’s representative on the Woodstock Area Community Ministry (WACM), a consortium of local religious institution that supported the Wednesday PADS site and other programs including the Direct Assistance Program (DAP) which supplies small cash grants and emergency aid for those who too often fall between the cracks of the social services “safety net.”  DAP volunteers had also used the old church building on Thursday mornings to take applications for aid and give out what they could afford.  In the continuing economic hard times not only was the PADS site bursting at the seams, but the DAP program was strained almost to the breaking point.
As May 1st approached, Lisa was worried about the folks from PADS who had become friends.  At the end of April the church shelters closed down for the season until the next October 1.  PADS clients were left to shift for themselves.  Some could get seasonal work and move into a motel room, some couch surfed with friends and relatives, others had cars to sleep in.  But most would become fugitive campers, setting up tents in snatches of remnant woods across the county.  If the campsites were found by authorities, the tents and possessions would routinely be destroyed or confiscated.  The homeless risked arrest daily as they roamed the streets looking for a place to sit down for ten minutes.
Lisa came up with the idea for Compassion for Campers and with the help of the Social Justice Committee was off and running with the idea almost immediately.  An appeal went out to the church and the broader community for a list of supplies.  Simple things—mosquito repellent, sun screen, bottled water, batteries for flashlights and radios, as well as tents, sleeping bags, and other camping gear.  Money was raised to buy what could not be donated or for gift cards for gas or meals.
To distribute the goods, it was arranged to host a picnic lunch at the PADS program headquarters building outside of Woodstock.  It was such a success that the Monday lunches became regular thing, attended by more and more of the homeless as word spread.  List became the coordinator for what became a major undertaking—making sure there was a good, nutritious lunch with food left over to be taken back to camp and which was varied over the weeks and months.  Volunteer needed to be scheduled from our Congregation but also from other churches and the community.  And it was important that volunteers not just serve meals and give out supplies, but that they eat with the clients, listen to their stories and really get to know them. 
The program was a huge success, not only for the help it was able to give, but for the experiences the volunteers shared.
After regular PADS sites were back up, Lisa was concerned that in our new location our congregation was not able to provide the level of support to PADS and the Direct Assistance Program as we had previously.  With the encouragement of our new minister Rev. Sean Parker Dennison, Lisa and the Social Justice Committee proposed the establishment of a Second Sunday Collection program in which once a month organizations serving the needs of the local population or advancing justice would receive the plate offering at worship service.  Compassion for Campers and DAP became recipients, as did other groups serving local Latino children, a shelter for abused women and children, PFLAG, the Committee for Detained Immigrants, the Veterans Assistance Program, a food bank, and an environmental group among others.
Lisa also became involved in helping arrange weekly lunches at a Day Time Drop in Program for PADS clients on Thursdays following the Wednesday shelter in Woodstock.  Most days PADS clients have to leave their sites by 7 AM and cannot return to another site, almost always in another city, until the next evening.  They have to roam the streets, find places to bide the time or keep warm all the while dodging police harassment and arrest.  The Thursday program at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Woodstock provides the only day of the week where the homeless have a safe and welcoming place to go all week.
Our congregation had a new name by the time the second season of Compassion for Campers rolled around—Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation.  Lisa was back to work dedicating hours each week to Compassion for Campers. 
But she had other things on her plate as well.  She was travelling to a distant suburb several times a week to tend an ill and dying parent.  And her own health was not good.  That summer when she conducted a lay led Sunday service on Sufi and Islamic mysticism, the head scarf she wore also hid the evidence of surgery for skin cancer.  She and Tom were also losing their long battle against losing their home.
This January they finally lost the house to foreclosure.  And they came within an eyelash of becoming homeless themselves because they could not find rental housing they could afford.  At the last minute they found a place at some distance from their former Woodstock home but still in the county. 
Lisa is still doing lunches at the Drop in Center and sitting on the WACM board.  She is going to pass on responsibility for coordinating Compassion for Campers this summer to someone who will have big shoes to fill.  But I suspect most Mondays this summer you can find her dining with her homeless friends anyway.
If anyone deserves an award for Courageous Love, it’s gotta be Lisa Jacobsen.


  1. Couldn't agree more, Patrick. She's one-of-a-kind!

  2. Patrick, as someone who has known Lisa for lifetimes, she is more than deserving of an award for courageous love....she is an embodiment of it....a true angel on earth. I love her.

  3. One of my favorite people, and the true embodiment of the idea of putting one's values into practice by helping others.
    -- Terry Kappel