Every year, the Christ House community gathers on All Saints’ Day to remember those in our community who are no longer with us. Charles Anderson-Gray, Chaplain, and Henry Jones, Kairos Member, reflect on the community ofrenda and the All Saints’ Day service.
“I first encountered a community ofrenda while I was a student at Wesley Theological Seminary here in DC. Traditionally, the ofrenda, or offering, is placed in a home altar during the Día de los Muertos celebration to honor lost loved ones. During the week of All Saints’ Day, the community would set up a large ofrenda outside of the chapel. People were encouraged to place items on the ofrenda to remember loved ones, and the ofrenda became a space to grieve and celebrate life as a community.
I started working at Christ House in July 2020 while the pandemic was still in its early stages. We didn’t have many opportunities to gather but shared a great deal of trauma and loss. Members of our community had passed on, and we needed a way to honor them as a collective.
When it came time to celebrate All Saints’ Day, I decided to set up a community ofrenda in our dining room. We could visit it separately and remain physically distant, but the ofrenda still served as a shared and communal space to acknowledge our losses. Over the course of the first week, the number of pictures, candles, and items on the ofrenda grew. People stopped by for just a moment during the day to look. To take a moment of silence.
Since 2020, I have set up the community ofrenda every year in anticipation of All Saints’ Day. While classes and church services have resumed, the community ofrenda still offers a central place each year for us to acknowledge our losses, both as a community and as individuals. It is a place where we can come to remember those people who were important to this community.
What I have found to be the most meaningful aspect of the community ofrenda is that it becomes a place for telling stories. There have been many times where I have witnessed a member of our community point to a picture on the ofrenda and start telling others about that person.
“He loved working in the kitchen.”
“He was a good guy, he helped me out when I first got here.”
“She told me that I have to get serious about my recovery.”
Henry, who was the first Kairos Permanent Supportive Housing Member to join the program over three decades ago, attends the service held on All Saints’ Day each year. Henry lost his housing in 1980 and spent over ten years on the street before becoming a Christ House patient in 1991. At the time, he had lost touch with his brother Moses and had been unable to find him. Shortly after coming to Christ House, Henry received a call regarding his brother’s location. He was able to get in touch with him and help him get connected to Christ House where he became a patient and later entered the Kairos Permanent Supportive Housing Program with Henry. The two were reunited and found a place to call home in the Kairos community. “While we were here, we had a chance to reconnect,” Henry shared. Unfortunately, Moses was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2003. He received medical care from Christ House and specialist providers but passed away the same year. Henry places a picture of Moses on the ofrenda each year to remember his brother and the connection they shared.
During the All Saints’ Day services, the community reads aloud a list of over two hundred names of former patients, Kairos Members, volunteers, and staff members who have passed on but remain a part of our lives and our mission. After each individual name is read, we respond in unison “present” to acknowledge that these individuals remain present in our hearts and our lives.
Henry shared, “My first All Saints’ service was in ’91 and I was going through the ledger looking at names… When I was homeless and on the street, I missed three of my friends…I came here to Christ House and recognized their names on the list.” After being at Christ House for 32 years now, Henry reflects on the number of Kairos and staff members’ names that he sees printed.
Without the All Saints’ service held at Christ House, many of the names we read would not receive recognition due to housing status or strained family relationships.
“In the telling of these stories, we remember those who we have lost, but we also shape our future as an organization. We remember those who were important to us and try to live into the values that they exhibited. The ofrenda is about more than just the past, more than simply remembering our loved ones, it is about our future. It is about becoming the type of organization worthy of all the saints that have gone before us.”