An Episcopal deacon will begin a journey next week that will take her on a winding road from Rockford to Washington, D.C.
The 65-year-old remembers the call clearly. It was August 2013. A major donation fell through, and Lou Ness felt hopeless in her job as the director of an agency that finds housing for Rockford's homeless.
"That's where I was in that moment, on the Kennedy Expressway, ranting and raving," Ness said.
"I looked over and I saw Harlem Avenue and I hear this voice in my head, [saying] 'I want you to walk out of the doors to the church. I want you to walk to D.C. and I want you to say 'you have not heard the cries of my people.' "
Ness says she didn't decide to make the trek right away.
"A call, for me, works you over. It never leaves you alone. In some part of my brain, it made perfect sense and didn't make sense at the same time. I knew what people would say. I know what happens when you raise your head above the crowd." - Rev. Lou Ness, Shelter Care Ministries
So she turned to some agnostic friends:
"Not one of them said I shouldn't do it and that probably was the scariest part. I purposely sought people I thought would say 'you've gone over the edge this time.' "
Ness says people have already doubted how effective her journey will be. She's a seasoned hiker already. She'll push a cart with a phone and iPad and solar charger. She's been breaking in 3 pairs of shoes for the trip. She'll be walking 10 to 15 miles each day, staying at churches, synagogues and temples in six states.
Ness isn't planning to walk alone and says anyone is welcome to join her along the way. Shelter Care Ministries will update her itinerary daily on their website and she'll still lead the organization from the road. She still isn't quite sure what will happen if she makes it to Washington, D.C. If she stays on pace, that would happen sometime in June.
"There's this idea that all they do in Washington is fight and nothing gets done. I don't necessarily think that's completely true," Ness said. "But I do think that we have forgotten how to disagree in a way where everybody gets a say. Maybe what you want to do is make sure every person who is homeless votes. Maybe you want to gather people together that live in significant poverty and ask them what they need and engage them in a partnership to create some local collaborations with people actually living in the condition."
That's the message she will take to small group visits that have been set up at churches along the way.
"There's not a 'one size fits all.' What I would do here in Rockford is different than what I would do in Deerfield. It will be different from what I do in Woodstock. The condition of poverty looks different from place to place. I'm letting people teach me. So I'm really trying to be open to learning along the way by listening to the people who live in communities."
Ness says she doesn't consider this trip will make a splash, but it may have a ripple effect.
"I don't know that I will finish, but I know someone will," she says. "All that was required of me is that I start. That I step up. People will take over along the way."
Details about the trip:
WHAT: “Hear Our Cry — Marching for America’s Poor”
WHEN: April 1 to (on or about) June 1, 2014
WHERE: Rockford, IL to Washington D.C.
WHY: To raise awareness to the plight of the poverty-stricken
WHO: Anyone may join for all or part of march
HOW: 815-954-5520 or firstname.lastname@example.org
ABOUT SHELTER CARE
• Established in 1984 as an outreach ministry of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Rockford, IL; annual budget of approximately $1.1 million
• Emergency, transitional and permanent housing currently provided in 28 furnished apartments including those reserved for families headed by military veterans or adults with disabilities