The Walnut Hills Fellowship

Dear Friends,
I do my best with these letters, but no words can really communicate the essence of what we are doing here.  For that, you’d need Smell-O-Vision.
In case you didn’t know, Smell-O-Vision was a system developed in the 1950s that released odors during the projection of a movie so that the viewer could actually smell what was happening onscreen.  Thirty years later, cult filmmaker John Waters tried the same thing with scratch and sniff cards.  In both case, the idea was to take advantage of the scientific fact that smell is easily the strongest and most vivid of our senses when it comes to processing emotional experiences. If you’ve ever smelled something and had memories you hadn’t thought of in years come flooding back, you know what I’m talking about.
What you may not know, however, is what the scent of urine in a hallway tells you about a low-rent apartment building, or what the combination of cigarette smoke and baby formula on an infant’s blanket tells you about a family, or what cheap liquor on an addict’s early morning breath tells you about the rest of their day, or maybe the rest of their life.  These are some of the smells I’m learning these days.
I know a few already.  At the grocery store the other day, I didn’t even need to turn around, let alone ask any questions to be sure the man behind me had no house, no car, no job, and nobody looking after him.  What I needed instead was the intestinal fortitude to talk with him like a friend even though he was mentally unstable, and to offer him a ride to the soup kitchen even though it would take half a day to get his stench out of my van.

I know marijuana in the afternoon air means I’m going to have to answer a lot of bizarre theological questions from my street corner buddies Richie and Big Mike.  I know the smell of mold and too many cats means helping a friend pass her Section 8 housing inspection is going to take more than a morning, and the smell of an open electric oven means we might as well not bother because her lousy slumlord still hasn’t fixed the furnace. And, unfortunately, I know the smell of fecal matter coming out from under a dirty set of clothes means it doesn’t much matter how skillful I am as an after school tut
There are wonderful smells here too, of course – ammonia in the spotless kitchen of a single mother with two jobs, soul food in a neighborhood restaurant, talcum powder on the older church ladies, my warm house at the end of a long day – but not nearly enough to cover the others.  If you are highly sensitive in that way, like Marty, how much you can love poor people sometimes boils down to how long you can hold your breath.
There is more to it than that, though.  As I said earlier, smelling things is probably the most powerful way that we feel where we are and what we’re doing at a particular moment in time.  No wonder a hospital administrator recently told me that his boss devoted an entire staff meeting to making sure their hospital smells as clean as it is, in order to subconsciously instill confidence in their patients’ families.  For better and for worse, smells communicate things that words just can’t.

The bad smells here do not instill confidence at all.  On the contrary, what they communicate is a deep, visceral sense of neglect and decay and futility that threatens to overwhelm this whole neighborhood and our hope along with it.  So then, when I tell you that my dream is to motivate and organize folks to clean things up around here, you can rest assured I mean that quite literally.  We have plenty of souls to soothe, to be sure, but we also have bodies to bathe and clothes to wash, basements to clean out and houses to renovate. 
I know we can’t change everything in our poor little neighborhood.  Honestly, my best guess is that we can’t even change very much.  But even on my most dismal days, when the odors of brokenness around me are more than I can stand, I believe we can, at the very least, leave some places and some people around here perfumed with the sweet smells of care, healing, and hope.  After all, most of those smells are simply a matter of soap and water, and hammers and nails, and meat and potatoes.
In the meantime, since you don’t have Smell-O-Vision, or Odorama, or probably even a good Aroma Therapy kit, I guess you’ll have to take my word for it that loving poor people can be an awfully smelly business.  Then again, maybe not.  Maybe you just know a different set of smells than I do, because you are trying to love a different kind of poor people.  I hope so, because I suspect that at least part of the reason God calls us to all this smelly loving in the first place is so we aren’t completely knocked out when we’re the ones who stink.
Thanks for helping God keep us here. 
Your friend
PS.   If you would rather receive this letter by email, just drop me a line at and we’ll switch you to the email list.