Like most kids, when I was a child growing up in rural Mississippi, I used to pray for snow.
Even if it looked like snow, they would cancel school. I remember we were once sent home early because it got cloudy. That is a true story.
I lived more than 20 miles from the elementary school and rode the bus through 40 minutes of winding back roads of mostly dirt and gravel to get there. Those roads could barely handle a thunderstorm, let alone a snowstorm.
These days, I see lots of people on Facebook and Twitter who pray for snow. These people, however, are adults. They have homes with heat that works and a dry bed to sleep in.
These are people for whom snow means a beautiful landscape, an experience for the kids, a shot of brisk air as they walk from their front door to the car in the driveway.
In the last seven years, though, I haven’t been able to pray for snow. Or cold weather. In fact, I have a hard time being excited when it rains, no matter how much my tomatoes may need it at the time.
Because for the people we minister among at Love Wins – a ministry of presence and pastoral care for the homeless and at-risk population of Raleigh, N.C. – weather is a matter of, quite frankly, life and death.
Like most of the rest of the country, we just survived several days of the “polar vortex,” with temperatures in the single digits at night and not breaking freezing during the day.
And every night, we knew the names of people who were sleeping outside.
These were people who were not permitted in the shelters or who refused to be separated from their common-law spouse. There are no family shelters, as such, and the few options that do exist need marriage licenses.
The list also included those whose personal demons surface when they are surrounded by hundreds of others, crammed onto a concrete hallway floor on a yoga mat in the emergency shelter.
Every day during this extreme cold, we would go through the list – did anyone see Henry today? How about Sam? Is Debby OK?
For the most part, everyone is accounted for, but the memory of past winters, where bodies were not discovered until days after the thaw, is never far from us.
So we tend these days to reserve our prayers for folks we have not seen yet, for the people who have to endure the shivers that come with darkness, who are themselves praying to wake up in the morning.
For the record, we don’t think people praying for snow are bad people – they just don’t know the people we know.
Because when you recognize someone as your neighbor, their problems become your problems. And when that happens, things begin to change.
Hugh Hollowell is the pastor and director of Love Wins Ministries in Raleigh, N.C. A version of this article first appeared on the Love Wins blog and is used with permission. You can follow Hugh on Twitter @hughlh.