Home, sweet homeless.
Ironically, that is the best way to describe how Derek Brooks and Rachel Gray, a formerly homeless couple, had felt about their living arrangements over the past year.
October marked one year that the two lived in a truck with their six dogs in the parking lot of First Lutheran Church on Atlantic Avenue in downtown Long Beach.
Until recently, they had been homeless for about four years, during which time they drove around each day searching for safe places to park overnight.
That is, until the day their paths crossed with the Rev. Doug Johnstone, pastor of First Lutheran Church.
"To find some place where the dogs could be was a challenge, because everyone told us to get rid of the dogs," Brooks said. "Pastor Johnstone and his wife, Sister Phyllis, were the only ones who said, `These dogs are a part of your family, don't get rid of them, find a way to work through your situation."'
For nearly four years, First Lutheran has participated in a program in which homeless people who have vehicles can spend the night in the church's parking lot - a safe, gated area.
Over the years more than 50 individuals - from college students unable to juggle tuition and rent to senior citizens who fell on hard times on a fixed income - have stayed in the church lot, Johnstone said.
Brooks and Gray were the longest tenants.
Gray recalls that the first night: "I slept in peace because I knew we were gated, and no one was going to come up with a flashlight and tell us we'd have to move.
Before Brooks and Gray became homeless, they could regularly be found helping in their community. Gray loved to cook, and the couple would often deliver meals to the homeless in their downtown neighborhood.
Brooks, who opened his own art business after losing his job as a technician, created art programs and workshops for inner city residents. Together, they fed and helped hundreds over the years.
When Brooks lost the business, the couple began experiencing the exact hard times they had often helped lift others from over the years.
However, instead of focusing on themselves, they looked for a way they could continue to help others even though they no longer had the resources to do so.
Brooks approached Johnstone and his church for help in helping others on Thanksgiving.
"I was like there's got to be a way to do this because this is a part of who you are," the pastor said.
Together the couple and the church started hosting feedings at the church. This year, Brooks and Gray served a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal at the church.
Even on days when financial situations seemed to overwhelm them over the last year, Brooks, Gray and Johnstone continued to deliver meals to those in need.
The couple also began working around the church. Later they started attending the church and recently joined. The church also hired Brooks as a part-time custodian, and he recently started up another business, Brooks Moving and Cleaning Co.
"I remember Pastor Johnstone telling me that, `One day you'll look back at this ...,"' he said. "I'll never forget that, because I think that that was pretty pivotal because it was encouraging, it was a moment of encouragement for me to keep pushing."
Recently the couple rented a place in Bellflower that allowed all six dogs to live with them.
"It's a very nice place. And it was a very good step for us to come out of homelessness," Brooks said.
Gray said at first, "I didn't know where I was because it was different. I'm always looking to see if I'm in a gas station. It was different to wake up in a bed, to have four walls, to be able to take a shower and take another shower and another shower."
If nothing else, the couple said their four years of homelessness taught them to not take life for granted.
"Pick yourself up and move and do whatever you can to get out of the situation and be a help to others who need the same thing," Brooks said. "I think what's important now is to remember what we've come from. To be able to be a part of the community means we are accountable and we should do our part within the community."
Although they are no longer homeless, the church parking lot will always be home, Gray said.
"I've always wanted to do this, just to be able to get into a church and do lunches or dinners," Gray said. "Just knowing that when we were living the way we were living, we had money, we had the gold, and we were still helping out, but that wasn't enough. This is one lesson well learned, and I never want to go back there."
For more information on the First Lutheran Church parking lot ministry, call 562-435-0777.