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posted: 7/22/2014 3:00 PM

Prairie circuit riders among early homeless in Arlington Heights

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When I read June 21 in The Daily Herald that our town was receiving an award for outreach to the homeless, I had two wildly disparate reactions. One contemporary, one historical.

First, I was grateful that the village was collaborating with the Alexian Brothers for Mental Health to aid the homeless instead of condemning them. What investigators found was that "a vast majority of the homeless have untreated mental illness so the design of the project was to have a clinically trained therapist conduct initial assessments." Those homeless who needed help were referred to Alexian Brothers Center where they could get necessary treatment.

There were a number of success stories, good for the homeless themselves and also for the benefit of the community.

The other group of "homeless" that are always in the back of my mind when I think of Arlington Heights history are the "homeless" responsible for the foundation of one of our town's oldest entities, the First United Methodist Church of Arlington Heights.

It was basically circuit riders who brought the Methodist Church to the area. Not all circuit riders were homeless, but many were. They traveled their "circuits," going from one "station" to the next, with never a letup until they dropped -- most before they were 40 -- "into the arms of the Lord."

The homeless circuit riders were like their leader, Bishop Francis Asbury, who had not a settled, fixed, comfortable abode for rest and recreation between stints on the circuit trail. When an old lady asked Asbury where he lived, he quoted a line from a familiar hymn that was strikingly appropriate. "No foot of land do I possess/No cottage in this wilderness/A poor way-farin' man."

The circuit riders were mostly young men in their 20s who had been converted at camp meetings as teens. The history of First United, "How Great Upon the Prairie," suggests that their devotion to their calling was fueled by their profound belief in the message they were carrying to their flocks and their disdain for the misery attendant on their continued wayfaring. "Their position astride their horses elevated the circuit riders above the bluestem grasses so they commanded a wider vision than anyone else as they crossed the prairies."

Their hardships were a great part of their glory. They endured storms, floods, persecutions. They generally kept silent about vermin, filth, hogs and hominy.

Homeless circuit riders were totally dependent on host families, who themselves often lived in great poverty, new settlers that they were. They did not have guest rooms for the preacher/riders who bunked down in any available space, often on the floor. One circuit rider told of thinking he was paralyzed when he woke and couldn't move.

It turned out that the family dogs had bedded down on top of him.

There had to have been hosts who welcomed the riders and shared better accommodations. But of course, what dominated the stories the riders told when they met, and their songs, was the rancid pork, endless johnnycake, and the edginess of some hosts as exemplified in this remembered blessing before a meal:

"Oh, Lord, look down on us poor sinners/For the preachers have/Come and eat up our dinners."

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