Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Lessons in Urban Ministry

There are things I absolutely love about the city. I love the diversity of the people and the energy I receive when I walk down a crowded street. I love public transportation - especially when it runs as well as Washington's system of trains and buses. I love being able to walk to the dry cleaner, grocery store, and CVS. And, I love where our church is located.

We're directly across the street from the Washington Convention Center which means that I can almost always tell you what convention is in town. I have learned many things about conventions since working at Mount Vernon Place - like how AIPAC is the only group that gets police escorts for their buses - no matter what time of day it is or how 15,000 people attend Digestive Diseases Week and each one gets a purple backpack.

I also love how there are new buildings going up all around us. I can hardly wait to welcome our new neighbors at the Ten Ten Mass building or at the City Vista development down the street. There will soon be people moving in all around us.

Again, I love the city. But there are parts of city life that I would rather avoid. Parking would rank near the top of the list. The high cost of living is also a downside. And there are other issues that pastors serving in the city have to deal with that many other pastors do not. I was brought to a whole new chapter in my lessons on urban ministry yesterday.

I was outside talking with Michael, one of our homeless neighbors, when one of our church's interns from Wesley arrived on the scene. Theon approached me and said, "What are you doing, Rev?"

I responded, "Cleaning up crap."

Theon assumed that I was doing the less than wonderful things a pastor has to do - whether it is dealing with the budget or difficult people or tending to the physical plant. Theon then came inside the trailer and started to tell me about his recent trip to Mississippi. As we talked, I could not help but to look out the window behind him where I saw more crap that needed our attention. "Theon, would you be willing to help me?" I asked. Theon immediately said "yes," and we walked outside, gathering trash bags before we left. Theon soon learned that the word "crap" was not a euphemism.

One of our neighbors had left quite a mess when he stayed on the church's lawn throughout the weekend and on Sunday night. When we met him on Sunday, he told us he was cleaning up his mess. The mess, however, was not trash. The mess was something I would do anything to avoid. When you are homeless, there are not many places in the city whose restrooms are open to all of the public. Even Starbucks requires a key to use the bathroom, making sure that only paying customers come inside. This neighbor apparently had no where else to go. And, there was no one else to take care of the soiled blankets he left behind. The blankets had to go.

Theon and I held our breath, completed the clean up job, and both got a lesson in urban ministry. No one had taught me about this aspect of ministry before.

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