Monday, July 27, 2009

The Lifeboat Station

We started a new Bible study at Mount Vernon Place on last Wednesday morning. To begin our discussion, we read a story that was given to me for discussion in a class I took at Duke Divinity School with Peter Storey. Here it is, "The Lifeboat Station," by Theodore Wedel.

On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur there was once a crude little lifesaving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought for themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for the lost. Many lives were saved by this wonderful little station, so that it became famous. Some of those who were saved, and various others in the surrounding area, wanted to become associated with the station and give their time and money and effort to support its work. New boats were brought and new crews trained. The little lifesaving station grew.

Some of the members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. So they replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building. Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully and furnished it exquisitely, because they used it as a sort of club. Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work. The lifesaving motif still prevailed in the club's decoration, and there was a liturgical lifeboat in the room where the club initiations were held.

About this time, a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick, and some of them had black skin and some had yellow skin. The beautiful new club was in chaos, so the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before coming inside.

At the next meeting there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club's lifesaving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to their normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon lifesaving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a "lifesaving station." But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station down the cost. This they did.

As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club, and yet another lifesaving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit the sea coast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along the shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown.

Monday, July 20, 2009

You're Invited

I don't fully understand what it happening at Mount Vernon Place. What I can tell you is that I have experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit in profound ways in recent weeks. It is so abundantly clear to me that God is at work in bold, powerful, somewhat scary and somewhat exciting ways. I have found myself preaching in a different way - putting a bold vision before the congregation of where God might be calling us. I have found myself turning down invitations to be part of something that might bring people and money into our congregation but that does not, necessarily, line up with where I feel God at work. And, I have found myself being available for tasks that I was never ready to be present for in the past. Clearly, the Spirit is working. A faithful conversation is percolating. New ministries are on the horizon.

To continue to get a sense of where and how God is working, we're starting a new Bible study on Wednesday morning. I'm calling it a pilgrimage of pain and hope through scripture. Unlike the Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope I was a part of in South Africa, we will not travel far geographically. But, we will travel into the depths of our church's community and into the depths of scripture. We will travel to the place where it might seem scary because God is inviting us to do such unfamiliar things. We will travel to the place where we open our hearts and minds wide to see how God might be asking to use us.

You are invited. You are invited to come downtown every Wednesday morning. I invite you to arrive downtown by 6:50. Walk around the church, peaking inside the nooks and crannies of the building, the porches and windowsills where people might still be sleeping. Walk around the area of 11th and K Street and seek to have your heart opened and then broken by the prostitutes who are waiting for their pimps to pick them up from a night of work. And then, come inside. Ring the bell and come up to the community room. Let's together open wide our hearts, the pages of scripture and our minds. Let's journey through the stories of pain where Jesus was fully present in the scriptures. Let's talk about what our eyes see when we arrive downtown early in the morning. Let's pray for God's guidance, wisdom and direction. Let's ask God for the courage to respond faithfully - to be a hopeful sign of God's kingdom on the corner of 9th and Massachusetts.

You're invited. The journey will likely not be easy. It will perhaps be painful or even lonely at times. But, after seeing the way that God is working, I am convinced that we cannot ignore this call, this movement, that is so abundantly real.

Come join us. Send me an email if you are interested. And, if you do not live in Washington, then journey with us through prayer or by reading the same scriptures.

You're invited. Will you come? Wednesday mornings from 7:00 to 8:00 a.m. in the community room at Mount Vernon Place. A pot of coffee will be waiting for you.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Our New Tenants

My husband, Craig, and I both bought one-bedroom condos in 2005.  We both purchased condos, not aware of the fact that we would earn the honor of having purchased them at the height of the market.  When we got married last June, we had more mortgages than we knew what to do with and more stuff than we could ever fit in a one-bedroom apartment.  We have downsized again, and we have found ourselves comfortable in his one-bedroom condo in Alexandria.  It has become our home over the last year.

In the meantime, we have been renting my old condo in Columbia Heights.  We were fortunate to have an amazing tenant this past year, a military officer who spends more time on the road than he does in DC.  Nothing has broken.  The rent has been paid early each month.  I only saw him twice - when he signed the lease and when he returned the keys last week.

During the last several weeks, Craig and I have been looking for a new tenant.  It was so easy to find our last tenant.  One advertisement in Cragslist led to two applications almost immediately.  Things have been a little more difficult this time around.  Just when we were putting the condo on Craigslist, several random acts of violence took place in the neighborhood.  Columbia Heights became a regular headline.  This particular article caught the attention of a young couple who wanted to move into my old home.

The young woman sent me an email, letting me know how much she and her boyfriend love the condo but how they were now uncertain about the neighborhood.  They asked for another week to consider.

Five days later, the phone rang.  It was her.  She shared with me how they had done their homework and were ready to sign a lease.  I met with her later that afternoon to learn that they had emailed our local Councilman to ask him what he is doing about crime in the neighborhood.  They had walked the streets of the neighborhood from 9:00 - 11:00 one night.  They had talked with individuals coming out of our building.  And, they had stopped a local police officer to learn his views on what was happening.  After all of this work, they discerned that they wanted to live in Columbia Heights.

As she was signing the lease she said to me, "There seems to be so much work to be done - so much need.  How do you suggest we get involved?"

I was blown away by her question.  I was humbled almost to my knees.  I suggested that she try a few of the churches in the neighborhood, letting her know that the Unitarians down the street, along with the Baptists, were trying to work hard.  I shared with her how many of the Church of the Saviour ministries are right down the street - less than four blocks from where she will be living.  

And, I keep thinking about her question.

What would it look like for every church to be asking this question, asking how we are called to get involved in our communities - how we are called to be part of the solution to crime, violence, decay, poverty, homelessness, etc.?  What if every business in the community started to ask the same questions?  And, then, what if the residents did the same thing?

I have this vision for our church's neighborhood - for the Mount Vernon Place neighborhood in Washington, DC.  I visualize a community of people working together - the Washington Convention Center, the people who occupy the old Carnegie Library, the Renaissance Hotel, the business people who work in 901 New York Avenue, the Embassy Suites, the people who will soon occupy 901 K Street, the residents of 1010 Mass, the people who live in the CityVista complex, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, and the unhoused population all around us.  I have this vision for what might happen if we all started asking the question, "There seems to be so much need around here.  How do you suggest that we get involved in the neighborhood?"

Imagine!  Imagine with me the possibilities.  There are so many resources, so much wealth, so many gifts, so many people, so many possibilities.  Imagine what might happen if we really took an interest in the place where we spend our work days, the place where we go to church, the place where our bodies sleep at night, the place that provides our paycheck.  Imagine what might happen if we saw all of the needs of the city as not someone else's problem but as part of our calling - part of our responsibility.

God, help us to ask the right questions.  And then, please, please give us courage to not only hear you but to obey you when you respond.  You're scaring the hell out of me by what you are doing - by the questions you are forcing me to ask and the questions our congregation is asking.  But, I cannot wait to see what is going to happen in this place.  It is so clear to me that you are at work - in abundant ways.  Help me - help us - not to be afraid of what might happen but to fully and faithfully trust you and then follow you, laying down our needs in order to pick up your cross again.  Amen.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Journey Continues

I was brought on a journey last week - one that only God is capable of planning and executing. When I last wrote, I had reached my limit. My compassion was rapidly diminishing. My desire to escape was escalating. My sense of desperation was at a peak. Thankfully, God has gracefully brought me back around, reminding me of what it means to be a citizen of God's Kingdom.

So many people reached out last week, offering helpful feedback, encouragement, and ideas. A former colleague reminded me of how public bathrooms are hard to find in any urban area - even Starbucks requires a key. She proposed that we somehow figure out how to provide bathrooms for our unhoused neighbors around us.

A former parishioner reminded me of who I am and more importantly, whose I am. Kristin wrote, I have NO idea what you are going through my dear and the turmoil inside regarding the unhoused. I feel your torment with the safety of the church, the liability, the nuisance...but I also feel your heart aching for those that are bound by addiction and poverty. A question comes to mind. How do we as Christians treat the unhoused when they enter the church? Is it any different than we treat them on the outside of the church. They need to be hearing your "perky" sermons, they need to know a Jesus that is a greater high than any drug, they need to know a love that is pure and steadfast. Why do they come to the steps---is it merely convenience, or is it something else? Is it safe, warm, Jesus? and how do you transcend what happens inside to the outside?It seems to me your options would be to keep the people, but give them responsibility or get rid of the people. You have modern day leapers--health hazard, liability, nuisance. Questions---has anyone from the church spoken to the unhoused? Are they the same folks every night? In your new facility, could you offer restroom facilities at a certain time (for them to clean up), could you have a "lawn event" for the church "pot luck" style? This is a chance for a new ministry that perhaps the downtown could unite in---they need to hear your message---you are a vessel of Jesus that overflows---someone on that porch is there to know Jesus. I think of your blog about the open door---people are touched by the grace of MVP.

Still another acquaintance wrote, Having outreach to individuals has to be the first step. Adding lights and fences may work, but at a cost to the aesthetics of the building and to your sense of openness. On the other hand, reaching out to your neighbors is not only good scriptural sense, it is also good survival sense. If there are options for housing, then it would be appropriate to have social workers assist them in achieving housing. All actions are answers to questions: how do I protect myself tonight, where can I meet the needs of my addiction, etc. Understand the needs that are being met by each individual using the church property and focus attention there. Addressing people as individuals with needs will help them to respect you and your property more. Having boundaries about what is unacceptable is very appropriate: no drug use on the property, no defecating on the church steps, etc. These are the big concerns. At the same time, it is important to recognize that people are using the church as a shelter because it is the best option that they perceive themselves as having. Official overnight shelters work for some people, but don't work for many others for various legitimate reasons. Peer outreach by previously homeless or currently homeless is often a good strategy. Many successful programs use the strength of champion community members. Those homeless who use the property can stand up for the firm boundaries listed above. I do not buy in to the degree of danger that was listed in the report. Staying on church properties puts individuals at little more risk, if any, than where they would be staying otherwise. Assault on the homeless occurs anywhere else that they might be staying. Pushing homeless away without reaching out to them just means that they will be victimized where you can't see, which is of no benefit to them, only to you.

We have so much to consider. I have been powerfully reminded of how little outreach we have done for the individuals who sleep here at night. We have been blessed with the privilege of serving at so many places that serve the homeless. We have many people volunteering on a regular basis at many ministry sites in DC. But, we have done little to get to know the people who sleep here at night. We have done no more than to say "hello," or bring them leftovers, or invite them to church occasionally.

We started a new series on the Lord's Prayer yesterday. The entire sermon will be readable later today on our website. But, here is a portion of what was preached:

Our church staff has been wrestling mightily with how best to interact with our unhoused neighbors who are sleeping around the church. A man named Charles has been sleeping on one of the window ledges for the past several weeks. Two brothers have been on the porch for several weeks. Robert, a man who recently lost his job, has also made a temporary home for himself on the porch. These are the people we know. According to these individuals, there are many other people who are making the mess that is causing us so much concern – leaving piles of feces and puddles of urine on the porch and steps and in ever nook and cranny around the building.
In the middle of last week, after picking up trash and hosing down this mess once more, I was ready to throw my hands in the air and say, “to hell with these people.” Let’s bring back the gates. Let’s post signs all over telling people they are not welcome. Let’s do whatever we can to keep the poor off our property.
But, God has reminded me that it is not my property and nor is it our property. You and I are people who pray, “Our Father” each time we gather. If we are faithfully following this revolutionary Jesus then you and I must respond like this Jesus. No where in the gospels does Jesus put up gates, especially to keep people from coming to him. No where in the gospels does Jesus put up with religious folks who are trying to keep the hurt and the pain of the world from him. Instead, Jesus leaves the religious people in order to go embrace and heal the pain of the world that is brought to him. Time and again, Jesus upsets the religious authorities because of the company he keeps. The nature of following Jesus is that we deny ourselves and take up the cross – that we let go of our needs in order to embrace the needs with which Jesus was concerned. If we are living this prayer, then the gates and the bars designed to keep the poor away are no longer an option – at least for any building that is seeking to be a sign of the Kingdom of God. The options, instead, are the ones that take a little more time, a little more effort, and a little more compassionate contact as we seek to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name.

Following the sermon, one of our members came up and said, "Why are we hiring a Director of Music when we should be hiring a social worker to work with the homeless?"

I am not sure where our journey will lead. I do know, however, that God is not finished with me, our congregation, or the children of God who sleep on the porch at night. We're on a journey. I hope you will journey with us through your prayers or your presence. We serve a mighty God, and I cannot wait to see where God will lead us.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

No Easy Answers

We have been struggling at Mount Vernon Place - struggling to discern how best to interact with our unhoused neighbors who dwell around the church.  I have been wrestling with what is hospitable and what is inhospitable, what is just and what is unjust.

Mount Vernon Place is a huge, monumental church.  There are large steps that lead to the sanctuary level, and there is a large, stone porch on two sides of the church.  This porch provides a good sleeping place for many of our unhoused neighbors.  It is protected from the wind or rain, high enough to keep one away from most of the rats, and above the street.  Many people have been coming to this place regularly.  Every morning we have to pick up cardboard boxes and debris.  And lately, we have had to clean up poop and pee almost every morning.  It has become a health hazard.  In addition to this mess being left, we now have many homeless people hanging out on the lawn of the church every day.  While there are many lawns all around us, a half a dozen people can be found taking a nap on the church lawn each afternoon.  Another person is asleep on the windowsill each morning.  And another person has been climbing a cooling tower to place their belongings.

I'm tired.  I'm at my wit's end.  My sense of hospitality is robbed each time I gag at the smell of poop while hosing down the steps.

We consulted someone else today, the head of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations.  Terry has suggested that we bring back the large gates that keep people off of the porch on both the Massachusetts Avenue side of the church and the 9th Street side.  He has suggested that we install a very short fence around the church's lawn - one that comes up to the shin.

These gates were present when I first got to Mount Vernon Place.  I found them to be an eyesore.  I found them to have a clear message, "Keep away."  I hated them.  I worked hard to have them removed.

But...Terry has told us we are asking for trouble.  We are creating a health hazard.  We are allowing illegal activity to take place on the porch as crack is being smoked.  We are allowing others to get too intoxicated at the top of the steps.  And, people are sleeping on and around human feces.  He event went so far to say that we are basically running an unsupervised homeless shelter with so many people around us - even when he visited this morning at 9:00 a.m.

There are no easy answers to urban ministry.  Situations like this one break my heart.  Again, I despise the gates.  But, I am learning that putting up boundaries might be the most just response - it might be the response that protects people from getting very sick or indulging in illegal drugs because they are out of sight from the people below.

And, as much as I want the church to be welcoming of all people, the church is also a place where a tremendous amount of work must be done.  Other businesses do not allow people to sleep all over the front lawn or door during the day.  Even homeless shelters do not allow this. So, why are we allowing this?

All of this sounds so harsh.  But perhaps in this case the harsh response is what is needed. Perhaps the harsh response is the just response.

What do you think?  I welcome your thoughts.  

And, if any of you want a lesson in humility, we are happy to loan you our hose and sign you up for morning duty.  You'll quickly discover how difficult things are.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Beginning of the Fifth

I remember the day as clear as can be.  I pulled up to a building in disrepair - a yellow brick building with an air conditioning unit hanging out of every window.  The parking lot was small, but my spot, "PASTOR'S PARKING," was clearly marked.  I got out of my car, made my way to the door with large bars covering the glass, rang the bell, walked inside, and started the adventure.

I made my way up the stairs next to a make-shift handicap ramp that seemed much too steep to be safe, followed the signs that said, "Church Office This Way," and entered through the door with a little bell alerting all in the hallway that someone had arrived.  The moment I got inside the office, I quickly realized that it was lunchtime for the staff.  The smell of Wendy's chili and burgers was permeating the hallway.  No one got up from their seats to greet me.  Rather, they pointed me toward the door leading to the pastor's study and told me that someone would be on their way to help me with my boxes.  It was a "welcome" I'll always remember.

That was Thursday, three days before my first Sunday.  When Sunday came, many people did welcome me.  Many others looked skeptical, clearly wondering why a young woman had been sent to be their pastor.  One of the first questions I received on that Sunday was, "Pastor, we always sing patriotic songs on the first Sunday of July.  You have not chosen anything patriotic to sing, however.  We don't even get to say the Pledge of Allegiance today."  Following the sermon, the question my mother received is, "Is she always going to be this perky?"

On that day, there were about 130 people in the pews.  About 90 of the people were members of the Chinese Community Church, a church with whom we had been sharing a building, budget and the 11:00 worship service for over a decade.  The other 40 or so people were members of Mount Vernon Place - most of whom had been members of the church for at least 40 years with an average age of 82.  There was one person from MVP in their twenties.  I seemed to be the only person in my 30s.  I was so excited - I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that God had called me to this place.  And, I quickly realized how much work there was to do.  I followed a long line of pastors and people who had been telling the church that they were within ten years of closing - but I had not been called to close them.  I knew, with all of my heart, that God was about to do something real, remarkable, and holy.

We have come a long way since that day.  God has done something real, remarkable and holy.

As I begin my fifth year as the pastor of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, my heart is filled with thanksgiving, awe and wonder.  I give thanks for the many people who have been coming to Mount Vernon Place since the 1940s and who continue to come - who continue to support this church faithfully with their prayers, their presence, their gifts, their service and their witness.

I give thanks for Mel, Heidi, Beth and Allyson - some of the first young adults to come to Mount Vernon Place - some of the first people to come to a church where there were few people their age - some of the first people to take a risk that more people their age would come.  These individuals were so faithful - so giving - so patient.  I'll always be grateful for them.  They prepared the foundation for the countless young adults who now come.

I give thanks for the extraordinary people who I have been privileged to be with - to journey with - at their end of life.  I thank God for people like Gilbert, Dorine, Louie, Marion, Carl, Frances, Harry and countless others who have allowed me to be part of their living and part of their dying and for their families who allowed me to be part of their celebration of life.

I give thanks for the new ministries that have emerged - the opportunities for service in our community, knitting prayer shawls, community small groups, an early morning prayer time, and many others.  I am also grateful for the individuals behind these ministries - the ways in which people have given so much of themselves to get something new started.

I give thanks for the ways in which worship has evolved.  We no longer stop right at noon.  We are no longer bound by a clock.  Rather, we see what God might have us to share, to do and to experience on any given Sunday.  I am so grateful for the ways in which people share on Sunday mornings - share in the passing of the peace, share what's on their hearts and minds, share in the joy of coming together to celebrate God's presence in our lives.

I give thanks for the building project that will be completed in two months.  That old building I first walked into has been demolished.  A new building, an extraordinarily beautiful building, is nearing completion, and we will soon occupy space in that building.  At the same time, a building that was finished in 1919 has been completely refinished.  I love our facility.  God has blessed us with so much.

I give thanks for the privilege of being the pastor at Mount Vernon Place.  There is nowhere else I would rather be than this place.  I cannot tell you how much I love this congregation,  these people, this city and this part of the city.

God, thank you for these past four years.  It's now the beginning of the fifth, and I cannot wait to see what you are going to do in and thru this place.  I am so thankful that you called me to be a pastor and that you allowed me to come here - to Mount Vernon Place.