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.


cheryl said...

Wow - so powerful. As co-leader of the Serve Team, I've felt compelled to find answers to this too, but I haven't weighed in yet because I don't have thoughts or answers, just more questions about all of this.

But that question is interesting - why are we hiring a Director of Music when we could hire a social worker and establish schedules for bathroom & shower use? Not that I don't love our music, but could we dial back the music and create what we can with it and instead of enhancing our music, instead could we give the basic necessities to others? A toilet, a shower, some food, referrals to get help, etc.

Could we strip our church of things considered above and beyond necessary to give the necessities to those who don't have? Could we raise extra funds for this if we want to keep some of our nice to have's, like music?

I'm not knocking music, and I know we all need to experience worship in different ways so that we can serve, but I want to know what can we do 'without' so that others can be 'with'?

Much easier said than done, I know...

pastorchrisowens said...

What a beautiful reflection, Donna, especially in bringing in your sermon series from the Lord's Prayer. Prayer must lead us to righteous action...

I think you've been guided by the Holy Spirit into a balance of compassion/openness with expectations/accountability. That's a balance we work to keep here at First UMC, too.

Keep it up, Donna!! God is using you in a powerful way with your church...

Kristofor said...

I’m not sure the comment about hiring a social worker instead of a director of music and arts is appropriate. I do not think this challenge requires that type of choice to be made. Our church has prayed, discussed and realized that we have a need for music. What we are only now realizing is that we have another need as well. Instead of asking what in the church's budget we should cut, what if we asked everyone in the Congregation what they would be willing to go without to fund additional resources for our neighbors? I think we would be blessed by the generosity of our church, both in time and gifts. I think that we can also figure out how to respond as a church in a similar way to how we responded to our needs for music. We prayed, met together to brainstorm, and then intentionally set out a process that was open and transparent for all in the Congregation.

I know that I have been able to ignore our homeless neighbors because I usually leave before our neighbors arrive or arrive after our neighbors leave. I’d be more inclined to ask what more can I offer, rather than what should our Church cut.

I also know that I haven't tried to seek out our neighbors where they are and tried to engage them, talk with them, or listen to them. I've gone only where I am comfortable engaging them--at shelters, or serving meals--on some level these places pose less of a risk. If I wanted, I could never show up again. Would I try to welcome our neighbors to service with the risk that the might actually come again? Would I dare go and seek out our neighbors at 1:00a.m. to open up our church bathrooms? Would I dare try sleeping out on the steps? Is my faith strong enough? I'm scared the answer is not quite Christ-like.

There is also another problem for our church: we have staff that have graciously been cleaning our facility, both of poop and leftover bottles or trash. As as Congregant I know I am guilty of thinking that "someone else will clean up" if I don't. We have a responsibility of stewardship for our building, and sadly we have delegated that responsibility to our staff.

I would love if we met together as a congregation and truly put our fears at Christ's feet and began to think of ways to radically offer hospitality, grow our community to include all of our neighbors, and think of ways to individually be responsible stewards of our church.

The ideas are endless: What if we decided to wake up really early and come down to the church and offer breakfast for our neighbors on the steps and invite our neighbors inside to shower, use the bathroom, and come to service? What if we also ate breakfast with our neighbors, and had morning worship and sang songs right out on the steps together?

To be honest, I cringe at the idea that we should hire a social worker as I cringe at the idea of putting up a fence. While a social worker may be a good idea if well thought out, I worry that doing so is but a quick response that includes hiring someone to do the "dirty work"--the work that we would prefer not do ourselves. I fear that having a social worker or fence may absolve me in some way from having to make a real commitment to living with our neighbors. I fear that when someone asks me for help, or approaches me I may be more inclined to direct them to our social worker out of fear and discomfort rather than out of love. I fear that I may come to expect the social worker to clean up the pile of crap, instead of me.

I suppose my response right now is that, like Cheryl, I don’t have any answers. God has been trying to open my eyes, and through Donna’s blog, sermon, and other’s stories, they are finally beginning to see our inadequate response thus far. However, I do know that we can work together as we have on so many other challenges to answer this call with a loving and Christ-like voice.

cheryl said...

Me again... these are all great thoughts and struggles.

I agree that hiring a social worker can seem like someone else doing the 'dirty work'. Kris - you bring up a lot of great questions of things we all could be doing more of - to get uncomfortable and get in there to do God's work.

I also struggle with how to balance doing God's work, which requires extra time & commitment vs. already existing commitments like a FT job, family, etc.

No easy answers but we must all struggle through this together and do something/many things to change how we're currently handling this.

Other thoughts? This is a great discussion!

kel said...

hiring a social worker or not, i think it would be wise to consult one, or several. a social worker wouldn't clean the steps, but he or she might set up a program for having it done. like a schedule for church members or the homeless people to do it. or maybe start an advocacy campaign to encourage local businesses to open their bathrooms for public use. not that you'd have to be a social worker to do those things, but having a paid position with time dedicated to those things would be the difference. the real advantage to working with social workers would be their knowledge of issues, knowledge of and connections to local supportive systems, and their experience in having already done all this before. don't think it would be like passing it off onto someone else--there's no shame in seeking professional help.