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, inviting...in 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.