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.


pastorchrisowens said...

Here in Laurel, we have a quite a few homeless (unhoused) folks in our community, too. I encounter them everyday, and do a lot of personal work and networking to help move persons off the street into something more stable. By and large, it's been one of the most frustrating realities I've ever had to face as a pastor and as a disciple of Jesus.

There are simply no easy answers, but I do know the feeling of walking the tightrope between compassion and firm responses, both needed.

On another related issue, just the other day, I had to go and chase off some kids who were skateboarding on our premises. I have no problem with kids skating and would love to have them here, but it creates safety and liability issues, so I had to ask them to leave. I truly despised having to do that, and apologized to them for it...

I think part of our frustration is that as an institutional church who insists on having buildings, which subjects us to forms of regulation that know nothing of Christ-like compassion, we've limited the scope of Christ's compassion we can share. What if we were a church who literally had no walls??

Steven and Elizabeth Schindler said...

We struggle with this in our urban setting, as well. The only way we've been able to deal with it is to try to provide some level of solution to the problem - so we're building a 40-bed enhanced shelter (transitional housing) on our property. It's the only way we know how to be appropriately hospitable.