Still Unhoused in the Shadow of Success
Dateline: September 30, 2021, Bloomington, Indiana.
There is an old adage “success has many parents, while failure is an orphan.” Last evening folks gathered on the lawn of the county courthouse in our town to remember the thirty-two persons who had died without adequate shelter over the past year. No doubt others threatened by poverty, addiction, or hunger had also passed away. They were not known. This likelihood was mentioned; homelessness cycles for millions continually in our society. Where is there hope?
Candles were lit and small placards with the names of the known deceased were placed on the courthouse lawn. There were prayers, poetry and singing as several dozen folks lifted their candles in remembrance. The Rev. Forrest Gilmore, Director of Beacon Inc in Bloomington (an antipoverty program that grew out of, and includes, the Shalom Center Shelter) lead the service. Politicians spoke and a family member shared the important words, “We miss her. A hole is left in our hearts. Forgive yourself and others.”
It was an inspiring evening. The Rev. Joe Emerson, now approaching his 90th birthday, opened in prayer. He had first suggested such a service of remembrance back in 2004. Joe prayed. My thoughts went back to the United Methodist General Conference in 1992 in Louisville, to the beginnings of what became known as Shalom Zones. The 1992 Louisville Conference occurred as the trial of four police officers involved in the tragic arrest and beating of Rodney King was concluding. As the “not guilty” verdict was read, rioting broke out in Los Angeles. It was April 29th, midway into the two-week denominational conference, held every four years. How should the church respond? Those gathered in Louisville took their cue from the Rev. Joe Hyun-Seung Yang, a pastor in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, near the riots. Yang had set up a “relief center” that became known as the Shalom Community Center. Shalom, a word from the Hebrew Scriptures meaning peace, wholeness, safety, health.
In Louisville that week the Rev. Joseph Sprague from Columbus, Ohio (later a bishop serving in Chicago) proposed a Shalom Initiative. Civil rights leader the Rev. James Lawson and his brother the Rev. Philip Lawson, both delegates, rose to speak in support. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor. Within hours a denomination-wide program calling for “Shalom Zones” was adopted and funded. Shalom Zones were to be established around the world as places where persons in poverty could find safe space to build communities of hope and restoration.
In Bloomington, later that year and in years following, we began to pray, confess our failings, study and hold conversations on the biblical notion of Shalom. We challenged one another to address the broken places in our society, in our city. How might we respond? Make a difference? Many initiatives followed. Financial offerings were taken and shared; the church kitchen was used to provide meals for the hungry, clothing was collected and shared. In 1999 the church provided funds for one of the early Habitat for Humanity houses built in the city.
A day center for the homeless was up and running in First United Methodist Church’s fellowship hall by 1999. Here, persons could get mail, use a phone, have a meal and simply stay safe and warm. The need for more overnight shelter remained. Many incredible lay people in the congregation, and beyond, struggled to make a difference for those on the streets. Change, enduring change, needed a persistence practiced by the actions of lay persons. This was much more crucial than sermons or study times led by the pastor. The day center was given a name — it would be the, naturally, the “Shalom Center.” Lay persons, like Indiana University Economics professor Philip Saunders, joined dozens of others who began to widen the vision for what might be possible. In fact, the feeding program at the Shalom Shelter, in 2021, twenty-four year’s later, is known as Phil’s Kitchen.
At the service last night, a fellow approached and surprisingly called my name. It had been more than twenty years since we met in the late 1990s. Having overcome the challenges of addiction he had faced earlier, this man was now helping others. We laughed as he reminded me that many on the streets didn’t adopt the name “Shalom Center.” Instead they slurred the words, using street humor, they teasingly called the fellowship hall arrangement the “Slum Center.” These folks knew, and we knew, we could do better. Thankfully as the years passed many others joined together to do better. They persisted. Something much better has emerged.
I hear other origin stories about these beginnings of the Shalom Center in Bloomington. Each narrative holds its own truth… there have been many sources of action and investment. The sacrifices and generosity of so many since 1992 have made a difference. Prior to the 1990s there were already many fine service organizations (e.g., Monroe County United Ministries and Community Kitchen) assisting persons facing the brutal results of relentless poverty and non-available shelter. Today, even more organized resources are offered in the community through social service groups and government programs.
Yes, success has many parents. One must ask, has this truly been a success? Well, yes… and no. No doubt many lives have been saved and new beginnings discovered. Still, at least thirty-two of God’s children died on the streets in our town over the last year. That’s not the mark of success. Such an assessment is true in almost every city in the nation. Last night, I heard the politicians speak of aid that has been offered and I often read annual reports of the organizations in our city like Habitat for Humanity, New Hope for Families, Wheeler Mission and the Bloomington Housing Authority. Good, good and very good on them all. Still, still, still, there is yet a shadow over us. Thirty-two died without housing last year — this we know. Shalom Zone activities begun in Louisville in 1992 continue around the world. Scores of places have benefited through dozens of projects in the U.S., Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America.
Even so, in this nation and in my community, homelessness persists. We seem stuck, forever overshadowed by the tragedy of persons without safe housing. Many in our nation seem forever caught up in ignorance, bad theology and lousy public policy, devoid of humane responses to addiction and poor mental health. We must not fall into the trap of believing homelessness is about an individual’s moral failings, as so many seem to think; rather, these without shelter are evidence of our society’s moral failings, failings of our community, our economic and political choices.
How to move beyond the shadow? There is, as the scriptures say, a “great cloud of witnesses” showing us pathways forward. There are persons with a broader vision, a better response. In my city there is a “Heading Home” proposal that offers the better linkage of resources, more housing and earlier, more appropriate, and sustainable, interventions to persons in such crisis.
Across the nation, others point the way, typically these days initiatives are ecumenical and/or interfaith in nature. For example, note the work of folks like Ingrid McIntyre in Nashville, the Rev. Ingrid McIntyre, co-founder of Open Table Nashville, which seeks to “break the mold of what people call the church.” Rev. McIntyre led in the building of twenty-two micro homes in a Nashville neighborhood known as The Village at Glencliff. These are shelters for “medically vulnerable neighbors who are chronically homeless” as they wait for permanent housing. The homes form a sacred halo around Glencliff United Methodist Church. I can’t help but think about other churches, scores of them, where tiny houses might be built and homeless persons having interim shelter and linking the gifts of the congregation with those who need shelter.
In Dallas, an ecumenical initiative known as CitySquare has over these past twenty-five years grown from a food pantry into offerings of legal aid, to job development, housing rehab and the building more fifty tiny houses for those needing short-term housing while persons deal with addictions and other health issues.
In Chicago a group of churches joined together to build a new facility for Lincoln Park Community Service offering interim housing and job counseling for more than 120 residents.
This is a tiny window into the work of persons who are working to end homelessness. Each one is essential to ultimately addressing the challenge.
Finding room for the unsheltered can seem overwhelming, I understand. Even so, I join the Israeli novelist Amos Oz who suggests that when confronted by huge, seemingly intractable problems (like the fanaticism and hatred held by many Palestinians and many Jews in Israel), a productive option is to join The Order of the Teaspoon.
Oz writes that when facing an enormous, tragic situation, like a conflagration, a fire burning out of control, there are three options: 1) Run away; 2) Write an angry letter to the editor; 3) “Bring a bucket of water and throw it on the fire.” He goes on, “and if you don’t have a bucket, bring a glass, and if you don’t have a glass, use a teaspoon — almost everyone has a teaspoon.” Oz Amos [“how to cure a fanatic,” Princeton University Press, 2006, pp. 93-95] asserts that if millions who have a teaspoon form the Order of the Teaspoon to join in taking on enormous challenges, dramatic change is possible. [Homelessness is an enormous problem but small when compared with others like the Jewish/Palestinian divide which is the conflagration to which Oz Amos is pointing.]
Too many will sleep unhoused tonight on the streets of my city or town, and yours. Might we continue the vision of Shalom Zones begun thirty years ago — and, actually, centuries before that — [insert your own scripture here — there are dozens from which to chose]. What if we each brought our teaspoon to dose the fires that leave us in the shadow of the unhoused? So, please, find a place near seeking to make a difference. Persist, you and your a bucket of difference-making support, or add glassful or a teaspoon of support toward ending homelessness.