He showed up after most of the group had gathered. Speeches were being made against the war in Ukraine. There was also a clear accounting of the continuing threat of nuclear conflagration in our world. The group started small, perhaps two dozen. I recognized some from demonstrations thirty years earlier. It was an interfaith gathering. Truth is, it was mostly folks from the Quaker, Unitarian and Jewish traditions. There were a few Methodist types attending — but not many. Here we were, gathered again, persistant voices against violence and war. I had shown up early to join “my people,” and I also came to observe and to learn. As the speeches began, others joined, the crowd slowly grew. Some had brought Ukranian flags. Others carried signs calling for the end of war and stopping the aggression by Mr. Putin.
As the crowd grew, by my count, to just over one hundred, others passed by enjoying the warm March weather. We were on the south lawn of the County Courthouse in Bloomington, Indiana. One woman wove her way through the crowd distributing packets of Sun Flower seeds, a sign of peace in Ukraine. A few passing motorists blew horns in support. Mostly, people on the sidewalks barely noticed, on their way to the coffee or ice cream shops nearby. A speaker, standing beside an old Civil War canon, finished his reflections by saying “I don’t have any easy answers, but we must stay vigilant. In these difficult days we must do all we can to stop such tyrrany.”
From the back of the crowd a man shouted “Bomb Ukraine.” He scolded the speaker, “What do you mean you don’t have any answers?” We turned to see him, swaying behind us, clearly under the influence of alcohol or drugs. He erupted again, “That’s no good. We need to bomb the hell outta somebody.” As the inebriated shouts continued, someone begain to sing “I ain’t gonna study war no more.”
I joined in for a verse or two and watched as the man uncertain on his feet swaying and occasionally shouting. It is not surprising that this too was ridiculed by the drunken man. “Singing ain’t going to do any good against bullets and bombs. This is stupid.” He weaved and stumbled before shouting again, “Bomb Ukraine. Get Poland to join the fight, they are mean SOBs.” Folks moved away — others began to disburse — still others sang louder.
Slowly approaching him, I asked, “How are you do’in? Anything I can do to help?” Our eyes met and we both understood. He knew my modus operandi as much as I knew his. Laughing, he slurred, “You a preacher or someting?” Caught. I chuckled and said, “My name is Phil.” “Phil the pill,” he responded. He had me pegged, preacher, social worker, or a physician or counselor, or someone experienced around addiction. I asked his name, “It’s Joey, showy Joey.” We talked on for a few minutes. Not arguing but speaking out of our deepest hopes. Joey said he had recently lost his job, was from Texas. When he asked again if I was trying to “save him,” I replied, “God is already working on you… and on me too. You are about to be caught. God bless you, showy Joey,” I said. He stuck out his hand to shake. I touched his shoulder. Our eyes met again. Two children of God recoginizing each other.
Turning for home, this all seemed to me to be an apt metaphor. Joey, shouting for attention. Others like me who only know to sing the songs of Zion from our past while in this wilderness, while many of our politicians, drunk on narcissism, grievance, or thirst for power speak as foolishly as Joey about bombing and killing. The greed and drunkeness for power in our nation has contributed to our dilemma. The senior senator from South Carolina publicly calls for an assination of the Russian leader. Violence is the only tool he seems to know. While the senior senator from West Virginia, so drunk on his addictions to fossil fuels, calls for increased drilling and mining in the U.S., not wanting to miss the opportunity to supplant the Russian production of petroleum and turn a profit for himself and his friends. Will this violence, greed and hunger end without an enormous expenditure of life and treasure? I fear not; even as the violence spirals across Ukranian communities? We grope for a way forward amid the darkness and grieve the suffering of the innocents.
As the sun set, I journeyed to prayers at a local church. On a different liturgical calendar, this year the Lenten Season in Eastern Christianity begins a week after ours. Lent starts with “clean Monday” or “pure Monday” and prayers are held on the Sunday evening prior with a time of forgiveness. At the service in Bloomington there were prayers for Ukraine and for Russia… and for Europe and for Ethopia and for Syria and for the U.S. There were prayers for our leaders – the wise and the foolish. And there were prayers for all the people of Ukraine. And there were prayers for Joey — and the Joey that resides in each and every one of us.
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.
Citizenship depends on connection. Constructive membership in any group is rooted in the belief that there is space in the institutional ecology for a person’s engagement and contribution. Novelist, poet, farmer and cultural critic Wendell Berry put it succinctly “Connection is health.”
Berry says that it is “only by restoring the broken connections in our society that we will be healed.” It is not just the edges of institutions that are frayed and fractured today; there is a disconnection at the very center. Nor, is it only a brokenness between individuals. Linkages between institutions and their members, and linkages among institutions are also broken.
Yesterday, thirteen United States Senators emerged from secret meetings to propose a heath care reform package. Amazingly the proposal is opposed by the hospitals and/or university health research institutions in their home states.
Polling shows that fewer than one-fourth of the citizens in these states support the proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act, still this proposal is moved forward.
A majority of American Roman Catholics in the United States do not support the church’s views on birth control, remarriage, having married priests or women priests (Pew Research on American Catholics) and yet change seems unlikely in the short-term.
There is growing evidence that human caused Climate Change is a dangerous emerging phenomenon. (This research has been done not only by independent university or industry based scientists but also by researchers at government-funded institutions like NASA or the U.S. military); yet, recent government policy actions move us away from healthy responses regarding environmental degradation.
The opioid epidemic, with increasing death and higher HIV-AIDS rates, is at crises levels. Local police and healthcare providers now find their own health threatened by the powerful fentanyl powders being used and potentially inhaled by the persons providing care. These service providers make specific recommendations to address this fentanyl problem; however, our political leaders respond by doubling down on the failed policies from the 1980s. This disconnect is about life and death for our healthcare and law officers, our neighbors and the communities in which they reside.
The list could go on and on: there is a disconnect between many trade union leaders and their “members,” between the governor of Illinois and the legislative leaders, between the gentrifying neighborhoods in our cities and the people who are losing their residences and communities.
I have long been disheartened by the brokenness in my own denomination, the United Methodist Church. Not just the divide between those with theological differences, or the young and older members, or the urban and rural ones, but also the divide among our institutions and between institutions and the people. My work has led me for example to see the brokenness between our seminaries and the local churches they were designed to serve.
I recall the day when serving as a seminary president I spoke with a talented young woman, encouraging her to seek ordination as a pastor. She paused a moment and said, “I don’t think I can trust the denomination with my vocation.”
I mention this young woman because she represents, in my experience, a growing number of our younger folks. Still we seem slow to reconnect with them. The “disconnects” in the church among institutions, and between our institutions and individuals, some days seems insurmountable to me. Having been both a pastor and seminary administrator, I understand. And, I believe there is productive work to be done in healing such broken connections.
More recently, I joined a group of persons seeking to encourage the church to take seriously its commitments of care for God’s creation. We proposed legislation to the annual meeting of my regional body, known as an annual conference. There were persons eager to see the church begin to make a difference regarding our environmental actions. To my sadness, this genuine enthusiasm was met by denominational leaders who sought to avoid any conflict by moving to table the proposals. It was both astonishing and sad for the group, many of them younger folks, who saw these proposals as a way to seek healing in the divisions between our words and actions, between our local churches and the need for better care for creation.
When all of these signals are flashing danger, how might we respond?
Well, this is for you to decide, dear reader. It is also an opportunity to join with others, in existing institutions, and the creation of new ones, to offer places of citizenship and membership.
For me, I will continue to challenge, and build new relationships, with the leaders of my regional body who seem so opposed to proposals regarding how our congregations might respond to climate change. I will speak out on issues related to the opioid epidemic and get to know the persons on all sides of this challenge so that I might help make new connections. I will challenge the efforts of my congressman and senator to strip medical coverage from more that twenty million persons in our nation, while giving large tax cuts to the rich. I will challenge these congressmen to listen to hospital administrators and university researchers who may provide creative, alternative approaches to providing health care.
We are not alone. Others are seeking to build connections as well. Let me tell you about my friend. A young pastor, serving in a small and conservative town in my state. What is remarkable is that this young man would be considered by many to be too liberal, too concerned about the poor, too invested in environmental justice to fit in this small town parish. So, when I asked how he was doing, I was prepared to hear about his difficulties, his disappointments. Instead, I saw a broad smile and heard him say, “It’s great! This is just where I am supposed to be!” He acknowledged that he had his differences with some folks, but that he was enjoying learning from them and they from him.
I have known this young man for many years now and seen him mature. He completed his undergraduate and seminary work as an honors student — top of the class. He becomes for me a sign of hope. He understands Wendell Berry’s call to restore broken connections.
There she was in the alley. Pushing a shopping cart. She might have been mistaken as a homeless woman, except the cart was transporting a box of strawberries and a thermos of coffee. Beside her along the route of sidewalk and alleyway, we walked. She was recognized, and sometimes greeted, along the crowded path. I looked on and saw scenes replaying over and again, as if she came from central casting.
I was unprepared to meet Ann Livingston, founder of a group known as VANDU. We were in the east end of Vancouver, B.C., Canada. VANDU has been around for almost twenty-five years as an organization of drug users and former users. They organize as peers, seeking action to better their neighborhood, their personal situation and that of others. Ann is what I call a “divine irritant.” She challenges the taken-for-granted worlds of Vancouver.
Ann disrupts the “normal” activities of police officers, operators of cheap single room occupancy hotels, health professionals, social workers and drug dealers. She is a convener of alternative visions, a truth-teller, a fierce organizer. Her work — joined with dozens of others, especially drug users — rattles the tectonic plates of political, economic power. She challenges the assumptions, programs and professional expectations of many on the east side of Vancouver.
When I say Ann comes out of central casting, perhaps it is better to say she seems to emerge from the story of other women, women I never met, but have long regarded as saintly disturbers of the peace. As I watched and listened, I thought of Francis Willard, Jane Addams or Lucy Ryder Meyer, from the 19th Century.
With the arrival of fentanyl, deaths from drug overdoses in the neighborhood soared. In the last six years over 1,800 persons died from overdoses. When public officials were slow to act, Ann and others decided to set up unsanctioned injection sites. This strategy, along with clean needle exchanges, is based on the successful Four Pillars approach in Europe. The four pillars are: Harm Reduction, Prevention, Treatment, and Enforcement. To learn more see: Straight News, December 2016.
Now at the front end of my eighth decade, I am discovering how little I know and how much more there is to learn. (And, I am learning of the many places I have been wrong in assessment or assumption.) I am helped by new learning occasions. Yes, these new insights can come from books and films — but I am advocating for putting ones self in new and uncomfortable places. Places that challenge easy assumptions about life and how things really work.
Visiting an unsanctioned safe injection site with Ann, I appreciated that we are not limited to the official, and agreed upon, responses to the social and institutional challenges we face. When there was a need for a response to drug overdoses from fentanyl use, and the system failed, Ann pitched a tent and began to offer a place for safe injections. There were safe needle exchanges and a responding to overdoses by offering naloxone, Naloxone can counter the probable death from a fentanyl overdose. When asked about the consequences of breaking the law, Ann simply replies, “I am pretty sure it is not against the law to save a person’s life.”
My “learning journey” was with colleagues Mike Mather and DeAmon Harges of Indianapolis. It was a gift to accompany friend and mentor, John McKnight. John has advocated an Asset Based Community Development approach to community organizing. It is about encouraging the recognizing of abundance within all communities. This approach focuses on identifying the assets of people, rather than collecting up their deficits. This approach, that focuses on gifts rather than needs, is widely known around the world, as ABCD community organizing. Ann Livingston is a most remarkable practitioner of this approach, seeking out the abundance in her community, encouraging drug uses to be their own researchers, advocates and providers — and not being afraid to disrupt that which focuses only on neediness.
As I traveled I couldn’t help but think of our situation in the United States. Our Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is determined to return our nation to the expensive and failed “war on drugs” that focuses only on ENFORCEMENT and PUNISHMENT. It simple doesn’t work. Or, better said, it provides results that are exactly the opposite of what is believed.
This effort misses all of the lessons that have been learned from around the world and across the years. It comes from lousy morality constructs and even worse theology. Incarceration only turns prisons into schools for future soldiers in the drug cartels and neighborhood pushers. The time has long since passed for us to establish ways for the addicted to have access to methadone and medical heroin. Only by ending the demand and offering a Four Pillars approach to drug use and addiction (harm reduction, prevention, treatment, enforcement) can we find a way forward that is not just a revolving door to continuing our past mistakes. Mistakes that destroy lives, families and communities.
Conservative writer Andrew Sullivan has wisely said that much of the mean-spirited, anti-democratic and fear-based political efforts in the recent years is what he calls a “loathing of the present.” It is a hunger to return to a world that never was — except in the minds of those who out of fear seek to divide, exclude and punish. In this world those who suffer, who are different, are to be loathed because they represent a reality that cannot be accepted.
Can there be a turn from loathing to loving? Any faithful Christian expression would say “yes, of course.” No need to cite chapter and verse — it is evident in the entire sweep of scripture — to move toward health, abundance and renewal… and to do so out of love and not exclusion.
By now, good reader, you have probably wondered, “Strawberries? Why was Ann carrying strawberries?” It seemed incongruous in the midst of all of the suffering and tragedy to bring strawberries to the unsanctioned safe injection site. When asked why strawberries? Ann’s answer was simple, “Who doesn’t love a strawberry?”