Matthew was gone. I was heading back from my morning walk. He had been there an hour earlier, just pulling back his bedroll and stretching from his “outdoor shelter” on the porch of the old train station downtown.
Earlier, when I passed him, I spoke “Good morning.” He smiled and said “morning.” I saw his lovely blue eyes and his gaunt frame. “What’s your name?” I opened. “Matthew” he answered. “I’m Philip.” He laughed and said “Two disciples.” I replied, “Yep, two followers of Jesus.” “Right, right” he affirmed, “You or I wouldn’t be here without Jesus,” he said. He paused and chuckling went on “Or, our mom and dad!” We did a fist bump as I headed on to meet my walking partner for the morning. Looking back I said, “I’ll see you later.” “You bet, Philip, nice to meet you.”
When I returned to the place, an hour later, Matthew was gone.
Like cities all across the nation our streets and wooded edges of neighborhoods or shopping areas are filling with unsheltered folks. Oh…Bloomington has plans… lots of pie-in-the-sky plans. Meanwhile the unsheltered sleep on the streets and in doorways of our public buildings. (See photo of one early morning this summer in the doorway of our public library.)
Maybe there will be more support for our existing shelters, and residences, maybe. These PLANS talk of “housing first.” But, where is the housing? We build great high-rise plans but little low-income housing. Thanks to the Chamber, Mayor and Community Foundation we have PLANS, Plans, plans… but not shelters. Dozens and dozens of new higher-income housing developments spouting up all over town. The university expands its enrollment dramatically but has done NOTHING to address the residential challenges it has helped create for low income persons.
Could we consider looking at models like Community Solutions that use abandoned spaces to make an immediate difference. We have lot’s of empty buildings, that, well, sit empty — with bathrooms in each (some former retirement centers, former medical facilities) that will “someday be razed” as the old hospital site is being “redeveloped.” Buildings are sitting empty during these years. We have empty buildings and PLANS but no facilities for my new friend Matthew. (https://community.solutions/)
Here is my challenge, my question for today. Where will Matthew sleep come December? I think we know. So, let me challenge the Mayor and City Council, County Council and Chamber and Community Foudation and Police Chief and leaders of our hospitals and health care centers. Will you make a commitment to spend a night or two sleeping on the street come December 16 and 17th? It’s the weekend before Christmas — good time to meet some other persons who are “disciples” and experience what they experience each evening. OR, perhaps some of your PLANS might include finding shelter (old or new, re-purposed or not) NOW! Can you include doing something NOW for the unsheltered in our city. Matthew, the disciple is asking.
Bloomington, Indiana is a lovely college town; I’m an unabashed booster. The name “Bloomington” is no accident. Tree-lined streets, parks and flower gardens are in abundance. Playgrounds and walking trails dot the city. At the community’s heart is the lovely campus of Indiana University. There is abundant and diverse fine music performed. Museums, libraries and theaters, research centers and multiple dining options are sprinkled in the mix. Surrounded by forests, lakes, farms, vineyards and orchards it is where natural beauty finds a home.
Natural beauty resides comfortably in Bloomington – Beauty resides here more easily than some of our people. People without shelter, who due to heath or economic realities, are left with no option other than life on the street. Perhaps the ugliest addition to our community is the 8-10 foot fence that has been placed around the downtown post office. The fence is festooned with threatening signs. Gates are locked tightly every evening. “No trespasing” is posted and one can’t even find a place to drop a letter in the mail. Forget it if you wish to walk up to a drop box or pass a drive-through box after hours. Why the ugly high fencing and all the horrible signs?
You see, this post office is now “off limits” in the evenings because it is next to Seminary Square Park. Seminary Square is registered as a national historic site. It is the location of the first campus for what would became Indiana Univeristy. In recent years Seminary Square is where many unsheltered persons chose to gather; many camped there until city officials began to disperse them. The result? Folks are now scattered, sleeping on sidewalks and being rousted from one doorway or storefront to another. Where are efforts to bring ALL the stake holders together — including the unsheltered — to find new ways forward? I am told “there are plans”. If so they are not well known in the city. How many millions of dollars have been spent on street improvements so that streets can now be closed off for dining, or for new bikeways to encourage such travel? And, why has such little thought been given to developing more places for the unsheltered? There are wonderful nonprofit programs designed to assist unhoused persons (Beacon Inc. – Shalom Center and New Hope for Families, for example) but these folks have limited palliative options and must focus on the most dramatic examples of this challenge.
A first-rate new IU Health Bloomington Hospital facility recently opened on the east side of the city; the hospital having completely abandoned its downtown location. Now that old facility is… you guessed it… FENCED off. Plans for re-use or redevelopment are slow to unfold and little has thus far been announced. Yes, redevelopment is complicated, and to do it well takes time, but what of those who could benefit from a dry and safer space to sleep in the meantime? And what of any new outreach initiatives from the fancy new I.U. Health facility? Any annoucement of outreach to address mental health and addiction issues faced by many of the unsheltered sleeping on the street? What of outreach to those no longer at the hospital’s doorway? If the past is prologue, in ten years, the old hospital site will become commercial property or another upscale housing site — and we will still have the unsheltered fenced out.
WE CAN AND MUST DO BETTER. Bloomington claims to be a civically engaged and imaginative place where democracy is valued. Let’s prove it by the way we live together. Ugly fences do us no pride. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been, and will be spent, on building new apartment/condo complexes. The university is spending millions to provide shelter for students. Where are plans to include alternative housing options for the unsheltered now and in future? Other cities face similiar dilemmas and are offering creative alternatives. I have never thought of our Bloomington as a laggard… until recently.
Now, please understand, as an pastor for more than fifty years, one who has lived and worked in impoverished areas, and with many persons without shelter much of my adult life, I get it. I have no doubts that the troubling reality of insufficient shelter and healhy options FOR ALL is extraordinarily demanding work. And I know there were incidents near the downtown post office (perhaps dangerous ones) that lead to the fence being errected and the park being cleared each evening. Even so, let’s be clear, this is the message being sent: “If you are an unsheltered person, you are unwelcome — you are locked out.” Bloomington is a beautiful city, mostly. It’s time to do better.
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.
It offers insight into the ways human kindness can shape our future. Do more that wait on election returns or some miracle cure. Call a neighbor today, or find a place where you can help, or sponsor a viewing of this film even if it is via an online format.
Among other initiatives it provides a view of the work of The Learning Tree with DeAmon Harges in Indianapolis.
We have been offered a magic pill — Hydroxycloroquine. We are told by “him-who-will-not-be-named” that he takes “a pill daily” to protect from infection by the COVID-19 virus. This simplistic prescription is mimicked by Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro. Both men share certain anti-scientific, anti-democratic tendencies that result in disasters for their nations whether environmentally or in terms of public health. Brazil and the U.S. now lead the world in deaths from the corona virus, surpassing Italy, Spain, Russia and the United Kingdom. Still, these two men propose simplistic answers to complex challenges. Sadly this is accepted by millions as reasonable. Why not? It is easier than taking the time or thought to offer complex options that are more difficult to implement.
This prescription of C₁₈H₂₆ClN₃O as the magic pill would be sad enough, if it didn’t point to the multiple ways good science is being undercut in other human arenas. Quality scientific work is complex and, if done properly, usually doesn’t result in a single, easy-to-use form. However, hucksters across time and around the world still suggest they have the magic potent, “the cure.”
Like the salesman “Professor Harold Hill” in the Broadway Show The Music Man, contemporary hucksters abound. Often what is being sold can be beneficial, if used wisely. Hydroxycloroquine, medical research has demonstrated, can be beneficial to folks struggling with malaria or lupus. Now research shows that “this magic pill” may do more damage than good. Just as young people learning to play band instruments, as “Professor Harold Hill” prescribed to the good folks of the fictional River City, Iowa the remedy misses the mark. However, seventy-six trombones, new band uniforms or even one-hundred-and-ten-coronets are hardly effective cures to the so called social diseases as diagnosed by the huckster. A marching band might engender appreciation for music and even civic pride but will do little to change the behavior of young folks hanging out in pool halls or gambling on horse races.
Every day, I am amazed by the hucksters who deny research, good science and even basic logic. The simplistic solution is offered where other positive actions could be taken. There are so many ways we could act rationally that can make a difference. Instead of taking a daily pill, what if “he-who-will-not-be-named” modeled a healthier alternative and actually wore a mask, worked to provide a national testing and vaccine options, let medical experts speak openly to the nation or demonstrated compassion and wisdom for those who are suffering. No — that would be too complex, too scientifically informed.
I watch phony cures being offered in other venues. We keep seeking the “magic pill,” the simple answer to complex problems. For example:
What if we decided to seek a well-reasoned response to climate change? This would mean a comprehensive program moving away from fossil fuels. It would mean rebuilding infrastructure so some future tragedies like the dam failure this month in Michigan might be avoided as altered weather patterns bring more rain and floods.
Or, what if we addressed the need for universal health care? Tens of millions are suddenly out of work and without health insurance, isn’t this the occasion to move as a nation to address health care for all rather than simple encouraging “reopening” to get back to a “normal” that will leave tens of millions without health benefits?
Or, what if religious leaders stopped prescribing the “magic pill” of congregational development, or the perfect traditional doctrine, or a new leadership initiative or a restructuring? What if instead we focused on listening to and connecting with others, especially the poor? What if focus turned outward rather than seeking the one magic remedy of propping up their ever more irrelevant institutions?
What if as a nation we decided to offer safe housing to every citizen and stopped relying on shelters for those who languish in our alleyways, out-of-sight skid rows, or living out of a car?
What if we followed the excellent research available regarding opioid addiction and instead of making it a moral failure, or something that leads to imprisonment, we understood this as a health and medial problem?
We have done many remarkable and complex things before as a nation, in our corporate life, in our health care and religious institutions. There are examples like establishing the interstate highway system, public education, the Marshall Plan, the polio vaccine, the G. I. Bill, religious and legal circuit riders, or Medicare. The list goes on and on.
For now, however, I fear we are destined to a future where the small mindedness of magic pill thinking will prevail. We have moved the small-minded, ideologically rigid to the front of the line in too many arenas. It is the choice offered by too many political, corporate, healthcare and religious hucksters all eager to protect their power and profits.
A preliminary note: It is June, season of personal anniversaries, marriage (53 years) and ordination (51 years).
For United Methodists, this is a time when regional gatherings called Annual Conferences meet and plan– or at least that is the theory. After a fractious and harmful called Special General Conference in February, it appears that the denomination which I have served for over five decades is headed for a nervous breakdown – or an amputation of various body parts. Who knows what will survive and in what form?
I find myself thinking there must be some way to think about this in a larger context than “my denomination” and “my years of ministry.” I am reminded of the marvelous quote by Wes Jackson of the Land Institute, “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, then you are not thinking big enough.”
So, I turn first to Thomas Merton for a larger frame on the world and the church — then over the next several postings (don’t know as yet how many) I will share some reflections from the view outside my window.
Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander was published in 1965. This wide-ranging collection of snippets from his notebooks is a rich resource. Merton wrote, “We believe, not because we want to know, but because we want to be” and spoke of the importance of “living fully in the condition of limited knowledge.“
I recall the day a van load of us, young seminarians, were carted off to Gethsemani Abby near Bardstown, Kentucky. The Vietnam War was raging; I remember the compelling call from “Father Louis” to live fully into our Protestantism. We should offer our delight in this struggle as “way-finders to the peaceable kingdom,” he said. Imagine my embarrassment upon learning later that this remarkable, robust monk, was in fact, Merton.
When I read Merton I read a provocateur, a convivialist, whose insights push me forward. My paltry, pale insights offered here are but wisps of smoke in comparison. He writes as a “bystander” from the monastic life. He shares “personal reflections, insights, metaphors, observations, judgements on readings and events.” I write from the balcony of retirement — or at least my several recent attempts to retire. I pray that while my thoughts will not match this master, I might have the vulnerability and a bit of the humility he displays in his work. Throughout Conjectures Merton reminds us of our vulnerability and that “We need not seek happiness, but, rather, discover that we are already happy.”
I will say more about near encounters with Merton and those who knew him in future posts. Before a few reflections on my denomination, United Methodism, and its current fracturing, this passage below from Conjuctures seems apt.
“I will be a better Catholic,”Merton writes, “not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further. So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot affirm and accept, but first one must say “yes” where one can. If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 133)
I’m having that sinking feeling — “Help, help,” United Methodist’s cry, “we’re Melting!” For me, these weeks of United Methodist Annual Conferences
Disappearing Glacier on Columbia Ice field in Canadian Rockies
around the U.S. have been times of Despair and Delight.United Methodism in 2019 feels like a glacier confronted with rapid climate change. We are, as the Brits would put it, in omnishambles. There are fissures all around. I delight because each week in May and June from many Annual Conferences has come good news. We are electing delegates to the next regular General Conference in the spring of 2020. Delight — a strong majority thus far, as represented by the delegates elected from Texas to Missouri to Florida to North Carolina want to turn away from the punitive past regarding our homosexual siblings.
Across the south and Midwest there is change. Trends strongly favor of Centrists and Progressives (as they have been labeled) picking up dozens of delegates. Will it be enough to change things? Well, probably not. Legislation may change, but hearts and minds are less pliable. It may be that we are stuck. Many of these new delegates are folks who seek to reverse the harmful and mean-spirited actions take at the February 2019 Special General Conference — reclaiming a more open stance for the church on issues of LGBTQI acceptance. The General Conference in February uncovered the ugly divisions that have been dividing the church for more that four decades. The presenting issue is homosexuality but it is so much deeper than this.
Truth is the denomination in the U.S. has been melting for years and we have been seeking answers in all the wrong places. Hearts and minds will never be changed so long as we see one another in categories, rather than as fellow children of God.
I am told by friends I trust on all sides that there is no mending this shattered church. “This broken family must now be dissolved,” they say. Many families, kinship networks are already stressed and separated. “Divorce is painful but it is not all bad,” I hear. I am told “Methodists have done this before” — remember we divided over slavery in 1844! I am told that United Methodism must be abandoned so that a new church can emerge. To my ears some of this talk sounds a bit like the language from Vietnam when some foolishly said “We had to destroy the village to save it.” Frankly, the talk of division comes too easily — Disaffiliation for what? Toward what end? It is the old metaphor of a glass half full and focusing on the empty part of the glass. What is the value, the potential, of that which is already in place? Yes, I will say it, there is a kind of naivete abroad when folks quickly say it is time to separate.
Nor does this talk of division ring true theologically for me. I think of I Corinthians 12 and 13 or the message to the early church found in Galatians. This month our Gospel lections were from John 14 and John 17. Are these not calls for the followers of Jesus to stay together? The prayer of Jesus presented in John 17 has been called the High Priestly prayer and the Great Ecumenical Prayer. Of course, Richard Rohr reminds us that United in Christ is not the same as the unity of the church. I know. Even more, however, I am shaped by Dietrich Bonhoeffer who even in the face of the division of his Lutheran Evangelical home in Germany between the Confessing Church and State church called on the focus to be on “Christ the Center” and not on the boundary lines of time and place.” Shall we separate now so that we can re-affiliate in twenty or thirty years? Have the so-called traditionalists listened to their adult children and grandchildren about this issue? A majority of young persons who call themselves “Evangelicals” don’t buy the desire to exclude others based on sexual orientation.
What might we do? This is the question many have pondered and most (including bishops and congregational leaders) have felt powerless to answer. It is about agency. By this, I mean, no one seems to have sufficient influence to make a difference. I am told that there are folks working on solutions behind the scenes. This is precisely my worry — how many groups are there? Doing what? Trading what for what? It feels very “in house” and based on old paradigms. Still, I acknowledge my ‘guilt’ in this whole mess. Even more, I grieve the pain caused by a church that for so long did such damage to persons based on the bigotry and discrimination of homophobia. I struggle with the question of what more might I have done?
My sense is that we are thinking too small, we are talking too much to ourselves, we are working in the star chambers called the Caucus Groups, General Conference, Annual Conference and Boards and Agencies.
Isn’t there a larger frame? Can we admit that we are asking the wrong questions? I think of Roseanne Haggerty’s Community Solutions and her emphasis on Housing First. She shows the need to “flip the script” on homelessness. First, she argues, provide a place to live! Stop believing persons much first earn safe shelter. Then work on the other social and emotional needs. In the wider economy and ecology, this is a better, more cost effective way of approaching things. And it also happens to be Christian!
What if instead of dividing up the church we saw the great potential of having tens of thousands of communities where we worked in new ways to offer a witness? What difference might be made regarding our ecological crises? What if we used funds for community environmental renewal ministries and didn’t funnel everyone though some sausage-making congregational development matrix? What might we learn from economists? Health Care specialists? What new patterns of citizenry? — make that discipleship — might be modeled? Might United Methodists seek to live more fully into our heritage and be way-finders to the peaceable kingdom? Well that is a dream that certainly extends beyond my life time.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Exploring, this time, lands me in the pulpit at First United Methodist Church in San Diego as Interim Pastor. I have preached in this great church in the past; however, this time is different. This time, I will have a weekly assignment. To show up, listen, learn, study and then seek to share truths about the transforming love of God.
This is not an easy task in any season. Yet, as I face the task now, it seems more challenging than any time in my 52 years of ministry. Attached is the sermon entitled “Simply Beginning” preached on August 12, 2018.
Prayers are appreciated for this fine congregation — and for the “weak reed” who will be giving his best in the year ahead.
I write this post on Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, the day known for Madi Gras or Carnival in many parts of the world. It is a time for play, for “letting go,” for silliness… and preparation.
Years ago, when teaching in the Republic of Panama, I discovered that in that culture at least, Carnaval lasted for days – make that weeks – with music and dancing till dawn every night and tricksters roaming the streets by day ready to smear the unsuspecting passerby with makeup or face paint. This frolicking was a counterpoint to what followed, the Lenten season. These forty days of Lent (excluding Sundays) were the days prior to Easter and were to be a season of fasting, mediation and self-denial.
As an adult, I have come to value the remarkable gift of the alternating seasons of the liturgical year, and alternating opportunities to live more fully, more deeply, into the dimensions of human experience. Over the course of every liturgical year there are seasons of celebration and times of preparation, reflection and penitence. This rotation captures the human reality — no fake news here — we humans live with the complications of joy and sorrow, sickness and health, solitude and community. At best, at our most whole and holy center, appropriate belief and value systems will reflect this alternating dynamic.
Shrove Tuesday, for our family at least, usually means pancakes and perhaps a silly mask or costume… not much more. No dancing all night or smearing with face paint. We typically eat pancakes with lots or syrup, fruit and maybe even whipped cream on top. We do this knowing that the next season will include some times of sacrifice, discipline and prayer. Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, begins a time of meditation and, perhaps, fasting and self-denial.
Some traditions speak of “giving something up for Lent.” Perhaps it is sweets that are “given up,” or not going to the movies, or giving up attending a sports event (well, not basketball in Indiana!) Perhaps some change in diet or giving up some other pleasure is practiced.
In recent years I have appreciated those who suggest that perhaps we should think about what we might ADD to our daily life patterns during Lent. Perhaps we should add some acts of kindness, charity or justice. I like it. Our pastor, Jimmy Moore, suggests this idea of adding something at Lent. Then, jokingly, he says that when growing up, he had already given up all the pleasures and excesses of life, because at the time he was a Southern Baptist and had already given up all such temptations. I laughed, and understand, because growing up in a strict conservative Methodist home, we had already given up dancing, movies, rock and roll music and, of course, smoking, alcohol and playing cards!
As Lent 2018 begins, two realities collide.
There is scripture that speaks of God’s desire for humanity and there is the proposed national budget presented today in Washington, D.C. From scriptures, think especially of Isaiah 58:1-11, where the prophet asks what sort of fast does God require of the faithful? Hear these words written hundreds of years before Jesus of Nazareth, and referenced by him in his ministry. They still carry a force for shaping the lives of believers today.
Isaiah 58:6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
Then the righteousness of the Lord will go before you;
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. [New International Version]
Ironically, tragically, these words of guidance and reminder to the faithful, read during this 2018 Lenten season, COLLIDE HEAD ON with the national budget from the White House presented TODAY! There are deep budget cuts proposed to efforts that provide food, housing and health care for the poorest among our people in the U.S. [Less than a month ago, deep tax cuts were made that benefited the richest among us.] Instead of building up our foundations, instead of seeking to strengthen our COMMONwealth here is a focus on walls, on further depleting our environment and the exclusion of those who differ.
So, what fast is required of us? We shall pray and reflect; however, this is not a season for quietism or passivity. We will need to find alternating patterns of action and prayer during Lent this year. Richard Rohr appropriately calls his ministry a “Center for Action and Contemplation.” These two emphases seem right this Lent. Perhaps this is one of the sacrifices required this Lent — to do both — act and pray. Some time normally given to meditation, may be time that will go to writing a congress person. Maybe the money saved from having no desert should go more directly to offer food to the hungry.
This Lenten season I invite you to add some act of kindness and justice to your normal routine. I invite you to daily prayer and meditation. If this is not a part of your routine — this is your opportunity.
There are many fine resources. You might subscribe to the insightful reflections of Richard Rohr at the Center for Action and Contemplation CAC Daily Meditation; or, look to the Upper Room Upper Room for the daily devotionals there.
Perhaps you would wish to join some in New Harmony, Indiana on March 23 and 24 for a “Finding New Harmony” retreat (check out: www.mycalmcard.com ).
How will you observe this Lenten Season? What might you give up? What might you add?
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?”
An unexpected gift came to my doorstep this week. Unexpected. And, actually, it wasn’t delivered to the mail box or, like an Amazon package, to my doorstep. Rather it came when I was away from home; discovered while traveling in California. Elaine and I were in Sacramento.
Early morning, out on my daily constitutional (the goal is to walk five miles a day), I was stepping along a stretch that looked promising. It was a grassy and green stretch. On one side was the I-5 interstate that runs the length of California. Sounds of rushing traffic — good folks no doubt on their way to work in the city — perhaps in state government. On the other side of the green way was a row of tall evergreen trees. Beyond them an empty field. The stretch, about four football fields long, ran between the Hilton and Marriott hotels. No paths, little appearance of use, just the promise of a good place to walk alone, I thought.
About half way between the Hilton and Marriott, tucked away under the trees, sunlight streamed like a silver web on the grass. It gyrated across my path. The light beckoned me come. I turned toward the trees and just a few steps away, hidden in underbrush, was a small encampment. Clearly someone’s abode — plastic bags, a water jug and a couple of bedrolls — these were obvious. Only the trees for cover. I called, “hello,” then thought it foolish. They likely wouldn’t welcome a visitor. With no response, I looked more closely. There were a couple of books including an old Bible and what, at first, appeared to be trash — four opened and empty tin cans. Looking more closely, in a Pork and Beans empty “safe,” was a rosary and 47 cents. Feeling guilty, embarrassed, about disturbing this hermitage, I quickly moved away.
Who lived here? For how long? Was this a “permanent” residence for a couple of homeless folks? The irony of this camp between two upscale hotels did not escape me. I walked on pondering questions about our society and wondering about these residents on the edge of survival tucked away between the comfortable respite of travelers like me. How had these homeless folks arrived at this situation? Bad luck? Addiction? Mental illness? How had our nation come to this point of ignoring the poor among us? Our bad luck? Our ideological addictions? Our mental illness?
A rosary and forty-seven cents – left in a pork and beans tin can. Returning along the path, I couldn’t help it. I returned. Looking around carefully to make certain I would not intrude. Still with no one “home,” I fished some cash from my wallet and added it to the modest stash in the pork and beans can.
I left quickly, and then that first strand of light fell again across the path way. I looked back to see an old broken mirror hinging from twine on a tree in the encampment that was reflecting the light. I stopped and prayed, praying as earnestly as I have in years. Yes, I prayed for these homeless folks. Yes, I prayed for our nation and world. More, I prayed for myself. My intrusion into this purgatory (or was it a haven?), this place of meager shelter, hidden away in our brutal and too often numbing world was illuminating. So many live on the edge. It was a heartbreaking reminder of the work yet to do. How many homeless in the U.S.? Eleven million? Or, as some say, thirty million?
I was also aware that my intervention might not be of value. Should I call a church or social workers? NO! Knowing all too well our systems of “helping,” I didn’t want to further endanger those who sought this place as sanctuary. Even though I had left a little money behind, I was not a hero. Nor were my motives heroic. There is too much in our society that encourages us to believe that we are the heroes and others are the victims. Our world is not as much of an either/or calculation as so many of our ideologies or theologies all too often communicate.
I wondered if this was a couple and if they had a child? Might that child be undocumented? Might that child be a refugee? A refugee like that child Jesus so long ago? Might it be a Joaquin, Jamal, Maria or Alice?
Returning to the hotel parking lot, there was another glimmer of light. Down, and there on the asphalt, was a lost key. My first thought was to carry it back to the camp. Leave it there with the rosary in the can. Then I realized the key might be for me. I was to remember — that because God loved me so, I was to live in responsible ways, always remembering those tucked away, out of sight, living on the margins. I was to live aware that because God loved those camped under the evergreen trees, I dare not stop speaking or working on the behalf of all. Now — here is the real surprise for me. In that moment there was JOY. The joy of remembering my faith, of knowing my calling. The JOY of having another key to my identity. Lost and found — Joy. Like an empty can, I had been provided so much by so many. I thought of those who had taught me so much — teachers, parents, friends, the homeless I had known over the years who “took me in.” I checked with the hotel desk and no one reported losing a key, so I dropped it in my pocket as a reminder.
Yes, I was so privileged. I had work to do. In a world where our political candidates seem determined to forget the homeless, in a world where our refugees are a small fraction of the refugees all across the planet, there is work to do.
I recalled C. S. Lewis who wrote of these moments: ” I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.” ― C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life