Friday, November 28, 2014

Song of the Ostrich

Don’t speak of injustice, my life is tough enough.
Don’t give me sad stories, I've experienced worse.
Don’t expect me to sympathize.
Don’t request for me to empathize.
Please don’t ask me to change.

I like my life just the way it is, thanks.
I don’t want to change my words or my thoughts.
I won’t give up my comforts
I won’t surrender securities
Please don’t ask me to change.

I live with my fears, please don't take them away
I'll just stay away from those I'd rather not meet
Newer ideas are suicide
I'd rather commit genocide
Just please don't ask me to change.

Don’t use trigger words like “racism,” “poverty”
Or “systemic,” I don’t believe that they exist
We have liberty in the land of the free
Meaning, I want to freely be left alone.
Please don’t ask me to change.

And whatever you do, don’t tell me I’m part of the problem.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Being a Real Church

It is so wonderful how many churches provide a Thanksgiving meal somewhere, and will go to a central location to help the poor. Did you know, though, that in the early church, if a congregation didn't have an active ministry to the poor in their community, they couldn't be called a "church". They could be a meeting, or a prayer group, but they couldn't be a church unless they had a regular work in their church for the poor.
Is your church involved with the poor? Perhaps you are wondering what ways a church can get involved? It really is about looking at your church's resources and making them available.
Here are some ways that I've helped our church and other churches-- whether alone or in network-- reach out to the needy in our communities:
-Offer showers to the homeless
-Community meals inside a church
-Cook a meal to deliver to a soup kitchen
-Cook and serve a meal at a soup kitchen or senior center
-Free clothing closet
-Art studio for the poor
-Transportation for the homeless to services
-Making canned food and produce available for families
-Opening our kitchen for the homeless to cook the food they get from food stamps
-Providing day shelters so the homeless can get out of the weather and the community eye for a few hours a week.
-Offering space in our church facilities for community gardens
-Having a warehouse for items to be given to the poor and homeless
-Overnight shelters on the coldest nights of the year
-Provide haircuts at a soup kitchen
-Provide bike repair at a soup kitchen
-Allow some people who sleep in vehicles to stay in the church parking lot for a period of time.
-Arranging an agreement for one or two responsible homeless folks to stay on church property.
-Gather blankets, socks, sleeping bags, breakfast bars, fruit, individual containers of food, hygiene items, hand warmers and hand them out to the homeless
-Have a trained volunteer church worker who will recommend services to those who call in need.
I haven't done this myself, but I know churches that do:
-Provide bus tickets for the poor
-Offer motel vouchers for the homeless
-Organize lunch and hygiene items and socks in sacks to hand out to the homeless at their camps
-Provide rent or utility assistance to prevent people from becoming homeless
-Provide a social worker to obtain birth certificates and ID for those who have lost theirs
Each of these things require a bit of organization, but they are basic and often provide a huge need for the community. In Gresham, almost all services are provided by churches, doing just what was described above.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Why Is There Such Anger about the Grand Jury's Decision in Ferguson?

I have heard many of my (white) friends question the anger over a single decision.  "Why is there such anger over this decision in Ferguson? And why are there lootings and riots? Why can't they just trust that there wasn't enough evidence to indict?" Here's my answer, as much as I can understand:
The issue has less to do with the particular police officer and whether he acted rightly.  Rather, it has to do with how African Americans have been treated in Ferguson for years.  As my friend Nathan Strong put it:

Ferguson population: just shy of 16,000. (15865)
Race distribution: 63% black, 33.65% white

- Out of 5384 stops, 86% were black, 12.7% white
- Out of 611 searches, 91.9% were black, 7.6% white
- Out of 521 arrests, 92.7% were black, 6.9% white

They have been living with oppression for years at the hands of the police.  They have not exactly trusted that the official systems of Ferguson would offer justice, but they were giving the systems a chance.  An indictment was their last opportunity for justice through "proper channels" and that opportunity was thrown back in their face. 
The oppressed of Ferguson were waiting for some justice. They were peacefully protesting and honestly requesting justice. And they were hoping, if not expecting, that if they insisted, peacefully, to the powers of law and justice that they would receive some justice. Justice, in this case, would primarily mean that the police force would use fairness between the races in their use of the law. That people would not have to be shot if they were unarmed. If the police had said that they would change their policies, or re-train their force, that would have been okay. But in the months since the protests began, there was only defensiveness, not a single move toward change.
 If there is not systemic change from within the police, or from the governors, then they would have been satisfied with a certain level of retribution against one officer who has wronged the African American community. In this case, not only was there not retributive justice, but there was not even the opportunity for a fair trail. Court justice was shut down before it began.
There are also a lot of questions about looting and burning, which makes sense, because it seems self-destructive. First of all, it must be said that the majority of protesters were not violent. And almost all the protests in previous months had no violence in it. There is a minority of people (in every community, not just the African American community) who feel, like a child, that if you can't get attention from acting positively, then you can get attention by acting negatively. Looting and burning is a scream, "If you won't help me, I'll destroy what you think is most important!" No, it isn't productive, and it is self destructive, just like a child's tantrum.
When my first born was a toddler, he would throw long, violent tantrums. After a bit of his self-harm, I would hold him and keep him from lashing out until he had worn himself out. After months of occasionally dealing with this, my wife and I discovered that he was lashing out like this because he wasn't getting enough food. We made sure that he ate enough and then the tantrums stopped, never to return.
If communities want to stop lootings, then they need to give all communities the opportunity to live without oppression and hated. They need to stop assuming that because someone is black and male that they are dangerous. They need to stop beating and shooting those they have hope in. And if there is evidence of a systematic prejudice, the communities need to hear an apology and see real change.
So many of my white friends seem to be under the misapprehension that the issue is whether Darren Wilson used proper force or not. That is not what the protests are about, and that is not what I am upset about. The anger this day is the lost opportunity for the oppressed people of Ferguson to be heard by the systems that oppress them. Until yesterday, there was a chance, however slim, that the systems might have to change to bring justice to the victims of those systems. There is anger because now that chance is lost.
I am personally angry because if the strongly supported oppressed communities of Ferguson can't get justice, then how will my communities of the homeless of Portland and Gresham get justice? They have almost no support asking for justice for them, and they have little energy left to stand up for themselves. If there isn't justice for the African Americans of Ferguson, how can there possibly be justice for the oppressed of my community?
Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Letter to a Partner Church about the Homeless

Anawim Christian Community is a community church among the homeless and mentally ill.  Our partner church is an immigrant church that shares the managerial duties of our facility. 

It has been an interesting four years, hasn’t it?  We have been sharing this church facility, and despite the cultural differences, and ministry differences, it has pretty much worked.  It hasn’t been perfect, God knows that we both understand that.  There has been miscommunication, occasional false accusation, and sharing the facility between us hasn’t always been easy. 

So when you said to our denomination that our ministries, our congregations were incompatible, I understood that and I knew that it was coming.  There has been an increased dissatisfaction on your part that the homeless are around the church property at all.  And when one homeless couple were caught by you having sex on our porch and another homeless man threatened me on the property, that just increased your fear and disgust.   Finding a knife in the sanctuary didn’t help, either.  These are not issues that you expected to have to deal with in the United States with your children around.  But here they are, and you’d rather not have to deal with them anymore.  I understand that.  I would rather not as well.

But a couple things we need to remember: that not all the homeless are having sex or being violent on the property, only a very few.  And we are inviting those who cause problems to change or to not come on the property.   The homeless are not the problem, but only a few people are.  Admittedly, most of the homeless carry knives, because it’s useful to have, just like a knife in the kitchen. 
When you folks came from central Africa, most of you left a desperate situation full of war and violence.  You came to this country and started your church to be at peace, to provide security so that you could pray and see God change your people and your nations.  But instead, you find yourselves in the midst of another war, another area of violence and pain.  I’m not sure you know this, but this very neighborhood our shared church facility is in is the poorest, most violent neighborhood in Oregon.  And it is becoming poorer every year.  I am afraid that you have moved from your desperate situations in Africa to a desperate neighborhood in America.

Yes, there have been some homeless staying on our property occasionally, but we made sure that they weren't dangerous.  And there are people who walk through our property at night, but we have little control over that.  There used to be drug deals and difficulties on our property, but we put a stop to that.  Occasionally, you have found that our janitor has allowed some folks in the church building to get warm or to use the bathroom, and you found that unacceptable.  We are trying to work together in all of these issues, but we don't find them to be irreconcilable. 

The problem is not the homeless.  Rather, our homeless are a symptom of a bigger problem.  It has been discovered that most homeless people, when they are seen by the average American, they are seen as disgusting, lazy people, who brought their own poverty on their heads.  And many people, if not most, are afraid to speak to or approach homeless folks.  I have heard from neighbors that they want us to ask the homeless not to walk down their public streets, or to hang out in their public parks.   Some neighbors have gone around to harass and threaten people of my congregation.  They have called the police and the city, complaining about our people, when our folks have done nothing to harm them, and they come and live in peace.

Who are the homeless?  They aren’t those without jobs, because many of them have jobs.  They aren’t all, or even mostly, addicts.  They aren’t all mentally ill, although a few are.  The one thing all the homeless have in common is that they have no network of family or friends to support them when they faced a personal crisis.  Some of them lost their jobs, some of them lost their marriages, some of them lost themselves, and there was no one to support them.  Some of these folks have family that not only don’t support them, but they actively pull the rug out from under them.  I have seen a father drive his sober 16-year-old daughter to our overnight shelter instead of taking her home.  I know of at least two families that take the check of their disabled family members, use it for their own expenses and keep them out of their house, with none of the money that is rightfully theirs.  I know of people who have been falsely accused and persecuted by their friends, so they have no one to turn to.  I also know of some folks who have brought their homelessness on their own heads, and their families will have nothing to do with them because they don’t want to be hurt.  But none of them have anyone to turn to.

Once you have been turned away from your own people and place, then you are targeted by society.  If you sleep in a sleeping bag in public, or in your car, then your neighbors assume you are a criminal.  If you look like a homeless person, then strangers will assume you are a criminal.  And they will call the police on you, because you are in their area, which they consider safe… or they used to consider safe until the homeless person showed up, loitering.  And the police will ask the homeless person to move on, or perhaps they will give the homeless person a ticket, or, if the homeless person refuses to cooperate, then they might arrest them.  There are a few police officers who believe that all homeless people to be criminals, and they will abuse and attack them with their dogs and their taser guns.  They might give the homeless person a command to leave the city, or the county, and to not come back.  This is despite a person having grown up in this community.

In our city this year the homeless have been particularly harassed.  It used to be that the police would be told to move the homeless folks a few times every year.  This year, it has been continuous since June.  There is no park, no private space, no woods, no empty house where the homeless can remain for more than a few days or a few hours before they are woken by the police and told that they have thirty minutes to move on or be ticketed or arrested.  No place, except one.

That’s right.  Our facility.

The city police have called our property a “bubble” where the homeless are safe.  They won’t bother street folks if they are on our property, day or night. The police have even driven people to our facility in our off hours because they knew the homeless would be welcome here for a few hours to rest safely.  Most of the police have no joy in arresting the homeless.  They just want to do their job.  And they see our property as partnering with them to keep peace in the neighborhood.

It is unfortunate that the city doesn’t see it that way.  The city has sent inspectors, encouraged by some of the neighbors, to clear everyone out, even our security people.  We acquiesced, because we cannot afford seven hundred dollars a day.  I guess the city hasn’t let the police know, because they are still bringing the homeless here.  And they get upset when we tell them that we can’t allow anyone to stay on the property.

Meanwhile, our church of the homeless is growing and becoming more fruitful.  I wish you could have seen our emergency overnight shelters last week.   We had groups of people cleaning the church facility all night, others cooking for the community, and others keeping people calm and others caring for the sick among us.  I wish you would come on any Tuesday and see about a dozen homeless folks care for this property, almost all of them without pay, simply because they care for the community that has been built here.  Because they are grateful for an opportunity to stay for as long as they do.  I wish you had come early this Sunday morning seeing the ten or so people who slept under the awning of the Red Barn, cleaning up and raking and expressing their gratitude that they had one more night of safe sleep. 

As far as that person who threatened me?  He realized that he couldn’t do that here and has been on the property actively controlling himself and keeping the peace.  He’s changing, but slowly.  Because that’s the pace at which change happens.  The couple who had sex on the front porch?  They realized that wasn’t acceptable and apologized. 

When I see our homeless community, I consider what Jesus sees when he looks at them.  I believe that he doesn’t see them as disgusting or criminals.  He has compassion on them as “sheep without a shepherd”, and he walks among them, healing their wounds, both inner and outer, giving them an opportunity to follow Him.  Not all make that choice, but many do.  But Jesus allows the crowd to remain, because, over time, a new context will create change and establish the Kingdom of God in the midst of our poor, violent neighborhood.

But these folks aren’t really without a shepherd.  Jesus has called me and my companions to be their shepherds.  Some of us shepherds are even homeless, destitute, overworked, oppressed.  We are doing the best we can with what Jesus has given us.  We are here to bring peace in the midst of the war we find ourselves in.  We are here to love those whom the world despises.  We are here to eat with the sinners and tax collectors.

And in the midst of our work, we want to be a blessing to you as well.  We want to provide a facility that you can bless and be at peace and build up your own corner of the Kingdom of God.  We want you to thrive and be joyful.  We want you to live as a community of peace.

But we cannot participate in your peace if you insist that the cost of that is to oppress our people.  If you want to bless your oppressed people by taking away the blessings of our oppressed people, we cannot participate in that.  We will not call our people “unholy” because they smoke or carry knives, because that is not how Jesus sees them.  We will not tell our people that they are not welcome here (unless they do violence or steal).  We will not give our people less hope than they already have.  We will not take away their healing.

We are not asking you to do the ministry God has called us to.  Rather, we only ask that you give us, and our partners, the opportunity to fulfill the command of the Lord: “When I was hungry, you fed me.  When I was thirsty, you gave me drink. When I was a stranger, you gave me shelter. When I was sick, you visited me. When I was in prison, you came to me.”  We affirm that to not do these actions to our homeless who come to us is denying our Lord and Savior.  This we cannot do.

Thank you for listening.

Pastor Steve

Monday, November 3, 2014

Transformative Peacemaking

At our church, we allowed Rachel to sleep on our front porch, because she was homeless and working two jobs and just needed a hand up for a while.  I was walking around the property, and I heard a hoarse scream.  I walked over to the front porch and saw a man bending over Rachel, choking her in her sleep. 

It was Mark, her ex-boyfriend who has an abusive streak.  I yelled at him to get away from her, and he backed away.  Rachel began crying, but she wasn't seriously hurt.  I called 911, and Mark approached me.  "You don't know what she's done to me!  You are allowing her to prostitute herself and sell drugs on your property!"  He approached me, threateningly.  "What are you going to do, huh?  Call the police?"

"Mark, just leave."

"Why, are you afraid of me? You can't do anything to me."  He bumped my chest and started to push me, trying to knock me down so he can hit me.

Just then, a fellow pastor came around the corner, but he stood, stunned, not knowing what to do.  
"Yes, Mark, I'm calling the police.  You are not allowed to abuse."  Mark pushes me again.

Then my janitor, also staying on the property, came out with a baseball bat, ready to use it.  I said to him, "Trevor, put that down.  We don't need a baseball bat."

At the sight of Trevor, twice his size and ready to defend me, Mark backs away, gets on his bike and begins to leave.  I follow him so I can see where he's going.

He stops and yells back, "You never accept me the way you do other people.  You aren't fair to me."

I say, "Mark, I won't accept violence or abuse or threats here.  If you come to abuse, then you will not be welcome.  But if you come in peace, we will give you peace. But for now, you have to go."

He rides away, saying, "You think I need you?  I don't need you."

In the next month, my fellow pastor declared to our denomination that our ministries were "incompatible" because they were trying to provide a place of security and that incident proved to him that our church just wasn't safe. "If they would threaten Steve like that, then what would they do to me?" We are considering dissolving our partnership, not because he is afraid of Mark, but because the incident with Mark put in his heart fear of all of my homeless congregation.

But last week I saw Mark, sleeping on our couch.  I gave him a roll of toilet paper,  He thanked me.  He was at peace, and he wasn't interested in threatening anyone.

Peace is not only about safety for the good people in our lives, but also creating peace in the people who are violent or abusive.  Jesus doesn't call us just to be at peace, but to make peace.  Making peace involves serious risk.  It means stepping in the lives of those who are violent, of those who are haters, of those who want to abuse us and finding inroads of transformation.  If we meet violence with violence, then we will be haters.  But if we meet hatred with acts of kindness and mercy, then we will be peacemakers, transformers toward community.

Here are some ways to take the angry and violent and to begin the process of transformation:

1. Listen to them
Give them a chance to speak their perspective.  Don't interrupt or disagree with them, no matter how wrong headed they are.  They need a chance to speak their perspective.

2. Agree with them
Find something that you can agree with, even if most of what they say you can't.  Let them hear that you've really listened to them and can see how they are right about some of what they are saying.

3. Meet their needs
Everyone has needs, and if you are able to meet that need, then you are seen to be on their side, creating a bond.  The violent need connection, to feel that someone actually cares about them. If they are cared for, then they are less likely to lash out.

4. Explain the broader perspective
Let them see how their behavior is hurting others. Try to explain what it would be like if they were receiving the treatment that they are giving, and how they would naturally react. Explain to them how important it is to have a place of peace for all involved.

5. Give them respect
Don't yell or lash out against them.  Speak gently, but firmly.  Be as friendly as possible. 

6. Don't compromise on the safety of all
If a person refuses to give peace, then they must leave.  We don't have to punish them, or hurt them, but we cannot have them around if they are going to be violent or threatening.  A group of people forcing them to separate from their target works to do that. 

7. Pray for them
God is the main transformative agent, so we need to get him involved.  Pray for the violent, asking God to give them new hearts, and to protect the vulnerable. 

If you are abused or threatened, don't try to handle your abuser yourself.  The abuser is not objective about you.  Sometimes we need to realize that as much as we want an abuser to be transformed, there are times that we cannot be involved in the process.  Separate from the abuser until he or she is willing to get help stopping their abuse.  

As churches, we should all get training to learn how to deal with the violent.  We should be places that create peace in the midst of violence.  We will need some training to do that.  I highly recommend the training provided by Lombard Peace Center.

All the names in the story have been changed.