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

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