Wednesday, August 22, 2018

A Crisis of Authority

Jesus was anti-authoritarian.

His policy on leadership is well known.

"You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”  Mark 10:42-45

Jesus points are these:
1. Forced authority isn't acceptable among Jesus' people.
2. Jesus' people will choose people who work to meet the needs of others.
3. Jesus' people will chose people who are downwardly mobile.
4. This is shown by Jesus' example, who works hard for the needs of others and who surrendered his life, thus giving up all earthly authority.

It is the natural desire of most people to seek out an authority to tell them what to do.  This is not because they don't want to have their own choices, but that to live according to our own choices is hard work and most people are happy to pass those choices off to other who actually want to do that hard work.  Yes, this means that there will be bad choices made, even evil choices, but it is easier to complain about the choices of an ultimate authority than to have the burden of leadership ourselves.

Jesus knew this tendency.  After all, there was more than once when groups of people attempted to give him authority over them, and he not only refused, but ran away.  Even after he was resurrected, he reiterated some of his teachings, affirmed his actions and teachings...

And then he disappeared.  Gone.  So the practical, day-to-day decision making of the church couldn't be done by a single dictator, no matter how benevolent.  Authority had to be shared.  Authority was to be given to the merciful.  Authority was to be given to people who didn't pursue authority.  People like Jesus.

But the desire for authority still rules the everyday people.  First, the entire church rested, not on the example and teaching of Jesus, but on the authority of the person.  All of theology is developed not to help us understand what Jesus told us to understand, but to support the place of Jesus being the ultimate authority. 

 Second, practical authority was granted to bishops, church leaders who would decide for others the correct application of Jesus' teaching.  After Constantine, bishops were happy to give certain ethics to the state, who, after all, were Christian now.

Eventually, the church saw itself as its own authority, and the presence of Jesus on earth.  Authority was important for the church to have, and keep, and wield, for it's own purpose, because Jesus was the ultimate authority and the Church is his representative.  And, of course, everything fell apart after that.

Today, the church has what some call a moral crisis.  Active pedophiles in the leadership of the church, adulterers, leaders being abusive, congregations supporting immoral politicians, and police being called on the homeless.  However, I wouldn't call this a moral crisis, but a dependence on authoritarianism.

Christian authority isn't the same as Jesus' authority. When people suffer because we want to protect the church, we aren't protecting Jesus.  When we surrender our authority to a person with charisma and confidence, then we aren't following Jesus.  When we allow leaders to be immoral for the sake of the unity of the church, we aren't helping the kingdom of God.  When we rely on the world's authority of violence and corruption to keep our peace, then we are dependent on the wrong kind of peace. 

The early Anabaptists promoted community authority because they saw what distant, harsh, authoritarian leadership creates-- oppression for common people and destruction for the outcast.  They rightly called this kind of authoritarian leadership of the spirit of the Antichrist.  We need to return back to Jesus' standards: give leadership to people who give of themselves to those in need.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Welcoming the Homeless: A Practical Guide

It's easy to find verses about welcoming the homeless.

It was common practice in the ancient Mediterranean World to invite strangers into their home and to welcome immigrants to live on a property.

Jesus said that to welcome on of the "least of these" into our home is to be welcoming him.

Hebrews, John and James all recommend taking in people without a home and "show hospitality" which means letting them stay overnight for at least one night.

And frankly, the homelessness crisis has grown to such an extent in some of our communities, that having people stay in homes with empty rooms is a reasonable and possibly necessary solution.

But we have heard stories and we have fears.  A local woman invited a homeless man to stay overnight in her apartment and she ended up dying in the encounter.  Other people have had items stolen from them.  To invite someone into your home to sleep is being vulnerable to them.  There is certainly a need to be careful and we should avoid naivety.  "Be as wise as a serpent and as gentle as a dove."

My wife and I have had more than 60 houseless guests stay with us over thirty years, both when we had children in the house and when we did not. Some for a day, some for ten years. We have retained a balance between mercy and caution in this endeavor.  We saw it as a necessary act of our faith, but not a reckless one.

Taking precautions
I have learned not to let anyone in our house to stay overnight whom we didn’t know or who had a reference from someone we knew and trusted. This offers an indication as to whether a person is safe.  I usually did this by talking and working on common projects with people who live on the street.  Sometimes we had people over for a night or two because they came recommended by people we knew.

Before we had this rule, people staying over wasn't always good.  We have had people steal things from my home and I had people use drugs in my home. One time we welcomed a woman and her son who would prance around my living room in the nude and turn the heat up to 85 degrees. These were all people I didn’t know and so had no expectations as to what they would do in my home. One I made the rule that I had to understand what a person was like before inviting them in, these bad situations dropped to almost nothing.

I took in a couple who had written references from two churches from other towns. They were travelling through, and they needed a place to crash so we let them stay in our living room. In the end, we found out that the man was a habitual liar and was abusive to his wife. At the end of their stay, his reputation was ruined and she left him to go live with her parents. She is doing well. But this taught me that a reference from an unknown entity is worthless.

I do not recommend a single person welcoming an unknown stranger into their home if they live alone. People adjust under social pressure, and that cannot be applied as a lone person. But two or more can uphold the standards of the home and make sure that a person who becomes unwelcome can be told to leave.

If you are thinking about having someone stay for a longer time (more than a week), then you might want to establish a trial period to see if the guest fits into your community.

Establishing boundaries
When a person comes to stay for you, have a list of rules ready. The actual list is up to you, but I would recommend that it include:

What they are welcome to (certain food, for instance) and what they are not (e.g., anything you keep in your bathroom).

-Where they can have privacy and where you don’t want them to go.  (Please be sure to give them some space for privacy, if at all possible).

-Smoking, alcohol and drug use should be discussed (Our policy was smoking outside was okay, but alcohol or pot use had to be used off of our property. Illegal drug use was grounds for leaving.)

-What you want as payment for their stay (For longer term guests [more than a week], we asked that they work ten hours a week for us or our work among the homeless).

-Let them know about inviting guests over (e.g., all guests have to be gone by 11pm).
-Any specific issues that is unique for your specific household

Also let them know what is grounds for immediate leaving (e.g., any violent act, theft, disturbing the neighbors, use of drugs on the property).

This may be hard to go over with someone you basically trust, but if you have these rules written down or typed up, it will feel less personal, and just something that everyone has to agree to.

What to Expect
-A very grateful person, willing to do whatever is in their power to help.

-Someone who will forget the most important things you mentioned, even if they verbally agreed to them. Expect to have to remind them a few times about some of the rules that is counter to their normal way of doing things. (Like bringing dishes to the sink and rinsing them. I’m still reminding people about this!)

-Someone who will sleep longer than you think is good. A person under chronic stress when they are finally safe usually has a wave of depression that hits them.

-Someone who will be discovering ailments they didn’t know they had until they got inside (diabetes, liver problems, chronic pain, and/or bone or skin injuries, for example).

-Someone who isn’t as motivated or energetic to help you or themselves as they indicated.

-A person who has a fifty/fifty chance to escape the trauma and drama and self-inflected pain they have been living with.

-Someone who will need more encouragement and support than you originally thought.

-Being filled with emotion— at times joy, at times anger, at times anticipation, at times dread— depending on how well your guest is doing (or how you think s/he is doing).

-A change in your own attitudes and thinking. Naivety and fear will be replaced with wisdom and caution.

A fifty percent chance doesn’t seem like much for a person’s life to be changed. But it is better than a zero percent chance. Frankly, I can say that 3/4 of the people who left our home departed better than they came to it. That’s a pretty fair number, I think.

Ending the stay
When it is time for a guest to leave, make it clear what the reasons are and what time you expect them to leave. Unless the situation is dangerous, I would recommend that longer-stay guests be given more than a day to find another place to live. A few people I have had to ask to leave immediately. Short term guests I usually gave them a few days. Long term guests I usually gave thirty days. The final community we had I gave three years warning that we were closing and that everyone would have to leave. They all found places to live and jobs before the deadline.

Even if we are mad at someone, we need to end their stay fairly and at peace, as much as we can on our side.

Dion stayed with us for a year. After staying with us that long, his family realized that he was a safe person and they invited him to live with them. Toby, after leaving our house, stayed with his sister, even though she didn’t have anything good to say about him before.

A few of our guests passed away in our house, or in the hospital after collapsing on our property. They lived their last days in peace.

Some of our guests left of their own accord because they couldn’t live a “straight” lifestyle. Some of these returned when they were ready.

Many of our guests stayed a short time until they were able to obtain housing on their own.

Stability is an open door to living better. Yes, we take a chance every time we invite someone into our house. But I have found the results to be worth it.

Friday, August 3, 2018

A Note About My Family's Work

My family is leaving Portland, Oregon after working here for the last quarter century with folks on the street. This month, I will be switching my focus to another city in Oregon, but I've been taking a time to reflect.  I want to summarize the work we've done so those reading this blog understand a bit of the background that creates the thoughts that make this blog.

My family has been working for homeless folks in Portland and Gresham for 25 years. Beginning in 1999, Anawim Christian Community has been our official name.  In that time, we housed more than 60 people in our apartments or house, from one night to more than ten years.  We hosted approximately 1400 days of day shelters, serving more than 2000 meals and dozens of emergency night shelters.  We gave away to poor individuals, families and camps approximately 300,000 pounds of food.  We have given away thousands of sets of clothes, and hundreds of thousands pairs of socks.  We had hundreds of volunteers, most of whom have been on the street at the time of their volunteering.  We invited, trained and established a number of houseless folks into leadership positions.  We helped build and organize many camps, and helped them move when they were dismantled.  When our centers were taken away, we still delivered meals and boxes to camps where people lived outside.

What we have aimed for are places where people on the street could obtain services, wisdom and safety, with the respect due to them as children of God.  We established eight of these centers, and supported a half dozen more.  We wanted places for people to establish their stability, to work through their drama and to feel normal for a bit.   Even if people were troubled or caused trouble, we tried to listen to them and to provide fair counsel and determinations.

In the midst of this work, we learned about mental illness, poverty, addiction, and classism.  We learned about how the assumptions, disgust and hatred of the community around them kept houseless folks trapped. But we also found narrow paths of escape to stability and hope, led by people of good will and peace. 

While we were doing this work, we tried to establish a home for our family among the houseless.  We homeschooled our children until middle school, and found later that they all were on the autism spectrum, although high functioning.  We watched our kids grow in friendship and independence in the midst of some of the best people of the Northwest.

It hurts us to leave this city which has been our whole lives.  It hurts to leave folks whom we have worked beside, cried with, celebrated with..  We love them all. 

Thursday, August 2, 2018

A Tale of Two Angels

It begins with two spiritual beings, walking down a dusty road.  Their bellies are full, their souls happy from having spend the afternoon with Abraham, known for his generous hospitality.  But they head to Sodom, which is rumored not to be as gregarious.

After a half day of walking, they enter the city, to coincidentally meet Abraham’s nephew, Lot, who urges them… desperately urges, it seemed to them… to come to his house.  “No,” they reply, “It’s a nice day, we’d like to stay in the town courtyard..”  “NO!... um, I mean, it’s better that you do not.  Please, I have some fine food.” So they agree.

That night a mob of men pound on the door to rape them,  Lot tries to put them off, but the mob is insistent.  They will not allow a visitor enter their town without being abused.  The angels looked at each other, nodded, then used their authority to blind the men and get Lot and his family out of town.  They authorized for the town to be destroyed that very night.

These specific angels are mentioned again in Scriputre.  In Hebrews, we are warned to “Pracitice hospitality to strangers, for some have entertained angels without knowing.”

Curiously, Jesus makes an interesting allusion to this story as well.  Jesus is choosing disciples, breaking them up into pairs, and telling them to visit town after town—dirty, wandering, hungry, without any sign of wealth, perhaps without even shoes.  They are to enter the town looking and being impoverished, from head to toe.  When they enter into the town, they are to proclaim a new nation, a nation of God’s righteousness and to heal the sick in that town. 

The question, says Jesus, is whether they will be welcomed or not.  Will they be helped and granted food or shelter?  Or will they be ignored or even abused?  If they are not helped, says Jesus, “Wipe the dust off your feet as a judgement against them.  I tell you, on the final day, it will be harder on them than the town of Sodom.”

When Jesus sent his disciples to go out and do evangelism, he did not send them with tracts and ties.  Rather he sent them with the boldest message: poverty.  Are you a town that helps the poor or harms the poor?  Are you an Abraham or a Sodom? 

On the final day, each person in the world is divided between Abraham and Sodoms.  “When I was hungry, “ Jesus says to the Abrahams, “you gave me something to eat.  When I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink.  When I was naked, you clothed me.  When you did this to the least of these, my brothers, you did so to me.”

Who are these brothers?  The disciples, the messengers sent by Jesus to our town in need.  They came not just to preach, but to test us.  Would we help them?  Would we be generous?

And if we did not, Jesus says to us, “When I was a stranger, you didn’t let me in.  When I was sick and in prison, you never came to me. When you did not do this to the least of these, my brothers, you did not do it to me.”
And these Sodoms receive the judgment of Sodom.