A Litany for Christmas: Seeking Refuge

Ever felt like your life was out of control? Ever woken at 3 a.m. wondering what would become of your life? Have you ever worried over the well-being of those you hold close to your heart?

Response: The Gospel of Luke: ‘In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. Joseph went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child’.

Mary and Joseph were homeless, forced by the Roman Empire to go to Joseph’s ancestral home for the purpose of a census. Imagine living under occupation. You are about to have a child and the only refuge you can find is a barn full of the muck, smells and sounds of animals. Can you imagine a more humble setting to bring your first child into the world?

Response: ‘While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.’

manger

Imagine Bethlehem full of travelers. Perhaps Mary and Joseph weren’t alone in the barn that first Christmas. Could it be that other travelers were also in that barn seeking refuge? Could it be that there were other women attending to Mary, as she brought her baby into the world?

Response: ‘And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, a feeding trough, because there was no place for them in the inn.’

We light a candle for Christmas. We light this candle to remember neighbors who are homeless in our own community. We light this candle to remember millions of our neighbors, seeking refuge from violence in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. We remember that Jesus on that first Christmas was homeless, born to parents seeking refuge. We remember that on that first Christmas, hope was born.

Refugee woman with baby

Response: As we journey toward Christmas, we walk with those who are vulnerable. We walk knowing that darkness gives way to the light. Come let us worship the coming of the Christ child, the gift of light.

Housing Not Handcuffs

The city I live in is an economically mixed community. Our housing stock ranges from million dollar homes overlooking the ocean to cardboard shacks tucked out of sight in city parks and in the woods. Most live in housing somewhere in-between these extremes.

Currently our mayor is proposing an ordinance to make it illegal for our neighbors who are homeless to camp or store their possessions on public property. This ordinance is similar to a controversial ordinance by the City of Tampa, Florida which in July 2013 passed a similar law.

photo of homeless sleeping

Such punitive laws make criminals of those who are most fragile and vulnerable in our society. It makes restoring people to health and a place in society that much more difficult. In addition it is not cost-effective costing tax payers on average $50 per day to incarcerate a person.

Such laws are based on the misconception that being homeless is a choice. This misconception is quickly laid to rest if you get to know your homeless neighbors. As a pastor I have been walking with the homeless for over 30 years.

Here are a few of their stories (names changed): Elliott was a brilliant college student until schizophrenia took over his mind; Bob did two tours in Iraq and now with PTSD lives in the woods no longer comfortable being around people; Karen was sexually abused as a little girl and carries deep emotional wounds which she seeks to escape through alcohol; Vivian worked as a secretary and was laid off from her work and couldn’t afford the high rent; Donny is a young man who was beaten by his father and fled to the streets.

These women and men are not ‘the other’, they are us. Homelessness is not a choice it is the result of circumstances that could affect any of us. I recently read that 1 in 4 people in Massachusetts live in poverty. Nationwide 1 in 5 people live with food insecurity worried about where their next meal will come from.

Instead of criminalizing neighbors who are homeless we need to be working with all facets of our community to understand the causes of homelessness and find meaningful ways to respond. We need to look at the shortage of emergency shelters, affordable housing, stagnation in wages, inequality in access to quality education, lack of treatment for addictions and lack of mental health services etc.

Criminalizing homelessness is not the answer. It doesn’t solve anything and erodes the moral health of the greater community. Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa said: “The moral health of a community is measured in proportion to the communities compassion for those most vulnerable.”

photo homeless shelter

I believe that my city is better than this. Soon the snows of winter will arrive and rather than pass an ordinance to criminalize camping and storing of possessions, we should be coming together to find housing and services. The answer is found in working together for the common good.

Note: A public hearing by the City Council to consider the Mayor’s proposed ordinance to ban public camping and storage, takes place November 17th, 2014 7 p.m. at Beverly City Hall (3rd floor Council Chambers).

Addendum: Since I published the article above I’ve learned that the cities of Beverly and Salem, Massachusetts have decided (announced on Nov. 15) to form a regional task force to tackle the problem of homelessness. This task group will be co-chaired by the mayor of each community. This is good news and I thank both Mayors for bringing together a broad-based task group to understand and develop strategies for addressing the causes that led people into homelessness and meaningful ways to address the complex needs of our neighbors who are homeless.

The Mayor of Beverly however continues to advocate for a ban on camping and storage of possession on public property. The question remains: ‘Where do you sleep and store your few possessions when you have nowhere to go?’ I continue to voice my opposition to this ban.

No Longer Invisible

The neighborhood I work in has a bustling downtown.  Third Street features restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques that invite people to browse and visit.  Walking a few blocks from my office to Third Street is rarely a solitary venture. Often  I cross paths with people I know, sometimes we offer a quick wave, often we stop and talk.  One of the things I enjoy most about my neighborhood is the people I’ve come to know as friends.

Within the downtown are those who are less visible. They are our neighbors who are homeless.  It is not uncommon for people to walk past the homeless as if they weren’t there.  Perhaps we walk past because we think that their story is so different than our own?  Perhaps we walk past because they remind us of our own vulnerability?

The church I serve has long been seen as a hospitable place for our neighbors on the streets.  In the morning we put on coffee and invite folk to use our rest room, to rest in a comfortable chair and use the phone.   Those of us on staff have come to know many of our homeless neighbors by name.

In recent months, several members of the church have opened up a hospitality room where neighbors can stop by for breakfast and receive a warm welcome.  For  everyone involved it has been transformative.  A few days ago I stopped by and saw a retired teacher listening intently to a man who lives on the streets.  She was asking him about his life.   I wondered how long it had been since this man, whom people often walk past, had someone really listen to him.

What has occurred over these months is a deepening sense of community between those of us who live in secure, warm houses and those of us who struggle to find a place to lay our head each night.  No longer do we walk past one another.  Now we know each other’s name, each other’s story.  We’ve come to realize that our stories are not all that different.  Our understanding of whom we call ‘neighbor’ has expanded.

Recognizing one another as a neighbor has all sorts of implications.  Now that we know each other and care about each other, we begin to see the complex issues that bring someone to the streets.  We begin to ask questions about what social services are necessary for a healthy community to provide, so that all our neighbors are treated with dignity.

The issues are complex, the needs are great and the answers don’t come easily.  The first step however is in knowing each other’s name and listening to each other’s story.  The good news, is that we are no longer invisible to each other.

Christ in Disguise

Tonight, New Years Eve, a dozen or so of our homeless neighbors will make their home at First Baptist McMinnville, Oregon.  Danny Browne and company will turn on the heat, set up the cots and provide a safe place for guests to get a good nights sleep. 

The truth is that too often the homeless are invisible, their names unknown and stories untold.  But at the winter shelter these boundaries are transcended.  Names are known, bread broken, stories shared.   For that night we are all fellow travellers, finding a shared place to call home.

Centuries ago, Saint Benedict founded a monastic community based upon the principle of hospitality.  Benedict believed that each homeless guest could be the Christ in disguise.  To turn away the stranger, to neglect a person in need, was to turn away Jesus himself.  Benedict believed that to welcome the guest was a form of communion with God.

This is all to say that what happens at First Baptist and countless other churches and shelters is a spiritual act.  Jim Wallis who leads a faith-based community in Washington D.C, in response to the need that is in every community, says “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” 

We are the ones who can make this world a little more hopeful, a little more hospitable, a little more just.   We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. As we enter into this new year, this is good news indeed.