When Fear Wins

Last night the city council of my community voted 9 – 0 to support an ordinance from the Mayor banning overnight camping and storage of personal effects on public land. In effect this ban criminalize the homeless in our community. In a city with a shortage of shelter beds for men and no beds for women, the question was asked of the Council and Mayor: “Where do you sleep and store your few possessions when you have nowhere to go?” They had no answer.

photo of homeless woman and police

The presenting issue seemed to be a small encampment near an elementary school. One parent who supported the ordinance spoke passionately of his fear of seeing homeless people near his child’s school. What he was afraid of went unstated and unchallenged. The implication was that the homeless are to be feared, especially near children. Neither the Mayor nor the Police Chief who spoke did anything to dissuade the parent of his fear.

One citizen who spoke in opposition to the ban suggested that the ban be limited to encampments near schools. This seemed like a reasonable accommodation but neither the Council nor the Mayor were interested in anything short of a total ban.

In my 30 years of walking with the homeless, in the vast number of instances, they have not wanted to draw attention to themselves. They simply want to have space to be. Surely I’ve had to set parameters with my homeless neighbors on occasion, but I’ve never thought of the homeless as a group to fear. Unfortunately this stereotype was reinforced by last night’s vote.

Over the years I’ve developed some close friendships with people who happen to be homeless. I’ve learned their names and stories and found that we have much in common. I’ve learned that a person doesn’t choose to be homeless but rather is the result of circumstances that could have the same result for any of us. I’ve come to admire their strength in living with challenges that would have completely broken many.

The vote of the Council was a sad day for our community. Yet I think of Dr. Martin Luther King who said: “The arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.” I’ve been on the losing end of many a vote over the years but as a follower in the way of Jesus, I hold onto the belief that love not fear will ultimately have the last word. Together let’s keep the faith.

Note: A hopeful sign is that the Mayor and Council are forming a task force to explore the causes that lead into and keep people homeless. The challenge is to work with and hold the task force accountable to provide for the most vulnerable of our neighbors. In whatever community you call home I encourage you to add your voice for the common good.

Who is Your Neighbor?

I recently moved to a new community. The neighborhood I work in has a bustling downtown. Cabot Street features restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques that invite people to browse and visit. 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 are the people I’m getting to know as friends.

Within the downtown are those 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 from our own? Perhaps we walk past because they remind us of our own vulnerability?

image of homeless

The church I serve has long been seen as a hospitable place for our neighbors on the street. We serve three meals per week for guests who are homeless or live on the margins. This past week we partnered with another church to house three families with ten children. Soon the winter weather will come and our most fragile friends will come seeking warmth,to use the restrooms or plug in a cell phone.

Providing hospitality isn’t easy. Some guests are active in their addiction or struggle with mental health issues. Sometimes we have to set boundaries for appropriate behavior.

Some churches lock their doors and see assistance as enabling. Some cities seek to criminalize the most vulnerable and force them into jails or to the next community.

I’m grateful for churches and communities that strive to provide a warm welcome and practical assistance. Gradually I’m getting to know the names and stories of my new neighbors on the street. I’m reminded that our stories have much in common.

Jesus in Matthew 25 says, ‘whatever you do unto the most vulnerable of my sisters and brothers, you do unto me’. Jesus identifies with the most vulnerable at the deepest of levels and invites us to do the same.

Recognizing one another as a neighbor has all sorts of implications. As we get to know and care about each other, we begin to see the complex issues that bring someone to the streets. We begin to explore what social services are necessary for a healthy community to provide, so that all our neighbors are treated with dignity. But it all begins by simply knowing each other’s name.

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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.