Martin of the Poor

The last major speech Dr. King delivered, four days before his assassination, was on poverty at the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., on March 31, 1968. Dr. King´s sermon was entitled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” containing the quote below:

“There is another thing closely related to racism that I would like to mention as another challenge. We are challenged to rid our nation and the world of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, poverty spreads its nagging, prehensile tentacles into hamlets and villages all over our world. Two-thirds of the people of the world go to bed hungry tonight. They are ill-housed; they are ill-nourished; they are shabbily clad. I’ve seen it in Latin America; I’ve seen it in Africa; I’ve seen this poverty in Asia; I see this poverty in the United States.”

Poverty is a reality in Massachusetts where I live: According to the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless http://www.mahomeless.org/advocacy/basic-facts 728,514 people live below the poverty line; in 2013 19,209 people experienced homelessness; in the 2012-2013 academic year 15,812 students were homeless; on Nov. 25, 2014 4800 families with children were living in shelters. The level of poverty in this state is double what it was in 1990.

In the face of these daunting statistics, on this anniversary of Dr. King’s birthday what would Martin have us do?

photo Dr King marching

I think he’d encourage us to get involved in local initiatives like Family Promise. In my community Christians and Jews partner to house three homeless families at a time in our places of worship.

He’d encourage interfaith worship gatherings that reminds us to work together. In the town I live we will conclude our interfaith worship with a candlelight procession to a corner of our main street (Cabot Street). We will stand in solidarity with our neighbors who are homeless. For a few moments we will feel the bitter weather that accompanies those who camp in doorways and alleys.

Dr. King would remind us that beyond offering kindness to our neighbors we are to understand and confront the political, economic and social factors that push so many into homelessness and poverty.

He’d invite us to wrestle with these words: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin at a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Dr. King’s dream of a world governed by equality and compassion remains compelling and elusive. His words are rooted in the wisdom of Jesus who said, ‘whatever you do (or don’t do) to the most vulnerable of my sisters and brothers, you do (or don’t do) unto me.’

The dream continues to capture our heart and imagination. The opportunities to serve are on our very doorstep. Let’s get to work.

Note: If you live in Beverly, MA join us for interfaith worship January 19 2015 7 p.m. St Peter’s Episcopal Church 4 Ocean Street; First Parish and First Baptist Beverly partner to house 3 families with Family Promise January 25 – Feb 1 contact either church if you’d like to help. Beyond Beverly, find partners in your local community, religious and secular to make a difference.

Meeting Jesus on Cabot Street

I met Jesus on Cabot Street. It was Christmas Eve and I saw him nodding off sitting by the dumpster of the church I serve. He had been drinking and was missing one shoe. I asked if I could help and he said he needed a cup of hot coffee and a muffin.

So, Jesus and I walked to a local coffee shop and ordered. I learned that he likes a lot of sugar in his coffee and a lot of milk. He said that he likes lots of sugar ‘because my ex-wife says it makes me sweeter’.

photo of homelss man with coffee

Jesus has a sense of humor and a tenacity for living that he needs as he has nowhere to call home. I asked where he would spend Christmas and he said: ‘I have a camp hidden away where authorities won’t roust me. I know a church that is serving a free meal and I will go there on Christmas day’.

After his coffee and muffin he thanked me for ‘my kindness’, and we said good-bye. In the Bible, in Matthew 25:40 Jesus says to his followers: “Whatever you do unto the most vulnerable of my sisters and brothers you do unto me.”

A great mystery of our Christian faith is that God’s own child so identifies with the poorest and most vulnerable of us, that he refers to us as ‘my sisters and brothers’. Jesus so identifies with us in our vulnerability that today when I met the man leaning against the dumpster, missing one shoe, I knew that I was looking into the very face of Christ.

Some might call this a scandal and I agree. Jesus’ life and words were scandalous then and scandalous today.

According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty there is a movement across our country for cities to criminalize being homeless. Some cities make it illegal to feed the poor on public property such as parks. A church I know in Oregon is at odds with their city because they allow homeless neighbors to camp on their property. Here in the city I live the city council with support from the mayor recently made camping or storing of possessions on public property a crime. Of such legal actions, Jesus asks this question: ‘Where do I sleep when I have nowhere to go?’

On this eve of Christmas I choose to live according to the wisdom of Jesus who tells us that when we visit someone in prison we are visiting him and when we advocate for the homeless we are advocating for him and when we buy a cup of coffee with extra sugar we are buying that cup of coffee for him.

It remains a scandal that Jesus, God’s own child was born homeless. He was wrapped in rags and placed in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. It stretches our comfort zone and our sense of propriety that Jesus identifies so deeply with the poorest of the poor.

But as we live into this scandal we are reminded that there is a place for us too, in God’s heart. Merry Christmas.