The following is a message that I gave Saturday at the Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good, and Clackamas Housing Team. The workshop had 85 people in attendance. It was held at Prince of Life Lutheran Church, at 3896 S Meyers Rd, Oregon City, OR 97045.
You have heard it said for God so loved the world that he gave his only son to save the world. And I say to you that God so loved the world that God gave us you, so you can continue Jesus Christ’s ministry of healing, reconciliation and redemption. So, like the Blues Brothers movie: Let’s get the band together as we are on a Mission from God.
You’ve heard of mega-churches. The Episcopal Church of St. John the Divine is a micro-church. Our average Sunday attendance is 32 people our average age is easily 65. Our youth group are the people in their 40s and 50s. We currently are assisting 8 people with housing. Amazing!
St. John’s began this project with the goal of providing transitional housing which we thought would be 3-4 months. We’ve learned that’s too short a time. A year minimum is more realistic. People who are unhoused are traumatized by that experience, living on the street leaves you exhausted, discouraged, anxious and paranoid.
Here are the challenges. People are inherently annoying. I’ve learned I don’t mind my mess, but it will be hard for me to tolerate yours. I don’t like to share a refrigerator unless you are obsessively tidy. Living in community is hard; people feel the need to judge others and worst of all they feel the need to share that judgement of one person with other people and not with the person whose behavior they think to change. We are hesitant to set warm effective boundaries about behaviors, so we make up a whole list of rules that make the 613 rules of the Hebrew Scriptures pale in comparison. Agreements with our residents are longish but I tell them we can reduce them to 3:
- Treat yourself and everyone else with respect and dignity, most especially our neighbors and other residents. Be nice.
- Pick up after yourself leaving our mutual property cleaner than you found it.
- Don’t annoy the priest anymore than necessary.
- Oh, one more. Never, ever, never drink the last Diet Pepsi.
What have we gained from this experience? The security of our property has vastly improved. We already had unhoused people sleeping on our property without our knowledge or permission. No one was at church in the evenings and early mornings, so we would find signs of sleeping on our deck, under scrubs, etc. and we’d find other mementos of human habitation. You can guess what that was. Now our residents keep our property secure.
We no longer believe homeless people are just folks without money and a place to sleep. We no longer believe that poverty is mostly the result of laziness, immorality and irresponsibility or in Episcopal speak–sin. Making friends–providing housing and a Food Pantry allows us to connect despite class difference – and this builds empathy. The more you engage with people unlike you and learn about their lives and stories, the harder it is to see them as stereotypes or to dismiss their challenges as trivial.
I’m a nice white liberal woman and didn’t believe I had hardly any prejudices. Not so. We’ve learned that we suffer from a wide range of prejudices. We want the people we help to be deeply grateful; we want to help those folks who are deserving of our help; we prefer to help people who are most like us. None of these positions are biblical. In fact, I’m pretty sure the Bible leads us in just the opposite direction. We have been blessed to see these prejudices, [which of course we didn’t think we had] so we can work on ourselves to change them.
We have been transformed by the kindness and generosity of our residents. They continually inspire me towards my own goal of treating myself and everyone else with respect and dignity as I watch them practice living Gospel lives—not that they would use these words to describe their acts of kindness and solidarity with the other residents.
We have learned that following Jesus is not the easiest journey to take. I know, I know, this comes as a great surprise to all of you. There are lots of parts of the Bible that I’m not confident that I understand completely. Yet when Jesus asked Simon, son of John, “Do you love me? And Simon answered yes, Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” This part of scripture seems abundantly clear. Tend the sheep. Feed the sheep. We are to care for one another. So, our residents have helped me live a Gospel life—words I hope are accurate to describe myself and my community of faith.
Wherever you and your community are in the process of responding to homelessness, please think of including transitional housing. The small number of people we can serve does not end homelessness and I know you are working on this issue in the larger systematic scale. Good for you. God bless you. Yet don’t let the mammoth scale of the problem keep you and your community from doing what you can with the gifts you’ve received from God. It’s true I can’t solve homelessness in Eugene and Springfield, but I can help solve it for 8 people.
You will next hear from David England, one of our residents. He’s a wonderful man. Don’t be thinking that this is the type of person you’ll get when you open your property for housing. David is an answer to prayer and really an assistant in my ministries. We are so lucky, blessed to have him in our community. And David is an outlier, a person who is so different from others we’ve helped that he can’t be used to draw general conclusions. A man for whom less is more and joyful and joy is a mystery.