Don’t be Afraid to Just … Call Me (or What’s the Deal with All these Homeless People?)

Time for my semi-annual post, I guess. 🙂

There are a couple of things on my mind, and it would be good for us all to have this stuff out in the open. The first one has to do with me communicating. The second one has to do with our ministry to people living on the street.

Thing One: I don’t say out loud a lot of the things that are in my head. It’s a jungle in there. Or maybe a jumble. Probably a lot of both. If you’ve spent any time with me at all, you will have noticed that, if you ask me a question, you better have set aside some time for an answer, because I can be pretty verbacious when given the opportunity. I know this. I’ve watched the faces of people listening to me talk about what’s going on in my mind.

For this reason, I tend to err on the quieter side. It’s not that I don’t have reasons for things or ideas about stuff that might be going on: quite the opposite is true. It’s just that I don’t want to bore you with detail. That said, PLEASE ask me if you have questions about something that’s going on!!! I can’t emphasize this enough. ASK! It is far better for you to ask and get it straight from my mouth than to speculate and chatter outside of my earshot! (Some would call that “gossip.” I won’t place that label here because Grace, right?) Let me say this differently: Have I ever jumped down someone’s throat for asking me a challenging question? No. Maybe there’s some holdover from the past here, but let me assure you again: I WELCOME questions. You’ve seen me preach before, right? Right.

And to be clear, it’s not that I’m trying to put the burden of communication on you. I want this to be a partnership. The things I believe people care about gets announced through the weekly. Other stuff that’s happening might be rolling around in my skull. Help me get it out, please.

OK, now that that’s settled, on to Thing Two: Homeless Ministry.

Many of you know that we offer showers and a small clothing pantry for our friends who live on the streets. That takes place every Wednesday from 3:30 – 5:30. Bob Moody is in charge of it, and he has a helper from another church. (Genaro is his name, if you ever run into him.) Peggy helps by folding and sorting clothing and doing some other stuff. It’s a beautiful and much-needed ministry. It’s also a little different from some other similar ministries in town in that we don’t force Jesus down anybody’s throats: no sinner’s prayer required, no promise that anybody has to “accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior.” That, I think, is a big advantage, because it lets street folks know that we don’t have an ulterior motive for offering our help.

Bob and Genaro do a great job with this ministry. They interact with folks and have built relationships, which I’m sure you will agree is better than just cattle prodding people into the showers, then the clothes pantry, then out the door. If you’re interested in being part of the ministry or adding another day, talk to Bob or me. (You have to submit to a background check and be “reliable” enough to show up when you say you will. You will always be scheduled with at least one other person, for safety’s sake. That’s just how we do it.)

On top of this ministry, I do my own ministry, which follows an “accompaniment model.” This is a long-accepted model in the ELCA and actually in the Lutheran World Federation. Rather than assuming that I have Jesus and am graciously and nobly giving it to some poor homeless sap because I’m just awesome that way, I approach it as though our street friends already HAVE Jesus and can teach me a thing or two about grace. I am committed to seeing Jesus in the face of each one of the folks who come through that door, even if they are drunk as a skunk or high as a kite. Each of us is created in the image and likeness of God. Not everybody remembers that in the face of trauma, and that’s where I am able to step in and remind them of that dignity that inheres in them as a child of the heavenly Father.

I’m not there to save anybody or help anybody. I’m there to SEE people and have them felt SEEN. Some of these folks, people might think, take advantage of me. But as Fr. Greg Boyle (founder of Homeboy Industries) says, “How can someone take advantage of me if I’ve already given them my advantage?” It’s what Jesus said in the Fourth Gospel: “No one takes my life from me. I lay it down and it pick it up again.” Or as he says every Sunday at the Eucharist, “This is my body, given for you!” (Not stolen or sneaked, or snatched away, but freely given! That’s grace, my friends! Some days it’s easier than others.) [Have you thought about the Eucharist this way? Give it a ponder. It can be life-changing.]

I mention all of this because it came to my attention that people are asking or wondering WHY we have homeless folks come to the church building during the week or even on Sundays. Good! Ask! Wonder! Just please don’t wonder amongst yourselves exclusively. I can’t mind-read, and I am THRILLED to talk about this stuff. But be prepared to hear the answers. You may question them. You don’t have to agree with everything I say. (What?! It’s true! I am NOT a “Herr Pastor” type. More on that later.)

I have been allowing this, even on Sundays when folks are drunk, because I always ask myself, “Why are they drunk?” Is it because they feel great about themselves and where their lives have led them? My guess is probably not. When they are drunk (or high, but that’s a slightly different response that’s needed in that case), they feel like hammered poop. The last thing I think they need is to hear how they screwed up. AGAIN.

100% of people living on the streets are there because of trauma, usually Family of Origin Trauma. Sometimes it’s sexual trauma at the hands of a close friend or family member. Sometimes they have a mental health issue and the family doesn’t know how to deal with it. Maybe it’s undiagnosed, which means the family REALLY doesn’t know how to deal with it, because they don’t see the disorder: they only see the behavior, which they label as “bad.” Oftentimes the person started self-medicating and this caused even further troubles with the family. The point is, even if they’ve been on the streets for years and have chosen to stay there by now, the reason in the beginning wasn’t because they thought it sounded great to get so drunk that they peed in their clothes, had to pick meals out of trash cans, sleep under bridges where people would mock them and maybe even beat them up, rape them, or kill them. No. They – like we – are broken people, who need reminding what big, fat sinners and total losers they are that God loves them deeply.

And who is God and what does God look like? God is the Father, who looks like the Son, who established the Church to be his agents in this broken, messed up world. We should look like God. Not because we’ll go to hell if we fail to, but because we are called daily through our baptism to be conformed into that image, called through the meal to become what we have received.

People who live on the streets are usually people of faith. A lot of them come from Christian backgrounds. That might be part of the problem. I haven’t met a lot of former Lutherans who are homeless. Mostly they come from dogmatic backgrounds that believe in obedience and compliance to norms above all else. That could well describe a lot of North American Lutherans, too, to be honest, but most of us in the ELCA say over and over again that the message of GRACE – totally undeserved, completely unwarranted, wild-ass, foolishly squandered, recklessly offered forgiveness and acceptance – is what draws us to this denomination and keeps us here. It’s not the Theology of the Cross (though we really need to talk about this more, because this is the core of grace); it’s not the Law/Gospel dialectic (which we should also talk about, because Luther got this one wrong); it’s not any other theological proclamation: it’s GRACE that leads us home. Question: Does grace apply just to our congregation, just to the folks who look like us, dress like us, smell like us, act and worship like us? Or does it apply to everyone?

This is not an admonishment or a rebuke, friends. This is my theology of homeless ministry, which many of you have been wondering about. And this is just what pops out of my head as I sit here to write this post. If you ask me in person, watch out because who knows how long I could go on about this.

Now, with all of that said, some boundaries are necessary in order for YOU to feel safe. Just to put this out front, I never feel UNsafe around homeless people, even if they’re using. Almost all violence that comes from homeless people is directed toward other homeless people and is usually in retribution for some kind of slight: he stole my backpack, she took my bottle, that guy said some stuff about my wife. Nevertheless, I understand that, if you haven’t hung around with homeless folks, their forwardness can be off-putting. If I ask YOU how you’re doing, you’re likely to say, “Oh, fine, thanks. You?” And you expect me to say, “Just dandy” or something similar. When you ask a person from the street, they’re not going to give the polite, white, middle class answer. You’ll hear the unvarnished truth (with unvarnished language, most likely). We can work to get more comfortable with that. No big deal.

When someone comes in drunk or high, that’s another thing. Right now, you don’t have a relationship with them. Tell me, please, and I will deal with them. Even if it’s in the middle of service, just put your hand up or signal to me as you would if someone were sick. Maybe I’ll ask them to move. Maybe I’ll ask ushers to escort them out. Maybe I’ll just tell them to shush. It depends on how well I know them and how severe the behavior is.

If they’re acting dangerous, call the police. Don’t even think twice. Use your cellphone to call 911 or slip out and use the office phone. Safety for EVERYONE is our primary concern … even though the gospel is anything but “safe.” You know what I’m saying. Don’t let yourself or others be endangered. Call for help.

Don’t feel compelled to give anyone money. If it’s in your heart to give (AND if you can actually afford it!), then by all means give. But if you contribute to the congregation, there is some small amount of money that I am able to use at my discretion to help folks I think are in need. Or I’ll ask you. But let’s consider it policy that nobody should think they HAVE to give money. I will frequently say (and it’s the truth), “I don’t carry cash anymore, and the church doesn’t keep cash on the premises.” No guilt, no shame. God won’t think less of you for it. Probably. (Joke.)

Now, I have rambled a lot. Not everything or every situation is covered in this post, nor every question answered. This is meant to be a beginning of a conversation. These things are best discussed NOT on Sunday morning five minutes before worship when I’m running around like a beheaded chicken, and not in line after service when my little introvert brain is in sensory overload and I’m lucky if I can manage a handshake and a “Thanks for being here, human person whose name I can’t remember all of a sudden, even though I’ve known you for almost 7 years.” Call me. My number is in the directory. It’s on my calling card. You can also call the church office. You can invite me to lunch or coffee or dinner at your place (though I’d probably have to drag my lovely-yet-energetic children along for that). Point is: call. Ask. You shall receive. Maybe more than you wanted.

Good? Good.

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