The Absent Church

Last week at Network Coffeehouse I spoke to a man who had been released from DOC (Department of Corrections—aka prison) the week before. He was released with all his earthly possessions in a backpack, a list of services around Denver, and a voucher for clothes. After he was released, he hooked up with a woman who quickly disappeared with everything he owned.

My impression was that he knew no one, had no real connections in Denver, and wasn't sure what he would do next except check in with his parole officer.

Two things occurred to me while speaking to him.

First, the irony of his experience. For many people living in homelessness, the major factor contributing to their condition is an inability to connect and attach to other people. Ironic, then, that this man had trusted someone who immediately contributed to making his condition worse.

Second, except for his short time at Network the night we spoke, the Church was absent from his life. He didn't indicate how long he spent under the tutelage of the state and I didn't ask. But I wonder, if he had had a relationship with a church while he was behind bars, would he have found himself in the predicament he did a week ago? Perhaps he still would have found himself on the street. But with a community to turn to, maybe a lost backpack would not have been such a concern.

To visit the prisoner, the stranger, and the poor is called righteousness by Jesus. According to the author of Matthew, to fail to visit these is to invite eternal fire (Matthew 25:31-46). And yet, the church is largely absent from the people and places Jesus calls it to be.

Of course, some efforts to visit the poor do exist. Network Coffeehouse is one. United Methodist Committee on Relief works worldwide to ease the suffering of people experiencing disaster. Denver itself is host to several efforts by churches to feed the hungry and clothe those in need. But these groups serve to highlight the absence of individual Christians and organized ecclesial bodies in the public sphere, witnessing, encountering, and bearing up under suffering.

Where the Church is clearly called by Jesus Christ to be, there instead exists a sucking vacuum. Into this conspicuous absence the most vulnerable people in our society are pulled. There, they are preyed on by demonic forces: drug dealers and cartels pushing meth, crack, and heroine, sex traffickers enslaving adults and children alike, pay day loan organizations and their capricious usury, day labor centers doling out work without appropriate wages, jails that increasingly charge fees for the most basic amenities. And then there's my friend at Network who simply needs a pair of pants. Standing against this force we have burned-out case managers, parole officers, a few people compelled by religion to serve their neighbor, and the odd person here or there who cannot help but find themselves among the poor and suffering. It is not enough.

The bulk of the Church, the living body of Christ, Jesus' hands and feet supposedly animated by the Spirit of God? A barely audible whisper at best. Unaccounted for, unseen, and unheard. Absent.

It's All Holy Communion

(Please also see Mark's timely post on this issue.)

My reaction to city government restrictions on serving food to homeless individuals in public? Let's fight the laws and spend some time with the homeless doing something other than giving them food.

Things to do with homeless people in public not involving handing out food:

  • Share Holy Communion
  • Go to a restaurant and order food
  • Ask if they have special skills or secrets to teach you
  • Do random acts of kindness for strangers together
  • Watch funny videos on YouTube
  • Hug if you both want to hug
  • Ask what they want to do
  • Sit and talk about rights
  • Sit and talk economics
  • Sit and talk theology
  • Sit and talk politics
  • Care for a community garden
  • Start a guerrilla garden
  • Do an art project
  • Sing a song
  • Tell stories
  • Listen to music
  • Watch a movie
  • Watch a TV show
  • Share a cigarette
  • Give out sleeping bags
  • Give out toothbrushes
  • Give out wash-clothes
  • Give out conditioner
  • Give out toothpaste
  • Give out underwear
  • Give out shampoo
  • Give out tampons
  • Give out lotion
  • Give out pads
  • Give out combs
  • Give out tissues
  • Give out water
  • Give out tarps
  • Give out socks
  • Give out shoes
  • Give out soap
  • Give out hats
  • Play a game
  • Play checkers
  • Play chess
  • People watch
  • Read a book
  • Shake hands
  • Take a walk
  • High five
  • Laugh
  • Smile
  • Listen
  • Cry

I get that the first thing on the list involves sharing food. But it's all Holy Communion, isn't it? If you're arrested for sharing Communion, it's a whole new ballgame.

Only Three

Please also see Logan's post on this issue.

I'm sure you've seen the news lately. It's been in the Facebook news feed sidebar thing, so don't lie and say you haven't seen it. You have. It's the story of a 90-year-old Florida man and two pastors being cited for breaking Fort Lauderdale law by feeding the homeless. There are a lot of emotions at play in a story like this, and there's no reason why that shouldn't be the case. However, it makes it difficult to form rational thoughts about the event and the issues it raises that are more nuanced than "Wuuuuut. Nuh uh. Nuh. Uh."

So rather than offering an intense examination of the effects of marginalization on the wider social fabric, the economic factors that lead to homelessness and keep people there, the political structures that offer success for cruelty to and dehumanization of the least of these and political doom for those who actually want to make things better…instead of all that, let's keep it simple.


Arnold Abbott, a 90-year-old WWII veteran, now a chef, has been serving the homeless meals for 23 years. In 1999, he faced opposition and subsequently sued the city of Fort Lauderdale to allow food service at a public beach. He won, and has been serving weekly meals to the city's homeless ever since. On October 22, at a past-midnight session, the city passed an ordinance "regulating" such activity. According to the Sun Sentinel, the measure "limits where outdoor feeding sites can be located, requires the permission of property owners, and says the groups have to provide portable toilets, hand-washing stations and maintain the food at precisely regulated temperatures."

At the beginning of November, Abbott and two members of the clergy who were assisting him serve food were ordered to stop and immediately issued a citation carrying a potential $500 fine and up to 60 days of jail time. A few days later, they were again ticketed for serving meals (though the police at the scene allowed them to serve food for about 45 minutes first). No one has been jailed or arrested as of this writing.

That's where we are. We've got a guy serving the homeless food, and a city punishing him and others like him for doing so. It's important to keep in mind that this isn't a unique story. According to a report from the National Coalition for the Homeless "since 2013, 31 cities across the United States have attempted to pass new laws that restrict organizations and individuals from sharing food with people experiencing homelessness." They've passed in 21.

So maybe we're paying attention to this particular story because it's an old guy, a reportedly good old guy, getting hassled by the government. He's not hurting anyone. He's trying to help, and the MAN won't let him. People are upset with the city of Fort Lauderdale. They've written letters to the mayor (and gotten form letters back), been outraged on social media, and righteously skewered the situation because they're named Stephen Colbert.

Something interesting happened

I've spent a lot of time thinking about this story, thinking about the social, political, economic, and theological implications. I've tried to think about it from a lot of angles so that I could form an intelligent opinion and write a comprehensive look at the situation that might cause you to say, "Pretty smart, book-learn'd guy." But here's the thing—I couldn't. I couldn't weave together all the threads without feeling overwhelmed. Part of what made it difficult was that I was angry at the city for passing something I saw as so amoral. It struck me as so vile that I all I could do was throw my hands in the air and say "Well what the hell do you do with that?"

But then something interesting happened. When I calmed down, I realized that I was still upset—but not with the city. Yeah, it's awful that feeding the homeless in 21 cities is illegal, but governments aren't moral or just. We'd like them to be, and we should do all we can to hold them to the highest ethical standards, but let's be real. Governments are corrupt and amoral because people are corrupt and amoral. Ruling bodies are human institutions, so flaws abound. Jesus knew that about Rome, and we know it now. What's keeping me upset, the really bad thing here, is that Jesus said to look that reality in the eye and follow him anyway.

So where was everyone? Only three people were cited. An old guy and two pastors. Why not more? It's not like this was a new setup. Abbott has been running these weekly meals for fifteen years. Also, I highly doubt those two pastors are the only ones in the area. Why isn't this a story about an entire community of pastors and lay persons each receiving a citation for civil disobedience? They didn't show, because getting people to do the work of Christ involves asking them to dig through muck, mire, pain, suffering, sweat, and frustration for someone else. For not-them. A call to that kind of binding to another, that kind of fellowship, won't be as sanitized and safe as the latest renovated sanctuary offering individual communion packets. And because it's tough, the turnout's bound to be low.

There were only three, and I wasn't one of them. I feel shame for all that I've not done for my neighbor[^1], for all I've failed to do for those who need help, my help. There have to be more than three. I can at least be the fourth. It's as simple as something Arnold Abbott said: "Why do I keep doing this? Because these are my people and they deserve to be fed."[^2]