poverty

Circuit Rider

My boss, Ryan Taylor, and I had an opportunity to contribute to this quarter’s issue of Circuit Rider, which takes on the theme of preaching and serving from the margins. In a piece called “Becomming Poor and Finding Friendship on the Margins,” we write about what it means to offer hospitality to our homeless friends at Network Coffee House.

To an outsider, the work of extending hospitality at Network Coffee House may appear to be no work at all. That is not to say, it looks easy. Instead, it may literally appear to an outsider that social justice work among marginalized individuals is not taking place. The hospitality that we create together with our guests at Network cannot be painted on a canvas, captured on video, or advertised on social media.

When Someone is Covered in Shit

While sitting outside talking to Anne, I see Cindy look at me from across the porch and know she's going to come over and ask for something. Her floral dress hangs down to the ground with a brownish smear, a stain, and she quickly gathers the fabric forward to hide it.

"Do you have any extra pants?"

There are no extra pants but I tell her I'll go and look. I do this sometimes when I don't want the first thing I say to someone to be, "No."

"What size are you honey?" Anne interrupts.

Cindy tells Anne her size and Anne goes into her bag and pulls out rumpled pair of pants, saying, "These are too big for me." She also pulls out a t-shirt and hands it over to Cindy.

Cindy thanks Anne and shuffles toward the door. It's obvious she's also made a mess of the back of her dress and her shoes and her socks. Inside, the bathroom is blessedly in a rare unoccupied state.

By the time Cindy retrieves what she needs out of her pack, the bathroom is occupied again. Cindy looks through the little tub of donated hotel soaps and shampoos we set out for showers. One night someone walked in off the street, picked a thick bar of soap out of the tub and took a bite out of it like it was a cookie.

I can smell Cindy now. I ask Cindy if she's going to be able to clean herself up. I tell her she's number twelve on the shower list and we usually only get through ten showers on a shift. I don't stop to listen to her. The words are tumbling out of me.

I say, "I want you to be able to take a shower now. Is that okay with you?"

She says yes. I simultaneously feel like a Very Good Person and want to get her into the shower room and be finished with her.

She chokes a little and starts crying as I turn away. "I'm so embarrassed. I'm sorry to be a bother and make a mess. I'm so embarrassed."

I'm finally listening to her now. I see her, for the first time, as a child. I encounter her now as a person, not a problem.

Cindy emerges from the shower room after her allotted time and takes a seat at a table. The next person on the list calls me over and says, "Uh, can you guys clean that up?"

Poop is smeared on the floor, on the radiator, on the toilet.

As the mop bucket fills, Shani, a regular volunteer, pops her head in and asks if wiping up the mess with paper towels first might be best. That's what I was thinking too.

"Okay, hand me some gloves and I'll get started," she says.

The mop bucket is full now and Shani is crouched down wiping up poop and putting dirty paper towels in a bag. This is a radical act of love for Network, for Cindy, and ultimately for Christ, which Shani undertakes like it's nothing.

Our humanity lives closer to meekness than to strength. Vulnerability and mercy make us transparent to ourselves and present to our neighbor, while security and confidence conceal. We are children, all of us, reaching out and up, only asking to be embraced by love.

We Would Like to Work with the Poor

To: loganrobertson@poors.org
From: beagoodperson77@jcisafriendtome.net
Subject: Volunteering
Date: May 24, 2018 2:14pm

Dear Logan,

I’m part of a local church group that is looking to do some volunteering. We’ve heard Poors Incorporated is doing great work in the city and we’re excited to connect. Our group would like to work directly with poor people, and we understand that you serve them. Since all of us work regular jobs we are looking to volunteer at your organization every other second Saturday starting in four and a half months. We’re planning ahead because we have a trip to help poor people in Honduras at the end of next month and the beginning of the next and the month after that we’re doing something in LA! :-)

We’re excited to work with your poor people. Looking forward to hearing back.

Sincerely,
Chryle Lorbers

To: beagoodperson77@jcisafriendtome.net
From: loganrobertson@poors.org
Subject: Re: Volunteering
Date: May 24, 2018 2:38pm

Chryle,

I’m glad your group is looking to get involved in our city. You’re in luck, our organization has a whole group of poors here ready for you to help them. Before we schedule your group I’d like to get a little bit more information. What would you like to work on with our poor people? Do you have a sense for how long your group would like to be involved with the poor people at Poors Incorporated? How many people are in your group?

All the best,
Logan

To: loganrobertson@poors.org
From: beagoodperson77@jcisafriendtome.net
Subject: Re: re: Volunteering
Date: May 25, 2018 9:17am

Hi Logan,

I guess I’m not really sure that we have something specific in mind to work on with the poor people at Poors Incorporated. We were thinking if there’s a program or something already in place where most of the work is already done, maybe you could plug us into that or whatever. We’re up for anything but we’d like to have direct contact with poor people. In the past, some organizations have had us come do filing, and we’re not really into that so much. There are 24 people in our group. We’re hoping all of us can volunteer together at the same time every other second Saturday of each month as I said below.

Can’t wait to get started five months from now.

Peace,
Chryle

To: beagoodperson77@jcisafriendtome.net
From: loganrobertson@poors.org
Subject: Re: re: re: Volunteering
Date: May 25, 2018 10:43am

Chryle,

Thanks for the info. Unfortunately all of the volunteer positions where you can walk in the front door and work on a predetermined task for 2 hours before going out for lunch with your group are filled up! I was excited when you said you wanted to work with poor people, because I thought maybe you wanted to work with them on, like, coding CSS, HTML, and JavaScript or fixing cars or something like that. But never fear! we do have an intake process. Let me explain it before we go further.

Before you come on as a regular volunteer, we require that you spend 4 hours once a week, every week for a full calendar year at Poors Incorporated. During that time you should get to know the names of at least five poor people. Also, in that period of time the following events must occur for you to be considered as a regular volunteer: the police must be called once, an ambulance must be called at least twice, a fight must break out between two or more poor people during your shift involving a weapon of some kind—bonus points for a knife or steel pipe. Cleaning up blood, vomit, or other bodily fluids may be substituted for any one of these events. If you haven’t burned out before a year is up we’d be happy to take you on as a regular volunteer.

We can accommodate two people from your group.

Cheers,
Logan

To: loganrobertson@poors.org
From: beagoodperson77@jcisafriendtome.net
Subject: Re: re: re: re: Volunteering
Date: May 27, 2018 9:22pm

It sounds like maybe Poors Incorporated won’t be such a good fit for our group.

To: beagoodperson77@jcisafriendtome.net
From: loganrobertson@poors.org
Subject: Re: re: re: re: re: Volunteering
Date: May 28, 2018 1:06am

No kidding.

Amazon HQ 2.0

The following is an unpublished Op-Ed written with my friend Nathan Hunt, community organizer, theology monger, nonviolent practitioner, and all around swell guy. He keep the blog For Shalom, which you should check out not least because he's a lot smarter than me.

With the announcement that Denver has made the top 20 finalists for the new Amazon headquarters, I thought it appropriate to publish here.


We join the Denver Post editors in urging Denver elected officials to resist the temptation to compete in a “race to the bottom.” An edge gained by tax discounts is always tenuous, vulnerable to the next state or city’s reckless cut, and often relies on austerity measures which harm the most vulnerable communities.

We suggest Denver issue a challenge for Jeff Bezos and Amazon: shape the next 50 years of urban economic community development and corporate/government partnership not only in Denver but across the United States for equity and sustainability.

This challenge is important in the light of a recent Zillow report on the connection between rising housing costs and homelessness. Zillow found that in an urban center like Los Angeles, 2000 people would fall into homelessness with a 5% increase in rents. Denver should not pretend it is immune to these kinds of market forces. Amazon adding 50,000 high-paid employees to the population would be a disaster for residents earning 50% of Area Median Income and below. Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city by population, has shown it is possible to head off the connection between rising rents and homelessness by building more attainable housing. Denver can and should provide housing as Houston has done, but we can do more.

Far from Denver courting Amazon, Amazon ought to court Denver, a city that is first and foremost the people of this place. Our position is that Denver is not improved unless all of its people have an equitable share in that improvement. We have some questions for the company to determine if it is a suitable partner.

  1. Would Amazon’s arrival improve education for all classes regardless of neighborhood, race or class?
  2. Would Amazon’s arrival improve people’s ability to attain and remain in quality housing with easy access to work, school, groceries, and play?
  3. Would Amazon’s presence provide good jobs for the people already living here who want them?
  4. Would Amazon help Denver become the ecologically sustainable city we need in an era of increased environmental instability, including natural disasters like droughts, floods, fires, and hurricanes?

If the answer to these questions is not a strong “yes,” then we suggest Amazon build its new headquarters in a city with lower expectations of for its corporate neighbors.

Amazon says that the city chosen for its second headquarters will enjoy $5 billion in construction investment and estimates that its investments in Seattle between 2010 and 2016 resulted in an additional $38 billion to the city's economy. The way this money is allocated matters if we are prioritizing the common good of all Denver citizens. Our recommendations for investment allocation follows:

  • 20% toward Community Land Trusts to retain neighborhoods and allow working class neighborhoods to withstand gentrification
  • 20% toward new attainable housing creation, principally invested for those earning below 30% Area Median Income
  • 20% toward rail, bike, and bus infrastructure and clean energy investment
  • 20% toward public education and workforce training to move local people into Amazon-esque jobs
  • 20% toward commons investments like parks, public spaces, arts, and local food systems

Faceless economic investment mechanisms are not enough. A good corporate neighbor would value and invest in our local assets. True social responsibility would mean adopting an “anchor institution mission” by prioritizing local hires and whenever possible making procurement and construction contracts with local worker-owned, people of color owned, and/or women owned businesses.

As the Denver community considers inviting a corporation like Amazon to be one of our neighbors and economic partners, we must ask: how would Amazon contribute to a city where everyone can thrive—particularly people who are currently marginalized and struggling? If Amazon cannot affirmatively meet the challenge detailed above, we see no reason to welcome the corporation to our city.

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.