Date: May 24, 2018 2:14pm
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.
Subject: Re: Volunteering
Date: May 24, 2018 2:38pm
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,
Subject: Re: re: Volunteering
Date: May 25, 2018 9:17am
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.
Subject: Re: re: re: Volunteering
Date: May 25, 2018 10:43am
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.
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.
Subject: Re: re: re: re: re: Volunteering
Date: May 28, 2018 1:06am
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.
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]
Say you serve Christ every Sunday by making and serving a breakfast for the poor and hungry, and about every fourth Sunday a church neighbor screams in your face. That neighbor is clearly not experiencing the love of God. Right? And you clearly are. Right? The kingdom of heaven is at hand and you’re there reaching out to touch it. You’re building it. And these neighbors—the ones using words like nigger, cunt, pedophile, drunk, lazy, bum—they’re trying to tear it down. It’s clear. Right?
So there you are in God’s kingdom and there are your angry neighbors who definitely are not. Having God on your side feels good. Knowing where you stand and that what you’re doing is the right thing is the greatest. And, of course, you owe it all to yourself. You’ve been responsible for making all the right decisions about your life. You go to the right church and have right-headed opinions about love and mercy, politics and economics, wealth and poverty. You would never call someone a nigger or a cunt, and you would never deny even the most distasteful person a hot meal and a cup of coffee. You’re on God’s side, and God’s side is over here with the poor, the stranger, the widow, the afflicted, and the suffering. You’re over here and those angry neighbors are over there. Good job.
Except you know down deep God is more than that. You sort of try to deny it or kind of ignore it. But it’s there in the back of your mind. And it hangs there in front of you beckoning you forward. But you’re over here doing God’s work with God’s people, keeping these outsiders, these so-called neighbors, at bay.
In Flannery O'Connor’s short story “Revelation,” Mrs. Turpin knows just who she is and just where she stands in relationship to God and to everyone else in the world. She has worked it all out. She is thankful to be just who she is and no one else. That is until a girl named Mary Grace throws a book at her head and calls her a warthog from hell. Suddenly the bottom rail has been placed on top. The violent force of grace O'Connor illustrates for the reader has irrevocably converted Mrs. Turpin. Mrs. Turpin then has a vision. She sees her social order turned upside down —the bottom rail on top, she and others like her from the top rail on the bottom. She sees her world turned over and everyone singing and marching toward heaven. Among everyone singing and marching, she sees herself and the people with whom she has classified herself:
“They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”
Thus the mystery of grace, at least as Flannery O'Connor sees it. Well, far be it from me to criticize a mystic such as she.
We should continue to respond to Christ, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, in communion with our divine Mother-Father and all the souls who join us for breakfast each Sunday, or for PB&J in the park, or at an AIDS clinic, or in recovery from addiction, or… name a place where the church is doing its thing.
But let us not be deceived. We can no more know the true shape of the kingdom by our good works than we can know the shape of the future. Maybe we get a glimpse here and there. But our glimpses are an incomplete revelation of an ultimate reality that is surely populated by people who we would rather find their end somewhere else, away from us, with their distinctions intact. But there in the back of your mind, beckoning you forward, you know the grace of God is burning it all away.