Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Homelessness is not the only issue here.

Back in Texas, through a friend, we met a woman who ran a shelter for men right out of prison. She had a tough love approach. Her motto was “Give a man a fish and feed him for one day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Not that she didn’t give the men food, but she was heaven bent on making certain they left her with a knowledge of how to get on in the world without drinking, doing drugs, or committing crimes. I have no idea what the recidivism rate was at her shelter.

I understand the idea that charity can be toxic. I suppose she was the first one that I heard with that idea. But what I have come to learn is that charity is toxic when the charity is all about the giver and little about the receiver. Too many people do works of charity for the glory they perceive they will gather.

Then there are those who seem to think that if people weren’t lazy or drunk or drugged out, they would be able to make it in this old world. It’s that ‘pull yoreself up by yore bootstraps’ ideology. Do it yourself.

Chief Sam Dotson of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department appears to be a man of the latter ilk.

From an interview with CBS St. Louis, June 16, 2016, Chief Dotson is quoted:
“The whole idea is to help that population transition back into housing, transition back into jobs,” Dotson says. “And if we make it too easy – give them food, give them clothes, allow them to live on the street – they never go to those service providers.”

“…if we make it too easy”… Hell, son, this ain’t Texas. You don’t have to be so tuff.

This interview came in response to the police, under orders, ticketing people who come to the downtown area to offer food and clothing to people who live in shelters or on the streets. SLMPD has joined the ranks of hundreds of other police departments across the nation who are trying to save their city from the hordes of homeless people and those who see them as “the least of these”.

There are many groups that, all in the name of Jesus, trying to live out the Gospel, come into the downtown area to help people. Chief Dotson seems to think that this is wrong…that these meals and the hand-me-down clothes will encourage the people to forget about living in a place with walls, roof, utilities, and amenities such as indoor plumbing.

I would say that Chief Dotson has no idea what causes homelessness, how difficult life is on the streets, or even what hunger is like. Nor does he seem to know that many homeless people actually have jobs; they simply do not have the cash resources or credit to get into housing.

I think that it is safe to say that if one does not suffer from depression prior to becoming homeless, a brief stay in the open without shelter for the day and into the night could bring on a serious bout of depression. And paranoia. What must it be like to be newly homeless and deal with no shelter, no food, no idea where to go for help? How many times is that anxiety compounded if that person is a woman or a woman with children?

I know what it is like to greet people as they come in out of the heat or cold into a comfortable temperature with a hot meal awaiting them. I see their faces. I shake their hands and always, there are those who want a hug. For a few moments in time, they can relax.

Can we imagine what it is to wear the same clothes for days at a time? Can we feel the chaff begin from wearing the same pair of underwear or the blisters from the same pair (or no pair) of socks? I don’t even want to think about how I would feel if I were unable to take a shower or wash my face each night.

Does anyone know how many steps a homeless person takes each day or how quickly he can wear out a pair of shoes? Consider the fact that most of the shoes worn by people on the street are used to begin with, already set to fit someone else’s foot shape, the wear and tear is accelerated. Think about wearing shoes that are just off a bit, not quite the right size. Foot issues are one of the biggest health problems for people who are homeless.

Does anyone know how long a pair of jeans or a t-shirt will last if these are worn every day all day long?

I have to make myself drink water. It’s silly and certainly a first world problem when I consider that for a homeless person, drinking water can be hard to come by. It may be relatively simple to find a faucet or a fountain, but to have water to carry around to drink when the desire or the need arises can be a challenge. The challenge holds for toilets. Where does one go when one must go?

If I offer food to a person, it gives her the strength to get to the next stop along the way.

If I give a person a new pair of socks or shoes, it offers him a bit of relief so that he can walk for a little longer.

If I have clean clothes, it offers a few moments of dignity. A shower gives hope.

If I offer bottles of water, not only have I given water, but I have also provided a light weight container that can be refilled.

I would like to know of the providers that Dotson mentions – who are these that offer showers? Or clothing? Or socks and shoes? Or housing, for that matter? I know two places that offer showers. One is in the north part of the city; one is about one mile from downtown.

I know that there are several really special programs in the City of St. Louis that offer lifesaving services to many people. Yet, even if one is able to get through the maze that all must go through, housing is not readily available. Of the number of times I have called trying to find help for a woman who needs help, either I can’t get through to a real person or I have been told that there is a waiting list because the shelter is full. If a woman has gathered up the courage to leave an abusive situation and is seeking help, there should be immediate help available. Abusive situations do not respect waiting lists.

Chief Dotson suggested that the Biddle House would soon take the place of the Bridge – a group that has offered many services for several years to those who are homeless. It closes officially at the end of June. Many services have already been terminated. The Biddle House is not scheduled to open until the end of July…and I read that there are issues with it. The North City area is claiming NIMBY and I can’t say that I blame them. They have worked hard and long to reclaim an impoverished neighborhood and suddenly to have people who are aimlessly standing around with nothing but time on their hands and a hunger in their hearts is a message that the neighborhood has been working to erase. Hopefully, those problems will be worked out. Regarding the renovations that must happen prior to residents moving in, last I heard, these have not even begun.

The people who offer food and clothing to those in need are following what they believe they have been told to do: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked. “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And the answer? When you did it to the least of these, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:37-40)

We have been commanded to love one another, just as Jesus loves us. (John 15:12) When we love one another, we help one another. It is all we can do.

We are reaching a moment of decision in this city. The people who are homeless have not always been so. They are people who made a wrong turn, had one of those life-changing moments, or simply are not well. Not one of them is too very different from any one of the people complaining about “the homeless”. The lack of compassion is the frightening thing. The idea that people could treat those who need help as though they are a throw away part of society is simply sad.  

The idea that someone could believe that people would rather live on the streets, receive food and clothes from strangers than to be able to “transition” into housing and employment is small minded. If it is “too easy” to get food and clothing on the street, the people who have to carry everything they own everywhere they go; the people who must go days without showers; the people who go 24 hours between meals; the people who have to walk miles if they want more than one meal a day; the people who sleep during the day so that they won’t get attacked at night, those people will “never go to those service providers”.

How sad it is that people can justify their actions by convoluted thinking such as this.

Homelessness is not the only issue here.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Into the Waters of My Baptism

One week ago, I stood on the shore of the Pacific Ocean on Cannon Beach, Oregon staring into what felt like the face of God. As the waves caressed my feet, I knew the feel of ruach, the breath of God, encompassing my whole being.

I remember the same feeling as I stood on the shores of Lake Erie at Presque Isle in Pennsylvania. The power of the wind coming off of the water, the feel of the sand beneath my feet washing away as the water rushed forward and returned to its being, staring into the sunset, hearing the words of the Phos Hilaron; God was in that place.

When we were traveling in 2007, as we made our way across Missouri, we stopped at Eminence, Missouri. Near there are the two rivers, Jacks Fork and the Current. It was a fairly low water year and there were pools on the Current. The water was icy cold on that summer day. I walked into the water, thinking I could never dip all the way. But the thing about cold water is that after the initial shock, the skin goes numb. I have never been able to float and I can hold my breath quite a while. As I went into the water, I stood on the floor of the river with the water just over my head. I stared into the water, watching the baby trout as they explored this new thing in their home. I was mesmerized. I felt no need to breathe. I felt a peace that passed any expectation or understanding.

Suddenly, I realized that there was a loud but muffled noise above me. It was Debbie and Tucker shouting at me to come out of the water. I had been under for so long that it frightened them.

That is what the waters of God do to me.

I was baptized when I was ten years old in the First Baptist Church in Lipan, Texas. I had been asking to be baptized since I was about six but was told that, no, I had to wait. I was told that I wasn’t old enough to understand. But I knew that I needed to be baptized. I knew I needed to go into the water. Finally, on the same day that my step-grandfather was baptized, so was I.

It was, of course, a full immersion baptism. I remember the instructions of the preacher telling me how to hold on to his arm, that he would hold my nose as he laid me in the waters, and that he would immediately bring me back up out of the water. Then. Then, I would be Christ’s own forever.

When I first watched the movie, Big Fish, I fell immediately in love with it. While I do have some tales I can tell that might sound like tall ones, it wasn’t the main character’s ability to tell the stories that got to me. It was his need to be in the water, to be a part of the water, to be one with the water. That idea resonated clearly.

This past Sunday, we baptized three people into the body of Christ. Each time I witness a baptism, I feel the water being poured over the head of the new child of God. In the name of the Father. In the name of the Son. In the name of the Holy Spirit. The waters of baptism flow across the head…and sometimes into the eyes…of the baptized. Each is marked with the sign of the cross; marked as a child of God forever. We are one in the Body of Christ.

There is one Body and one Spirit; there is one hope in God’s call to us; one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all.

That is what the waters mean to me. One Body. I felt that so clearly standing on the edge of the vastness of the ocean. Looking up the difference between ocean and sea, I found a piece of knowledge long ago learned and quickly forgotten: the oceans are in reality one large interconnected body of water. That re-memory heightened my sense of interconnectedness with water. To stand on the shore of the Pacific Ocean and to look into that never-ending greatness, I sensed the world in its first days of creation. There was the sun. There was the dome. There were the great waters that I stared into and the semi-dry land upon which I stood.

What other feeling could I feel but an overwhelming sense of being a part of something so much larger than myself; something so beyond my understanding; something so omnipotent. Thankful. The gratitude for being able to experience this greatness washed over me, baptizing me in a newness that healed yet left me longing for more.   

All praise and thanks to you, most merciful God, for adopting us as your own children, for incorporating us into your holy Church, and for making us worthy to share in the inheritance of the saints in light; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Solo Dios basta.