Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Street Church

From the NYT:

...“When you become homeless, you become very aware of how people treat you,” said the Rev. Anne-Marie Jeffery, who runs Street Church. “It’s hard to walk into a church, and it’s even harder when you are homeless because you’re worried about how you will be received, or if you smell bad. Some people never go inside at all, because they worry that they can lose all their stuff,” as in shopping carts that must be left outside, “or be sent to a mental hospital or to jail.”

Street Church began last February. Though Epiphany keeps its doors open during the day for everyone, and offers breakfast and an indoor service for the homeless on Sundays, the rector, the Rev. Randolph Charles, had wanted to expand into some type of outdoor worship, Ms. Jeffery said. So Mr. Charles met with the Rev. Deborah Little Wyman, another Episcopal priest, who started an outdoor worship mainly for the homeless in Boston 11 years ago and who wanted to find a church in Washington to begin a similar service...
Jim Naughton points us to an earlier article on Street Church from the Washington Window.

Back when I used to actually write on this blog (before resorting to doing nothing but providing links and snarky comments), I posted a story drawn from my years as a homeless person. I usually don't talk about those years much. When I do, many well-intentioned souls often tell me that I need to get over it. And they are probably right. So I bite my tongue.

But the reality is that you never quite "get over" an experience that is that traumatic. It lingers around the edges of your life. It will revisit you in the early mornings when you are between dreams and reality and try to remember where your bed is that day. It flashes before you when walking back from the auto shop in the bitter cold and wondering if you will ever be warm again. The pangs of hunger from skipping a meal greet you like old friends returning from a time when they were your constant companions.

It probably is for the best that I don't talk about it much, even though I'm reminded of those years almost daily. It is unrealistic to expect most of those I meet to understand the powerful mix of emotions such memories bring with them. And I'm not sure it is that important that they understand. I don't think compassion necessarily requires sharing the experience.

There are some good efforts being made to address the roots of poverty and homelessness. When I left the ministry for a couple of years, I worked on staff at a couple of shelters. The best one, a transitional living center for families and women, was quite demanding. As Program Director, I probably evicted as many families as I enrolled. But it worked. Those who completed the 6 month program rarely ever returned.

We creamed the crop, however. Our residents had to be employable, which means those who had mental illnesses or substance abuse issues were referred to other programs.

A conservative estimate is that half the homeless have mental health or substance abuse issues. I'd say that percentage is much higher. But that is really a chicken or the egg question.

If a person goes long enough without proper nutrition, eventually this can cause very strange chemical imbalances in the brain. I experienced this a couple of times. The corrective was a few months of healthy meals on a regular basis.

Reggarding the substance abuse, if a person is homeless for long enough, a certain feeling of hopelessness sets in. Nothing matters. Life is ugly, brutal and pointless. For a dollar, you can buy a bottle of wine and for a few hours feel alive again. It's self medication for a kind of depression that began as a response to real life circumstances.

Then there are those who have intentionally taken to the streets because they are repulsed by society. These few have much in common with the desert fathers, who walked out into the desert rather than participate in a church they found to have become decadent. Like Melville's Bartleby, they look at what this age has to offer, and respond with "I would rather not."

The temptation is to lump all of the homeless together as a group that needs to prove their worthiness before we'll offer them a hand up. What this does is to allow those who will always need our help, that may never overcome their limitations, to become expendable.

We respond to those who are in need, not because they deserve it, not because they are worthy, but because they are human; because they too are children of God.

This is what Street Church attempts to do; to respect the dignity of every human being, and to bring the Church to them, without any qualifications required. What a powerful witness to God's grace moving in the world today.


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