This is Not a Soup Kitchen

So we’ve been attending The Crossing for nearly half a year now.  I’m a people watcher by nature, so it’s always fascinating watching the dance of getting to know one another.   As church should be, there’s an interesting confluence of race and class each week.  Each Sunday night gather ends with Communion and then sharing a meal together.  And each week there are lessons learned in the partaking of Communion and the community meals together.

If the sacrament of Baptism is like entering  into family—entering into community and pledging to be a part of it—the Communion meal is part act of living up to the pledge.  Reflecting on what it means to be a part of that community, how easy it is to damage that community, what it means to reconcile with one another and with God.  I’m reminded of the apostle Paul’s words in I Corinthians 11:20-26:

When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Again, it’s funny how you can read something and yet see it in an entirely new light when you see it play out in front of you.   In Paul’s day, too many people saw the ritual of the Lord’s Supper strictly as dinner time.  For a few weeks in a row, we had a number of attendants see our community meal that way.  Don’t get me wrong, we’re perfectly cognizant that some of the homeless in our congregation are there just for the free meal, and for many, it might be the only good meal they get that week.  So nothing is begrudged there.  The problem was in the selfishness of piling up one’s plate with no regard to other’s who hadn’t eaten yet.  Which caused our pastor to exclaim that “This is not a soup kitchen”  and we were reminded that this meal is no different than a family dinner.  And while everyone is welcome, each person should be aware that they aren’t the only person in the family or in need.

Now, I’ve done my time in soup kitchens.  I used to get together with friends, go down to Wheeler Missions and serve food to the homeless men there.  It was a great time of fellowship for us workers.  We’d prepare the food, serve the food, and clean up afterwards.  Now that I think back on the time, us volunteers largely spent out time in the kitchen, rarely interacting with the men, while the men waited about like patient children.  In that scenario, I think the experience was more about “us” as workers, learning to be servants, than it was about reaching out to the men and building relationships with them.

If the meals were to be more about the men, we would have had them help plan or prepare meals, asking their opinions, and working and talking alongside one another*.  It’s  the difference of having dinner with them as opposed to giving dinner to them.  It’s not until you’re around people who are real all the time that you realize our  comfort level with fakeness.  Eating alongside one another means that one has to put to death any germ-o-phobe notions:  during communion, we pull bread from a common loaf.  Anyone afraid of homeless hands obviously assumes they know where my hands have been.

I also wonder about how much we take the idea of family for granted.  I wonder what it must be like to have never been in a home with meal shared with family.  Or not having learned how to have conversations.  To have no relational connection to people, or being so focused on self and simple survival for the niceties of what we call politeness.  So without lowering the standard for what it means, I try to increase my understanding and perspective.   Just like others will have to learn to be patient with me for being … me.

People like the idea of community, but people don’t want community. People like thinking of church as a family reunion or get-together, then they remember how much their family sometimes annoys them. People like the idea of eating a meal together, but are too busy to sit down with folks. We like the idea of community, we hate the effort it takes to build and maintain it (“I want community but I don’t want to have to get out of my comfort zone”).  We just need to remember that we’re all created in God’s image, we’re all broken, and we’re all capable of experiencing Christ’s reconciliation.

*It’s funny that even while writing this blog, I defaulted to an “us” and “them” language which I had to go back and edit.

Helping the Homeless: Where to Begin?

There’s a homeless man who works the corners of downtown Indianapolis with the sign “Why lie?  It’s for beer.”  I’ll tell you the truth, I can’t resist that guy and always end up giving him a dollar or change.*  People say that I may only be enabling him or giving him the means to keep hurting themselves.  And I struggle, because when I see someone who is thirsty (beer aside), isn’t it the right response  to reach out and give them something to drink?  It’s the tension we live in.

With so much evil in the world, so much wrong, so much hurting, it’s hard to keep from being overwhelmed or know where to begin.  People are often good-hearted and generous and can’t see people going in need around them and not do something.  They provide help on a variety of levels.  Some are called to volunteer, to pursue helping others as a vocation, participating in relational ministry on a personal level, or to offer support financially or with prayers.  There are those in government involved in shaping public policy as well as other non-profit organizations.

With verses like “’I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:40) and “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (I John 3:17), churches are charged to take care of the poor.  Some churches are on the front lines dealing with various aspects of homelessness and that’s not including any parachurch ministries, such as Outreach Inc.

We in the United States are some of the richest people on the planet, yet most of us live separated from the poverty around us as if it doesn’t affect us.  We may remember our homeless at thanksgiving and Christmas, and keep meaning to do more, then we return/get caught up in the busyness of our lives.  Or, filled with good intentions, we go out and haphazardly give.  And when we do take notice, it’s like we believe that unless they live like we do, “they” need to be saved, as opposed to us all needing to be saved and each of us being in a position to learn from one another.

So my family and I often talk to homeless people.*   My oldest son especially has a heart for homeless people.  One day we were out visiting the Super Hero Museum (before it closed).  We stopped to talk to a pair of homeless gentlemen.  Out the clear of the blue, one asked if it would be okay to pray for my sons.  Sure, there was a twinge of unease at first, all strangers/people encounters are fraught with inherent hesitations and awkwardness in that dance of getting to know one another.  On the other hand, his prayer was a blessing.  We’re as careful and prudent as we are with any strangers.  That said, all strangers are human, created in the image of God.  The homeless can go days, weeks, months without the simple contact of others.

There is no “one size fits” all recipe for dealing with issues of poverty and homelessness.  The wrong mentality, despite the urge, is to leap in with an “I am here to save you”/super hero/white knight syndrome.  More often than not, this paternalistic attitude can undermine the development of the people you’re trying to help, stifling their initiative and stewardship.   You don’t do for others what they can do for themselves.

Poverty and homelessness is such a multi-pronged problem covering a variety of physical, emotional, spiritual, and social needs; and involves matters of economic development, health, and education.  The strategies tend to be holistic in nature.  Overall, the general strategy in helping the poor follows three paths:  Relief (using the metaphor of poverty as a wound, this would be the kind of urgent, emergency, temporary aid applied seldom and immediately); Rehabilitation (which begins as soon as bleeding stops and seeks to restore community); and then Development (the process of ongoing change.  If the Story is about “The Fall”, then the journey involves bringing them closer to being in right relationship with God, self, others, and creation).

A continuum of need presents a continuum of solutions.  We can’t just haphazardly drop off food and supplies; while well-meaning, if you don’t know folks’ particular situation, you may be doing more harm than good in the long run.  Better to support the local agencies “on the ground”/frontlines that teach people “how to fish”.  I know some folks who have chosen to “living simply so that others can simply live”, changing their lifestyle and using their money to change one or two lives.  Obviously, I’m a big fan of the relational model, talking and getting to know people; finding out their specific needs while walking along side them.  We don’t need super heroes, only people who care enough to reach out to someone around them.

*For matters of complete disclosure, my wife “treats homeless people like telemarketers”:  she’ll give them money rather than listen to their whole story.

Poor People Aren’t Grateful

Hurricane Gilbert struck the island of Jamaica back in 1988.  As is typical in many natural disasters, the government was either slow to react due to being overwhelmed or due to actions which may be characterized as … idiotic.  Not surprisingly, the tourist areas of Jamaica were the first ones brought “back to normal” after the disaster … which meant that many of the actual people of Jamaica were left struggling.  Being from Jamaica, I remember my mother being practically a one woman relief effort.  Collecting donations, traveling back and forth, doling out much needed supplies and aid, she was every bit a force of nature as Gilbert.

One of my cousins from Jamaica, about my age, confided in me that she wanted no part of the clothes.  I found this to be an interesting response.  Surely the clothes my mother was bringing had to be better than the ones my cousin had, especially given the circumstances.  However, as she put it, she didn’t want to be a part of someone’s feel good efforts and wanted some new clothes.  After all, we (collective American we, as my mother had rallied several churches in her efforts) had so much and were basically giving up leftovers.  It’s not like it actually cost us anything.

Now, I’ve thought about her words and wrestled with them.  My first reaction was “beggars can’t be choosers” and “how dare she think we [I had taken this personally] ‘had so much’” as I recalled how little money we seemed to have.  And I was left thinking that poor folks just ain’t grateful.

Reflecting back on that event, there is some truth and plenty of non-truth in my thinking.

There are times when our need, or rather, the way we choose to swoop in and help comes across as patronizing.  Essentially, we’re coming in to fix those poor people, and make sure they measure up to our standards.  Sometimes in our rush to “save” them, we reduce them to objects to work out our faith upon.

Whether we realize it or not, we have a sense of superiority which sometimes comes across even when we’re going something positive like helping those “less fortunate” than us.  It’s as if we are saying (whether spoken aloud or through the tenor of our actions) “I have my act together” or “I went to school and made good decisions and worked hard”, neither of which is bad, unless it gives the attitude of being superior.  When we see others, it should be through the lens of mutual brokenness.  We each have problems, issues, AND value.

Someone may be in material need or have issues of time management or budgetary priorities that they may be struggling with.  Others may, even through their acts of kindness and generosity, generate pride (“Look at how holy I am”).  Maybe we need to not so much think in terms of “how do we fix the poor?”, but rather “how can God fix us both?”  This may not seem like a big deal, after all, who cares what your attitude is if they’re getting a meal or clothes on their back.  “They should be grateful.”

Here’s one thing we don’t often consider when helping the poor:  part of that help has to restore their sense of dignity.  The poverty they are dealing with may not solely be a poverty of material, but also a poverty of being, lack of self-worth.  Instead of realizing they have been created in image of God, with inherent worth and dignity, they have been made to feel inferior.  Poverty brings with it feelings of shame, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, voicelessness, inferiority, personal worthlessness, despair.  You don’t think there’s any shame and inadequacy at their situation, much less being reduced to someone’s pet project.

So the havenots battle with shame even as the haves battle with pride.  In the torrent of hand me down heaven (the haves recycling our “junk”, not really sacrificing anything and yet patting ourselves on our backs) the have-nots wrestle with loss of meaning and loss of hope.  Both in a state of mutual brokenness, both having something to learn and something to offer.  True motives and true assessment of needs can best be done in relationship with someone.  It didn’t take long to tease out that my cousin was caught up in a moment of material lust, somehow feeling entitled to designer outfits.  That attitude needed to be checked.  However, it didn’t change the fact that when one is poor, when one struggles with having any sense of dignity, a new outfit can also help restore a sense of worth.

And I know, a “thank you” is always nice.  Cause sometimes even the gesture, whatever the motive, needs to be acknowledged and appreciated.

A Day of Day Street With Outreach Inc Part II

Continuing my thoughts from yesterday, it’s amazing how little I know about my own city of 30+ years. It’s like the city has an entire side to it that we don’t realize is there. A learned invisibility as we’ve trained ourselves to not to see the homeless. We don’t want to stare out of “politeness”. We try to not make direct eye contact for fear of being hit up for change. We roll up our windows or lock our car doors when they get too near to our cars. It was on another day of day street with Outreach, Inc where this lesson was truly driven home.

We were in another area, almost literally in the shadow of downtown Indianapolis, investigating the rumor of a new squat. We had stopped to talk to a homeless gentleman who was living under a bridge. While talking to him, he told us of a place where kids were known to congregate. So we went off to investigate. Now, to be straight, this day was miserable. Not only was it cold, but it raining, a constant drizzle which soaked us.

We crossed over the bridge and down a path through the trees which blocked the view from the main street. Gray slate rocks covered the railroad tracks we soon crossed over. Their slick surface nearly twisting our ankles as we slipped across them. A thick grove of overgrown branches formed a wall on the other side of the tracks, but careful examination revealed a slight pathway.

Someone had been here. Towels and pairs of short were half buried in the mud as if a makeshift welcome mat into the home. An action figure of the X-Men villain, Pyro, hung from a tree. Two steps into the underbrush and I was covered in brambles and burrs. The thick copse of trees opened up into a clearing. A burgundy car seat sat next to a vinyl green chair as if they had been arranged in someone’s living room.

Collected bags of trash, though some of which had been scattered by animals, walled off one end of the site. A discarded set of book shelves held a flashlight with a hand crank and several candles. A milk crate was on either end of the encampment, covered with toilet seats. One had a grocery bag lining, the other was supported by two by fours over a hole. It’s difficult to convey the mix of emotions in seeing the scene. The sense of squalor, though in some ways, you admire the ingenuity.

We hoped this was a party squat, with the amount of Cobra, Magnum 40, and Miller Lite bottles we found. But we made a note to come back and check on the site a few more times to see how active it was.

Damp and itchy from burrs we went off to the next location. We had been hearing tales of a tent city down by the river, with conflicting reports of it being a ministry or self-run by homeless men, but some clients had stayed there so we decided to investigate. Our initial foray was at night during a night street, but wiser heads prevailed in not traipsing into the woods late at night [read: “Johnny, hopefully I’m not the only black friend you have. But let me tell you right now, no amount of words is going to get me into these strange and unfamiliar woods late at night. I’ve seen how this movie ends.”].

By day, we found the site easily. At the time, only one gentleman was present, but the other tents were clearly in active use with everyone else gone for the day. Turns out the tent city was part of a quasi-ministry, one which still left us with many questions. But that’s a discussion for another day.
But there you have it. A typical couple of days of what happens while on day street. In the end, it’s about finding and meeting the teens where they are and building relationships as their needs are met. It is hard and emotionally taxing work which is one reason I admire these folks so much.

And keep them in my prayers.

A Day of Day Street With Outreach Inc Part I

Today I found myself under a bridge in near downtown Indianapolis*, my lungs burned with the cold. Winter hadn’t quite set in, but a severe cold snap was letting us know it was around the corner and we needed to make preparations. A lot of people have asked what goes on when people talk about Day Street. I will try to paint a picture of a typical day.

Outreach, Inc, as I’ve written about before, works with homeless and at risk youth and was the inspiration behind my series, The Knights of Breton Court. One of the things they do is called day street, where they go out and look for potential clients, check in on current clients, and basically serves as research for night street (because it’s always better to be familiar with the lay of the land when stomping through them at night).

The day began with Johnny Teater hunched over his keyboard, a paen to multi-tasking: doing some of the endless copious paperwork that comes with the job while arguing on the phone with his gym about his workout appointment. Kristin Fuller comes bouncing in, far, far too perky for any morning. We** grab a handful of peanut butter chocolate chip granola bars and in an especially Holy Spirit led move, we began at Calvin Fletchers coffee shop to get our caffeine on where we plan that day’s activities.

We begin with a check in on one of the current clients. The cold cut through my clothes and I was layered like that little boy in the Bob Gregory weather commercials from back in the day. But even wearing a hat, scarf, and gloves, I am frozen to my core. And I wasn’t sleeping outside, exposed to the elements.

We parked at a local tourist area and then crossed the main street in order to go under the bridge. Once again, we encounter Johnny’s arch-nemesis:
Thing is, there are several folks who stay in this area. Some live within the bridge structure itself and others live further down the embankment. I take pictures of some of the graffiti because this too provides information.
For example, we can see when gang tags start popping up and what gangs might be operating in the area. Gangs are an additional complication on the streets, a threat to any who are squatting in their territory. Also, when we stumble upon a squat, we have to differentiate between a squat where people are staying and a “party squat”, where folks congregate to have a good time.

Further down the embankment, we come across the dwelling of the clients. It is a makeshift tent, layered with plastic and blankets. We check on them, make sure they know about their various appointments, and see what assistance they need. Thing is, helping the homeless isn’t just a matter of bringing them food and blankets. In order to transition them off the streets, relationships and trust have to be built. If for no other reason than to assess what their specific needs are and what stumbling blocks they have due to their situation.

Our next stop is the Indianapolis Public Library. As always, and I mean always, we start fussing about who was supposed to bring change for the parking meters. The library is a well known spot where homeless people hang out (thus I can talk directly about it). Besides being a safe place from the cold, many homeless spend time there reading or killing time on the computers. The staff is wonderful, not only treating everyone fairly, but also being an invaluable resource.

Continued tomorrow

*I have to be vague: when I had a column for Intake Weekly, I used to write specifically about where the homeless congregated. In my naivete thinking maybe if folks knew where folks were in need, they would do something about it. The city ended up clearing out those squats (because sweeping out the “problem” is JUST like actually dealing with them).

**I’m like the bard of Outreach Inc. I run behind them and sing of their great deeds. Currently I’m working on “The Ballad of Brave Sir Teater”.

Invisibility

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be invisible? I know that is the fantasy of many a teenage boy, the uses of such a cool superpower pretty much not going much further than a visit to the girls locker room. Yet every day we pass by folks who for all intents and purposes have become invisible: the homeless.

I never realized the secret to invisibility involved becoming homeless, yet so many people seem capable of exercising their power. No one sees them. They may have a sense about them, the same way you could be in a darkened room and know that you weren’t alone. People know when to walk around them or speed out of the way of a possible solicitation of a handout. And their sphere of influence is quite large. I have found that if you stop to talk to a homeless person, you disappear also.

I was told once that if you hunt deer, you don’t look for the deer themselves, but rather you train your eye to look for movement. Some evidence of presence. The same could be said for finding some of the homeless youth in our city. You look for what doesn’t belong, for example, wearing long sleeve shirts on an 80 degree evening. Why? Because it gets cool under bridges even at night. Or you might see someone dressed nicely but their shoes may be duct taped. Or you may see young people with conspicuous backpacks. Again, nothing particularly telling until you realize that some people need to carry all of their earthly belongings at all times.

There’s a perception that these kids want to be out on the streets, that they are there because they are lazy or are there strictly as the result of their choices. The reality is that most want to transition out of the streets; that they were let down, if not abandoned, by the system.

Nothing definitive, only clues to a greater story, once you know what to look for. If you bother looking at all. Otherwise, they remain invisible.

In the Shadow of Downtown

A friend of mine has a rule when buying a house. Sure, he does the whole viewing thing with the realtor, but he goes back to the house at night, parks his care, and watches the neighborhood. His reasoning is quite simple: Every city has a shadow self.

It was an October night like many others, although there was a frost warning for that night. Outreach, Inc. was doing one of their “street” nights where they go around the city looking for homeless youth to offer them services. The first place we stopped was a place dubbed the Hispanic railroad because of the high Hispanic population typically found there.

A scree of rocks led up to the railroad tracks used to get to the black-tarped rooftop. Several soft spots, unsure whether they would hold our weight, mined the warehouse roof used to squat. Moldy sleeping bags, rugs, and crocheted blankets became doors to block the biting wind. A soldier and his wife been on the roof for a couple of weeks. The soldier was due to be shipped out any day now. He wouldn’t be the only veteran we’d encounter that night.

In the shadow of downtown’s buildings.

Next we went to West Street and Kentucky Avenue to “The Tubes.” Torn up quarry remains lined a path down the bank of the White River. There we would find concrete tubes as houses with sheets of plastic as doors. The scene would be repeated at the McCarty Street Bridge and the Washing ton Street Bridge, with the tresses used like small apartments, quiet places where folks could stay warm.

There’s a perception that the poor want to live like this, that they are there because they are lazy or are there strictly as the result of their choices. The reality is that most want to transition out of the streets, from this way of life, but they were let down, if not abandoned, by the system. These are the forgotten, making use of anything and any space to stay warm and form a semblance of a life.

All in the shadow of downtown.

Focus on Outreach, Inc.

Okay, I take back what I said about me not writing about some of my friends. I lie. I do that sometimes. I thought I’d highlight a friend who runs a parachurch ministry, Outreach, Inc.

Outreach, Inc. is a Christian ministry in Indianapolis reaching out to homeless and at-risk young adults with the compassion of Jesus Christ. Outreach accomplishes this by providing street outreach, a youth drop-in center, holistic social services, emergency/referral services and case management; operated in an environment of God’s love. We are dedicated to introducing the youth to a relationship with Jesus Christ and helping them to mature in that relationship. Outreach comes along side the church in helping it understand and fulfill the “Great Commission” on a local level by training, equipping and supporting the body of Christ and community to minister to this population, empowering the youth to exit the street life.

About 300 kids a year pass through their doors, most from the Indianapolis area. There’s a perception that these kids want to be out on the streets, that they are there because they are lazy or are there strictly as the result of their choices. The reality is that most want to transition out of the streets; that they were let down, if not abandoned, by the system. Outreach, Inc. works within and fills the cracks of that system.

There’s never a typical week for Outreach, Inc. Some of the things that occur weekly are their staff meeting on Mondays, client meetings on Wednesdays, and their Bible study on Thursdays. Then there are their afternoon drops, plus their evening drops on Thursay, Friday, Saturday evenings and street outreach. As you can imagine, it’s the unpredictability of the ministry that break any sense of routine (or IS the routine). The emergencies that pop up, meeting with the youth, going to court with them, helping their plans to transition from mediocrity to success – whether that means getting them food, clothing, bus passes, finding a job, or working one-on-one with them.

In other words, my new Intake column is up. “Focus on Outreach.” And we can’t forget the important work done by the volunteers of Outreach, Inc. Thank you, volunteers!