…and even though that is a rare event and I was kind of rude to a nice man who was trying to welcome me as I brushed past him, I went to hear my friend, the Rev. Sara Capen Salomons speak. Here is what she said, and to be honest, I felt like she was talking directly to me. I had to leave my church to practice my religion. Sara addresses that here, just a bit. And that, sports fans, is a good sermon:
Twenty years ago, I landed my first post-college job. I worked for a community development corporation in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I like to say that I began my career on the streets — one street in particular. Called Division Street, it lived up to its name by dividing the haves and have-nots (or have-nothings). Division was where you went when you had nowhere else to go. It was dotted with thrift stores, shelters, soup kitchens, sleazy bars, single room occupancy buildings (SROs), clinics, and addicts.
I was 21 years old and had a deep desire to tackle urban poverty. I decided the only way that I could do that was to roll up my sleeves and get in the trenches. So, that first job out of college was as the director of an 80-unit SRO — as trenchy as it got.
I witnessed the devastation of addiction, the lack of care for the mentally and socially vulnerable, what hunger does to a body, the effects of not having permanent shelter, the reality of carrying all earthly possessions in three grocery bags, the isolation associated with life on Division.
During my time there, I encountered so many people with such fascinating stories. They would openly share these stories of their lives with me– where they came from, who they loved, who loved them, the paths they took, how they got there. They each had a story to tell. They weren’t just nameless, faceless folks who were dealt a bad hand. They had names and they had families. They were mothers and fathers. Sons and daughters. They had hobbies and pet peeves. They experienced first kisses, picnics in the park, and Christmas dinners.
These encounters with story motivated me. With these powerful life stories in one hand and my faith in the other, I set out to live these words from Isaiah. I was constantly asking the question – how could we, as Christians, loose the bonds of injustice, let the oppressed go free, share our bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into our house, cover the naked? And I started to find the answers deep down there in the trenches. It was because of my experiences on Division Street that I decided to go to seminary. As a person of faith, there felt like no clearer mandate.
Off to Chicago I went. I immersed myself in the urban church experience. And after three intense, wonderful, and challenging years, I graduated from seminary and became an ordained minister with the sole purpose of engaging my faith with the realities of urban poverty. Certainly not a simple task, but it was at the core of who I was.
I am pretty convinced that the difficulty of this task is not lost on God. It seems that just like a parent, God has to constantly repeat the hard stuff. I don’t have to remind my kids to eat their dessert, but I do have to constantly remind them to put away their laundry or brush their teeth. It’s the challenging task that bears repeating. I think that’s why the writers of scripture spent a lot of time on this subject – it’s not simple. And as many of you know, the call for us, as people of faith, to care for the poor and the needy is everywhere in the Bible. I call it the Universal Message of Scripture. Use of fabrics, sacrifices, piercings, marriage laws, dietary restrictions – those mandates changed over time or became non-existent. But, not the Universal Message of Scripture – that message is fight injustice, care for the poor, feed the hungry, house the homeless. And it’s timeless. Isaiah spoke of it, Micah preached it, Jesus lived it.
Let’s visit these words of Jesus from Luke for a moment. These six verses that were read this morning are towards the end of the chapter – a chapter that is focused on Jesus calling his first disciples and performing early miracles. The 26 verses leading up to the call of Levi prepare us for a Jesus who does things differently. He calls fishermen, touches lepers, heals Paralytics. The calling of disciples was certainly not an unusual thing during this time and in this setting – many Rabbis would gather students around them to teach Torah. It’s more about the kind of people Jesus gathers around him that is somewhat unusual – fishermen, tax collectors, revolutionaries, and your average sinner make up this new community. Not a trained theologian in the bunch. He doesn’t cast away the ones who would typically be cast away, he invites them to get closer – even the miracles he performed in this chapter point to his identity with the have-nots.
In my tiny, windowless office on Division Street, I tacked a little piece of paper to the bulletin board that hung over my desk. On it I wrote a reminder to myself – words spoken by Richard Buckminster Fuller, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Fuller was an architect known for his designs and inventions of practical and inexpensive shelter. At the time, I really had no idea who he was. I just liked the way the words felt. It reminded me of Jesus. I hung onto that little piece of paper – it still hangs in my office.
The reason I mention this is because I believe that what Fuller wrote about is exactly what Jesus did. He didn’t fight an existing model, he created a new one based on acceptance, compassion, love, and grace.
And that’s the sort of stuff that Isaiah talked about as well – “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them…if you offer food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” This is a new model in an old time. It’s what continues to guide me to this day.
My work within the walls of the church ended a little over a year ago. I spent 15 years serving the church as a minister, but felt a deep and clear call to extend my ministry outside of the church. It was uncomfortable and painful, but completely clear. During that time of discerning next steps, I went to this chapter in Luke. Levi’s call is one of my favorites – it’s so simple and pure and uncomplicated. Jesus walks up to him, taps him on the shoulder and says to him, “Follow me.” So what does Levi do? He gets up, leaves everything and follows him. And then Levi feeds him lots of great food and has him sit with all of his sinning friends. It’s marvelous. And it prompted me to take some action in my life. Because maybe I was getting a little too comfy and cozy. And I knew I needed to build a new model for myself as a minister and as a person.
That desire I felt down to my core led me back into working in housing and homelessness. It’s interesting going full circle in life – I ended up back at the place I had started. Older, wiser, a little bruised, but following that call.
I know that this very church is committed to following a call and building new models. Melanie has been sharing the work you have been doing in this community around homelessness – you are building a new model, you are paving the way for other faith communities to make these gigantic leaps. It’s unknown and uncomfortable, but incredible. I applaud this community for the work that you are doing. Your dedication to Family Promise and what it can mean for folks within this area is immeasurable.
Our work at Journey Home is similar. It is unknown and uncomfortable at times. And we are paving the way for developing creative solutions to ending chronic homelessness in our region. The work we are doing hasn’t been done before – it’s truly groundbreaking. We are bringing providers together to sit at the same table to figure out collaborative solutions to ending this social injustice. In the past providers would often work side-by-side, but now we are coming together – we feel strongly that the only way we are going to end chronic homelessness is to work as a collective unit.
This past March we began a monumental effort to house 100 people in 100 Days. And because of those efforts, 52 of our region’s chronically homeless now have a new home. In addition, 46 folks have been identified and are waiting for their new home. These are amazing accomplishments and could not have been possible if each agency worked independently of the other. We built a new model and made the old one obsolete. And because of that, people now have a place to call home.
I was able to meet so many people and hear some incredible stories during the 100-Day Campaign. One of the people I met was Efrain. Efrain had been homeless for 7 years – he spent his time in and out of shelters, sleeping under bridges or in a tent by the Connecticut River. By the time he was 19 he had lost both of his parents and had nowhere to turn. With a diagnosed mental health issue and very little family support, he felt hopeless and was left with very limited options. Until he walked through our doors. He now has a kitchen, lots of furniture, a bed, and a key. He tells us that we wouldn’t have recognized him a few months ago – because a few months ago he “was wearing rags and sleeping under a tarp.”
I firmly believe that this is the type of transformative work that both Isaiah and Jesus spoke of. We at Journey Home have been hearing about your work and I am here not only as a minister of the church, but as a member of the staff at Journey Home to say thank you. Thank you for being a church that is working to build a new model. Thank you for being a church that has committed to eating and drinking with tax-collectors and sinners and to serve those who are sick.
Here these words: “if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”
Thanks be to God.
What a wonderful disciple she is. God bless her and all the future work she will do.
Thanks for sharing this.
Might be time for a singalong!
(I also kept that Buckminster Fuller quote pinned on my wall. Right under a portrait of Leon Trotsky.)
We have a Family Promise chapter here. They do very good work…necessary work…and are a key element in our community’s rapid re-housing initiative. Dozens of local congregations provide support in one way or another with at least twelve providing host services, (temporary housing).
Their problem is, I suppose, the same as every other community in the nation. Family homelessness comprises about 40-50% of the homeless population. Chronic homelessness, the most visible, (about 25% of the homeless population), utilizes the majority of public funds…over 50% here. With available government revenues shrinking almost as fast as the size of the labor force out West, and what’s left earmarked for programs that all too often impose unrealistic work requirements upon beneficiaries, this places folks like Family Promise in the uncomfortable position of competing with other agencies for public and private funds. The homelessness problem…the crisis… is, simply, becoming overwhelming…even when agencies and nonprofits pull together.
Best of luck to Salamons, Journey Home, and yourself. It’s going to take a profound transformation in attitudes, and policies, to achieve the goals you’ve set for yourselves.
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