The Common Good

Vanity of Vanities: Does Ministry Really Matter?

Just a couple of days ago, I wrote an article about why some ministers tend to lose their faith. It was part of my weekly lectionary study, and the texts for the week particularly focused on the vanity of so many earthly actions. I resonated especially with the priest narrating the book of Ecclesiastes, whose cries of despair about the pointlessness of even his work in ministry are about as human as any portrayal in the Bible.

Man, frustrated, Oleg Golovnev / Shutterstock.com
Man, frustrated, Oleg Golovnev / Shutterstock.com

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The very next day, I went into my office at our church in downtown Portland. For those who are not familiar, inner-city Portland has a remarkably high population of people living outside. Though this might suggest a lack of services for the poor, Portland actually is known so much for its social services that many migrate here to benefit from those supports. This, combined with our relatively mild climate, make for a fairly hospitable outdoor living experience, at least given most other options.

Our church is right in the heart of the city and as such, many who make their home outside find their way into our worship services on Sunday and throughout the week for various reasons. The first year Amy and I were here, we made a concerted effort to allow people to sleep on the steps and in the courtyard of the church if they so chose, as it seemed to be the bare minimum offering of hospitality required of us.

In the past few months, however, things have gotten a lot more complicated. Several fights have broken out over turf, a couple of people have fallen and lost teeth or broken ribs, and at least three times, people have broken into the boiler room to sleep. At least once or twice a week, we catch a group of younger folks shooting up heroin in the courtyard, their needles scattered about in the midst of the greenery. We have found every kind of bodily waste one cares to imagine in the common area, and this Sunday during our annual church cookout, I had to escort one man out of the restroom for masturbating to pornography in one of the bathroom stalls.

There comes a point when the hospitality afforded to those we are trying to welcome in has to be weighed against the safety of those already present in the community. Although the sanitation issues and the vandalism were less than pleasant, the violence, drug use, and sexual indiscretions finally pushed us over the line. We met with the Portland police and had a notice posted that said any loiterers who refused to leave upon request would be arrested.

I came back into the office after lunch to find one of our cognitively challenged members with a sack full of beef tamales she was intent on selling. The fact that none of us ate beef did not seem to be reason enough to relent and, and it took about 20 minutes of explaining before she finally gave up. Next to her was a mildly schizophrenic woman, explaining to me her grandiose plans for a nonprofit in a vacant warehouse downtown. She was seeking financial donations to make this dream a reality, and I had to tell her more than once way we could not help. After packing and unpacking her for bags at least three times, I showed her out.

Right outside the door was Joshua. He is only a couple of years younger than I am, but the ravages of cirrhosis and other symptoms of profound alcoholism have taken their toll on his gentle countenance. He has been in and out of prison, off and on heroin, lives with several unmended broken bones, and now was contending with a broken heart. A young woman he cared for told him she was leaving him for good. It was the final straw; he knew he had to stop drinking. But he had been doing it for so long that he was afraid he would go into seizures if he stopped without help.

I had heard his excuses for not getting into detox before. Usually they had to do with the fact that Hooper, the primary facility in town, had a wait list of several days. The facility had recently moved to the other side of town, and he had to be there no later than 7 a.m. each day just to keep his place on the list. Granted, this seemed to be a particularly inconvenient process, but surely he was making excuses to keep himself in denial about his situation. He would either stop drinking soon or die. Those seemed to be the only choices he had.

I invited him into my office and I sat down to make a few phone calls. I figured that either I could get him the help he said he wanted, or at the very least, I could expose the fact that he was making one excuse after another for not getting well. Two hours later, and after calling more than 12 social service agencies, I was left with only three options: 

1. I could call the police and have him taken to the drunk tank, but they would just release him in the morning and would not give him the medical care he desperately needed to avoid seizures. 

2. I could call an ambulance and have him taken to the emergency room, but he would have to present an imminent danger to himself or others first. He refused to lie, saying that although he was deeply sad, he was hardly suicidal.

3. The only other option, at least based on the dozen or so case managers I spoke to, was to send him back to Hooper. Of course, by now it was 4:30 the afternoon, and Hooper closed every day at four. So I could not even call and advocate on his behalf. 

While I called, Joshua pulled half of a fifth of vodka out of his waistband and finished the whole thing off in a matter of seconds to try and keep the trembling in his extremities from getting out of control. His eyes teared up a little bit each time I hung up the phone, sighed and picked it up again. But he stayed and he listened, assuring me between calls that he was, indeed, a good person.

“I know,” I said. “I’m going to keep trying.”

But by 5 o’clock I had run out of options. I gave him a bottle of water, printed out a map with walking directions to Hooper and made him promise me he would be there by 6:30 the next morning. I offered to come down and drive him there myself if he needed it, but he said that would not be necessary. I hugged him and he thanked me, though his gratitude just made me feel worse than I already did. He limped back out onto the street, in search of somewhere to rest for the night since the church grounds were no longer an option.

If ever there was a time when I felt like ministry was an act of complete vanity, this was it. I could just as well be the priest in Ecclesiastes, wailing to the heavens about the pointlessness of it all. Three people come to me; three people are turned away with little or nothing. Those at the margins of society – ominous, violent, or unsavory as they may be – are threatened with forcible removal if they trespass on our sacred space.

I have no good news. If there is any, I am hopelessly blind to it. The system is broken, and we are broken with it. The religious systems have failed the people they claim to serve, and our social safety nets have holes large enough for lives to slip through, nearly undetected. So I wept bitter tears at my desk, threw a few things against the wall, packed up, and drove to my house in the suburbs where my family waited for me.

I am not in the likeness of Christ today. Sometimes I wonder, for all of our studying, worshiping, and evangelism, how many of us even ever catch a glimpse of what we’re really supposed to be about. For today, my only prayer is taken straight from Ecclesiastes:

Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bibleand Banned Questions About Jesus. His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

Image: Man, frustrated, Oleg Golovnev / Shutterstock.com

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