The Common Good

Homeless

Finding Church Amid An Endless Winter

It seems like an eternal winter here in Detroit. The Associated Press, citing a National Weather Service analysis, reports Detroit is experiencing the most extreme winter of any city in the country. I don't know about that, but this winter is "getting real up in here."

At Holy Redeemer, the church just north of Detroit where I serve as pastor, the weather has impacted 9 of 12 Sundays since Dec. 15. It's hindered our ability to gather for worship, dented budgets, and made it hard to maintain community.

You can set your watch by the storms that arrive late on Saturday night and clear by Sunday afternoon.

Yet, time and again the congregation at Holy Redeemer manages to surpass my wildest expectations of faithfulness.

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On Scripture: A Hard Word to Hear This Winter (Isaiah 58: 1-9a)

This has been a hard winter — from Minnesota to Alabama. It’s been a very hard winter for Tanya and Red and Jamie and Andre and Adrian and Mercy. They are my neighbors here in New York City. It’s not that the heat was shut off in their apartments because they didn’t pay their bills. They have no apartments. Since last fall, they have made their beds on the steps of Riverside Church, under the scaffolding at Union Seminary and on the benches near Grant’s Tomb.

“Will you be warm enough tonight?” I asked Tanya. “Oh, we’ll be plenty warm,” she said as she showed me their outdoor bedroom: the first layer was carpeting, then stacks of blankets for padding and many more blankets for covers. “Once you’re in here,” said Red, “it’s too hot to keep your jacket on.” I was grateful to hear that because, well, then I wouldn’t feel so terrible going inside my warm apartment.

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Pope Francis: An Imitation of Christ

Pope Francis is TIME's Person of the Year. But that is only because Jesus is his "Person of the Day" — every day. 

Praises of the pope are flowing around the world, commentary on the pontiff leads all the news shows, and even late night television comedians are paying humorous homage. But a few of the journalists covering the pope are getting it right: Francis is just doing his job. The pope is meant to be a follower of Christ — the Vicar of Christ.

Isn’t it extraordinary how simply following Jesus can attract so much attention when you are the pope? Every day, millions of other faithful followers of Christ do the same thing. They often don’t attract attention, but they keep the world together.

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Is Pope Francis Sneaking Out of the Vatican? Maybe Not, but He Wouldn't Be the First

Vatican officials say reports that Pope Francis has been slipping out at night to visit the homeless in Rome are “simply not true,” though that hasn’t stopped the stories from capturing the public imagination.

That’s probably because such tales seem right in line with Francis’ unconventional and pastoral style. What’s more, the faithful always love it when a church leader sneaks under the radar to make a point — witness the fascination with the Mormon bishop who recently disguised himself as a panhandler and then revealed his identity when he climbed into the pulpit.

But breaking out of the “gilded cage” of the Vatican has been a dream of many popes and other churchmen who fear losing touch with their calling as pastors — or simply their connection to ordinary life.

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On Scripture: Jesus, Poor Veterans, and the Grass That Suffers (Luke 21: 5-19)

There is a popular African proverb that says, when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. This proverb highlights the reality that too often while nations and powerful entities fight amongst themselves, the common people of the land suffer the most. It is a historical truth that those who make the decision to wage wars (military, legislative, or otherwise) often have the least to lose. Sure, they may lose their prestige, position, or power, but in the end their essential well-being and access to basic necessities are maintained.  Sadly, the same cannot be said of many of those who are the instruments and casualties of war and political conflict.

Veterans: America’s Suffering Grass    

In the United States, a large number of veterans who fought in wars at the command of the political elite have returned home from the battlefield to a life of impoverishment and fickle social services. 

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Criminalizing Christ: The Nationwide Targeting of Homeless

There is no longer a war on hunger in this country.

There is no longer a war on poverty.

There is a war on the hungry. 

There is a war on the poor.

It is being waged all over the country with the most recent — and visible — battle coming from Raleigh, N.C., and the now-viral incident with the Rev. Hugh Hollowell’s Love Wins ministries.

It’s ironic, really.

Conservatives love to tell folks that the best way to end poverty, homelessness, and need in our country is through the work and generosity of private individuals and private donations, not through government programs.

The answer, they say, is charity.

Yet in a stroke of cruel hypocrisy, when charities actually address these issues in real life, they aren’t commended for their work.

Rather, they are threatened with arrest. 

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Vanity of Vanities: Does Ministry Really Matter?

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.

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The Forgotten 50,000

Eleven years after New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office, more than 50,000 people rested in homeless shelters and on the streets of New York City last night — nearly 45 percent of which were children. As numbers have reached an astonishing height within shelter population, New Yorkers are hoping the next mayor elected will provide permanent shelter and resources for families and children in need. The New York Times reports:

The next mayor will have to do better by them than Mr. Bloomberg. He once proposed energetic and aggressive initiatives on behalf of the homeless. Now he speaks of them with resentment: “You can arrive in your private jet at Kennedy Airport,” the mayor said recently, “take a private limousine and go straight to the shelter system and walk in the door and we’ve got to give you shelter.”

Read more here.

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'There Should Be No Poor Among You'

There should be no poor among you - Deuteronomy 15:4

This is one of the few commands virtually all religious people easily – even eagerly – follow.

We just do it our own way.

The biblical and cultural context and overriding assumption is that those of us with means should contribute – willingly and without conditions – to those among us who, for whatever reason, are needy.

We are not to judge – or distance ourselves – from those who have little – or cannot pay us back. In fact these are the ones Jesus commands that we – and by extension he – should invite to a banquet (Luke 14:12-14).

But we seem to have ‘no poor among us’ – we do our best to exclude, ignore, or even ban them when we do see them.

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