Homelessness

Welcoming the Stranger: Illegal?

In Brookville, Pennsylvania, a dispute over laws has shaken the otherwise quiet community. Jack Wisor, pastor at First Apostles Doctrine Church, told Sojourners that “the law I’m following is the teachings in the Bible” as he allows homeless people to stay in his parsonage. But city council attorney Stephen French took the pastor to court for housing the needy in a commercial district. “I personally think the work [Wisor] does is wonderful,” French told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “but we’re not going to allow someone to violate the zoning laws because they do it in the name of Jesus Christ.”

Thus far the dispute has led to a court hearing with one more scheduled, a $500 fine for the church, and accusations mounting on both sides, according to the Post-Gazette. “Right beside our church, 20 feet away, is an apartment where people live,” Wisor told Sojourners. “It is a subtle interpretation of zoning. We need to put our efforts toward helping people and not fighting against municipalities.”

Alternately, in September, a federal judge in Orlando, Florida, ruled that it was illegal for the city of Orlando to block groups from feeding the hungry and homeless in a local park because it “violates activists’ basic civil rights,” according to the Orlando Sentinel. The First Vagabonds Church of God, Orlando Food Not Bombs, and individual advocates for the homeless sued the city after police shut down their food distribution center.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2009
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Arrested for Feeding the Poor

Unconscionable: adjective

1. not guided by conscience; unscrupulous.

2. not in accordance with what is just or reasonable: unconscionable behavior.

3. excessive; extortionate: an unconscionable profit.

I have had some "unconscionable" things on my mind a lot lately as I have been working with the 20-somethings who make up Orlando Food Not Bombs and University of [...]

Church Parking Lot is Safe Haven

In response to a police crackdown on people living on the streets, First Presbyterian Church in downtown Dallas opened its parking lot as a safe space for homeless people to sleep—even providing a security guard. When city officials passed laws that banned panhandling, restricted shopping carts on city streets, and limited where and when food could be distributed to the hungry, churches fought back. “Home­lessness is not a criminal issue, it is a social issue,” First Pres­by­­terian’s senior pastor Joe Clif­ford told Sojour­ners. “We are working with the mayor and the city to offer a better response to the challenge than police action.”

According to a recent census, Dallas has more than 5,000 homeless people and only 1,300 available beds in shelters. “[First Presby­terian is] doing what churches are supposed to do, to help the poor and stand up for the poor,” Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, told the Associ­ated Press. “It’s a legal thing to do, a moral thing to do, and the church has the right to allow the rich or poor to stay on their property.”

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Sojourners Magazine January 2008
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On Giving and Receiving

"I was just at church, and they were praying for the homeless," Larry said, holding the day's belongings in a bag beside him. As the subway screeched to a halt, I heard him quip, "I decided that I should pray for the housed." Larry was sick of handouts, sick of condescension. To Larry, as a longtime guest at the homeless shelter at which I worked, Christian compassion seemed like little more than a masquerade, a power trip for those fortunate enough to be in the seat of the "giver" rather than the "receiver."

Larry's complaint about Christian compassion resonates with Friedrich Nietzsche's depiction in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Through the voice of Zarathustra, Nietzsche diagnoses Christian compassion as "pity"—a belittling, demeaning approach to the sufferer that shames rather than restores. Sufferers do not want pity, according to Nietzsche; they don't even want solidarity, when it comes from people descending

from on high to be with the sufferer below. Sufferers also want to be givers. To only receive and never to give is to be dehumanized, to be belittled.

How should Christians confront this very real critique of Christian compassion as "pity"? How do we respond to Larry, who feels labeled and demeaned when he becomes one of the "homeless"—an Object of compassion rather than a Subject, a real person?

What may come to mind for many Christians is the insistence, in Matthew 25, that when one helps the hungry, the stranger, and the prisoner—the "least of these"—then "you did it for me," for Christ. But how is this scripture passage to be lived out? How do we minister to Larry, who is tired of being "clothed" and "fed" by Christians who are all too aware of their good deeds?

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Sojourners Magazine April 2007
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News Bites

World Peace. A new Internet service provider, Peacenik.co.uk, will raise money for peacemakers working in conflict zones around the world. “The peace movement is notoriously under-resourced,” said Jonathan Bartley, director of Ekklesia, the British faith-based think tank that launched the site. “The venture is to help give peace a chance.”

United Way. In March, 34 churches and national Christian organizations representing more than 100 million American Christians formed Christian Churches Together in the USA, the broadest coalition of churches in the United States. The organization has named “overcoming poverty” as its primary goal.

Safe House. The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was named a national historic landmark in February. The designation will protect the church—site of the infamous 1963 bombing that killed four girls—from being destroyed for any federal project.

Streetwise. In Chicago, more than 300 Christian college students participated last February in the national “sleep out” against homelessness. They promoted petitions to help the homeless and spent the night on the street with homeless people near Chicago’s wealthy “Miracle Mile” shopping boulevard.

Cutting School. Argentina and Uruguay became the second and third countries to remove soldiers from training at the U.S. Army School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. The school trains Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques. Venezuela was the first country to withdraw troops, doing so in January 2004.

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Sojourners Magazine June 2006
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Choosing to Love

Love binds and builds, heals and hallows, redeems and restores. A broken world can expect all this and more, say our Johannine scriptures, when God’s power courses mystically through human events. John 10 finds the shepherd Jesus foretelling self-sacrificial love for the sheep. In John 15, Jesus calls the faithful to be willing to lay down their lives for their friends.

1 John 4 focuses on the intimate nature of God’s love for us, which evokes our love for others, while the next chapter equates the love of God with keeping the divine commandments. On the stage of Acts 1, 4, 8, and 10, the fruit-bearing and inclusive nature of divinely inspired love is dramatized by the great cast that is the early church.

This month’s passages offer both a head-on command to love and a traveler’s guide to the nature of love itself. John makes up only 10 percent of the New Testament, yet it provides a full third of the references to love. “Love” appears in John more often as a verb than a noun. Feelings won’t suffice. Actions must prevail.

The Holy One leads us beside still waters and restores our souls, whether we are Gentiles, eunuchs, or the homeless of Detroit. This power of life originates from God in every moment, forming living, healthy relationships.

God chose to enter history and love us. We must choose to love others and head into a world that doesn’t like those who love unconditionally.

Robert Roth is a writer and social activist in East Lansing, Michigan.

May 7

A Shepherding Love

Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

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Sojourners Magazine May 2006
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Good Friday in Manhattan

The poor are with you always—

Curled against a retaining wall
in the privacy of his own vomit the prophet sleeps
breathes in and out the stench of broken flesh—

Across the street at a coffee shop
in a seat near the window
another sweats in a black wool coat—
blind behind black glasses, refusing alms
he asks if Sunday is Easter—
the wounds of his awful loneliness break
into red blossoms against the dark—

Near the rim of chaos where the towers stood
disguised as a street preacher, St. John the Divine
tenders his prophecy his flute song of mourning
surrenders Haldol to the hope of transfiguration
O amazing, crazy grace—

Like traveling pilgrims we pause at each station—
hope for enlightenment along a seamless way—
a Rasta drummer beats sacred time near the subway,
the golden Buddha gazes preoccupied
from the dashboard of a cab—

This Friday before the Resurrection
all over Manhattan we dodge prophets—
broken shoes stuffed with black garbage bags
ill-shod for the road to Damascus
they careen toward us
from blind corners and subway tunnels—
babbling prophecies in tongues
they bless us and curse us
For the day is surely coming,
says the Lord—

We look—
mouths open, O holy,
their prayers fly like white doves
from the prison house of longing—

We finger the bus map, the guidebook, the ticket
pray Allah, lala, Jesus, Giuliani,
consider the image of Elvis
at the Hard Rock Café—

We wait the light changes
don’t walk to walk

Behind us—
in spite of our turning—
saints and madmen and angels
they swarm to the light
brushing the flames
with their sanctified wings—

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Sojourners Magazine April 2006
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