Particularly, I have been a coward when talking to neighbors who have some level of housing stability about neighbors who are experiencing houselessness.
I'm generally able to understand where others are coming from with the things they say and their justification for their choices. And, neighbors with housing stability have louder voices and broader platforms. So I hear a lot about how neighbors experiencing houselessness are a nuisance. I hear a lot about how those neighbors might leave trash lying around. I hear a lot about how those neighbors get into fights. And, in an act of couragelessness: I listen well and do not challenge.
Last night, however, I heard some neighbors complaining about neighbors sitting on their church door step. Neighbors with no place to go have congregated at the literal doors of God's church in my neighborhood. And the people who are welcomed inside that church want them gone.
Mind you, I've had conversations with these unwanted church stoop residents. Of all my new neighbors in my new neighborhood, they have been the most genuine. When I walk past them smiling in their direction, they kindly question me: "Is that a real smile, or a fake one?" When I say "Probably half and half" and smile more at the self-realization they invited me to, they rejoice with me: "That one looks real!" And laugh with neighborly joy and silliness.
These kind neighbors are unwanted at the church. I was told they leave trash, do drugs, and get in fights.
And for a moment, I wanted to be a coward. I wanted to be silent. I wanted to run away inwardly. I actually searched and searched my brain for a moderately honest excuse to leave the room immediately. I couldn't find one. And, thanks to the persistent prodding of a Holy Spirit who is close to those in need, just as I couldn't find an excuse to literally leave, I couldn't find an excuse to abandon the ship of this conversation with my silence. I couldn't step back and leave those neighbors who made me smile and welcomed me into their make shift living room undefended.
So I spoke:
Do they do drugs? I see them a lot. I talk to them. I've never seen them doing drugs there.
Well, they leave trash and they get in fights.
Is there a trash can? Can you leave one out for them so they have a place to put trash?
There isn't. But a trash can would only encourage them. And they do get in fights.
Yeah. Here's the deal: there is no safe and welcoming space for people without homes to be in Everett during the day. So, these folks spend their day going from place to place that they aren't welcome. There are also no public restrooms and relieving yourself outdoors in a sexual offense. So they spend all day wondering where they can go to the bathroom. Or if they get caught, might they become registered sex offenders making it even less likely that they will find housing. Ever.
Additionally, neighbors who live outside are generally sleep deprived, suffering from the lack of health from sleep deprivation, and much more likely than you or I to have been or become the victims of violent crime.
So, if you were to spend the day pushed from place you are not wanted to place you are not wanted with no idea where you could safely use a restroom when you need to - because you will need to - you would get grumpy. If you were sleep deprived, you'd become irritable. If you were the victim of violent crime or were worried about when you might become the victim of violent crime, you might get into a fight.
And, as a city, we're not giving these vulnerable neighbors options of where to be during the day.
This is what I said. And I am proud of it. Hopefully the folks at that conversation now have an ounce more understanding for the folks spend their days outside the locked doors of the church.
But this still isn't want I wanted to say.
I wanted to look at them with total bewilderment.
I wanted to ask them if they knew Jesus?
I wanted to ask them if they had read the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures?
Had they somehow missed the neighbor care threaded throughout them?
Had they somehow missed the overwhelming theme of welcome for marginalized folks who are experiencing poverty?
Had they missed the hardcore judgement in wisdom literature and the prophets for those who ignored the plight of neighbors in poverty?
Had they entirely skipped over Matthew 25?
I wanted to ask them if they knew what the big C Church is meant to be about?
I wanted to ask, as a pastor, why their pastor wouldn't treasure the fights that happen as a moment of calling to be a reconciling presence in the midst of neighbors in crisis and pain?
I wanted to ask how a Jesus follower could find themselves complaining about the trash rather than about the system that left these folks without a home and without a proper place to put their trash?
I wanted to look at them with total bewilderment.
But I wasn't bewildered. I wasn't even surprised.
Many people know Jesus and reject neighbors in need.
Many people read Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and like a dyslexic with d's and b's, transpose passages about poverty to some spiritualized middle class faux poverty rather than the concrete realities of local and global neighbors who are suffering at the lower rungs of a domination system when Yahweh is about a Shalom system.
Many people skip over most of Matthew 25 but remember the sheep and goats part to apply to people who don't believe in the manner they believe.
Many people really don't know what the big C Church is meant to be about. Save people from eternal Hell - even if in the process we make a contemporary Hell.
Many pastors have schedules filled with administration, sermon writing, and serving the middle class so that, like a levite encountering a Samaritan, they just don't have the time to help someone who is being beat up. They worry instead, that middle class pew warmers might shy away from their pews on Sunday if they see neighbors fighting outside on a Tuesday.
Many church goers would prefer their church to look pretty than to be a place of rest for weary souls.
I wasn't bewildered.
But! O for the day when this interaction will bewilder me again.
O for the day when the Church rediscovers her first love: a man with housing instability who spent his days with marginalized folks - preaching holistic love of God and (all) neighbor(s), and proclaiming a kingdom where rich and poor are brothers and sisters.
O for the day when we remember this and repent.
O for the day when we live so completely in God's Kingdom of love and justice that I would find myself actually bewildered when a Jesus-claiming neighbor complains about a neighbor in need leaving too much trash on the steps of the place we gather to remember and worship that homeless preacher who taught us the way of love 2000 years ago.
I long for the day when this interaction would be bewildering.
But here's the thing: Cowardice is not the way to that day. Silence in the face of exclusion and marginalization doesn't get us closer to that Jesus way. Lending a sympathetic ear to oppressors, when oppressed people need our ears more, will only lead us further and further into comfort with injustice and a devastating lack of bewilderment when those in need of safe space are locked (literally or metaphorically) out of the church.
Holy Spirit, bless us with the flaming tongues that might speak truth in love to neighbors in affluence who have lost sight of neighbors in need. And, even more so, bless us with courageous lives that speak this truth in how we live. Day by day, bless us with renewed bewilderment and holy discomfort when we see Your church turning away neighbors in need. Amen.