Woke up to a wet snowy morning out here in the Pacific Northwest and while staring at the ground for a few minutes, the first thing I wondered about was how many homeless around here got stuck outside in it during the night. I got about a handful of assorted warmers left but thanks to my friend Queen, I now have a few bags of warm socks to hand out. Handing out housing would be better but those of us doing outreach and working in services for the homeless already know that enough housing for all is a pipe dream the way things are going. I’m thinking about the other night when Maggie and I left my mother’s house and stopped at a local Safeway store to get our dinner and found a homeless teen girl outside quietly panhandling for change to get on the bus. Across the street at the bus stop was a homeless man sitting on a bench in the bus shelter, huddled in the corner to keep the cold air off his face and it seems like as I’m driving around, I see more people with cardboard signs standing on street corners, freeway exits and on ramps, shopping center parking lots and around transit stations.
Sometimes I sit in my car and watch people’s reactions to panhandlers or a visibly homeless person sitting on a sidewalk with a cup that doesn’t say a word. Watch reactions long enough and it becomes clear just how deeply entrenched society’s disdain for the poor is. What goes through your mind when you see a homeless person or needy people in general? Now ask yourself how those thoughts got into your mind in the first place. Another observation I’ve made has to do with church groups doing outreach to homeless folks versus every day folks who take it upon themselves to go out and do something. Depending on the neighborhood and the people, I’ve found that (and no offense to the white folks who might be reading this) that there is a big difference on how proactive faith organizations are in dealing with poverty in their neighborhoods. Wealthy white neighborhoods I’ve visited have a tendency to be in la la land when it comes to empathy and the facts about poverty. Step into the hood and talk to the church groups there whose members come from poverty and the attitude is very real and very proactive.
Here’s an example my kids and I experienced while living out of our old Minnie Winnebago before I had a stroke:
During the summer, we’d spend our days at a park in Kent, Washington. The park was adjacent to a good sized church in a mostly white neighborhood. I ran into a family that was from that church and supposedly the father of that group had some kind of ministerial duties there. The family was nice enough and their kids would run around the park with my daughters. When the mother asked us where we lived, my youngest blurted out “We don’t live anywhere, we’re homeless. We live out of our motorhome.” As soon as the father heard that, the expression on his face changed and he whispered something to his family I could only guess at but from that day forward, their attitude towards us had drastically changed and their kids weren’t allowed to play with mine at the park anymore.
In contrast, when we met the pastors of color in Kent, there was a completely different approach, a more welcoming one. I didn’t get the snooty holier than thou attitude in fact, these pastors already understood poverty very well including the not so thinly veiled racism that comes from outside of it. It was the pastors of color I saw working the streets talking to people, feeding them, putting them in touch with local organizations and listening to what was really going on in the streets that impressed me the most. I even know of one sister who, after struggling to keep a roof over her head and ending up outside due to not being able to find any family shelters or transitional housing programs to get into, that church immediately opened its basement to her and her two boys and gave her the support she needed for as long as they could. The pastors of color I met told me to expect a distanced approach from the people on the hill who can’t understand the realities of poverty because they were never taught to. I saw first hand how some groups think they can make big impacts on their community from a distance instead of meeting it face to face on the street. I even had one church blatantly tell me they do nothing for homeless folks but they sure had plenty of money for expensive electronic billboards outside their building. I have met a few white churches who did very well in addressing the needs of the poor from a non judgmental stance but they had something in common with the pastors of color: they were all in poor neighborhoods or grew up in one. That being said, I have also run into churches of color that think all they have to do to save a homeless person from abject poverty is wave the bible at them and if they just believe, God will bless them with a holy atm and all their problems will be solved. That is just as unrealistic as thinking you don’t have to be actively involved in your community to improve it.
Everybody who knows me knows I have a great disdain for religion as a whole, all one has to do is read about the history of religion to figure out why, especially in the Native American history but that doesn’t stop me from supporting local groups who actively go out to make a difference in the lives of homeless people. Churches reflect the mentality of their parishioners so if the people who make up those churches have ignorant tendencies, don’t be surprised by their behavior. Homeless folks will tell you right off that what they need is housing, not a sermon. Feeding people in parks is fine but they’re still homeless. When a church’s staff goes home for the night and locks it’s doors, there are homeless people sleeping in the doorways or under it’s bushes, I’ve seen it happen a lot in Kent and Auburn. Churches with large empty parking lots at night have run car dwellers off the property, another practice I’ve been a witness to. I once parked across the street in a dirt lot and watched a priest pick up empty bottles and cans and hurl them at homeless people who were sleeping on the premises to get them off the property. Then there’s churches who’ve dragged their feet to be proactive and the sad part about that is, by the time they actually ”get with the program”, the city’s police dogs have spent their time running local homeless people out of the city or due to deliberate lack of homeless services allowed by city government, push local homeless people off onto other cities.
While this time of year suddenly inspires folks to “Christian charity”, the rest of the year, the less fortunate are given the least of consideration. Instead of preaching salvation, maybe folks ought to start practicing it. How about giving the gift of justice besides just charity? Charity is giving from the top down, justice is leveling the field by ensuring equal access to basic needs everyone has a right to. The higher the pedestal you sit on, the further down you look on other people seems to be the reality of what people do, not what they say they believe in.