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Lord, Save Us (from your followers)

September 27, 2010

Betsy Adams just alerted me to a documentary released into theaters over a year ago (but I’d not heard of it!) called, “Lord Save Us From Your Followers.” It looks interesting and its theme of how Christianity can and should be a force for bringing people together and sharing in a common desire to make the world a more peaceful, warm and friendly place (rather than a divisive force inspiring us all to yell at one another over abortion, homosexuality, prayer in schools, and so on).

The movie seems highly relevant to what we’re going through right now at St. Peter’s as we decide how best to take care of our church property and how best to minister to our homeless neighbors (and fellow parishioners). It is a cinematic plea, according to one reviewer, for “civil discourse.” And speaking of that, I thought yesterday’s Outreach Committee meeting was very productive. We all managed to talk through the complicated issues surrounding our Chapter’s recent vote to stop allowing anyone to sleep on our front stoop at night. I cannot say that we reached anything close to a unanimous consensus on the question, but did wade through our various different perspectives and concerns regarding how best to handle the issue.

One thing we did agree on: Whatever we do about our front stoop, we need to approach it not merely as a policy, but as a ministry–as something we do in the name of Jesus. As such, we cannot simply throw up a scary “No Trespassing” sign and be done with it, having handed over the “homeless problem” to the police. And we cannot simply allow folks to camp out on our front stoop without addressing the serious concerns of the police (that such an unmanaged and unmanageable nightly gathering of the homeless will inevitably breed violence).

But what sort of ministry will we engage in? What form will a ministry to those who would like to bed down on our stoop take? We don’t know yet, but we’re working on it.

Anyway, here’s the preview (and YouTube has a bunch of clips from the movie you can watch if you’re interested; plus I just checked Netflix and the movie is available there to watch instantly):

17 Comments leave one →
  1. Michael Adams permalink
    September 27, 2010 5:22 pm

    As I’ve observed and pondered more on this, I’ve come to the following thoughts.

    Of the opinions in favor of the signs, I see a motivation based on fear of what may or may not happen. In all the years of the homeless being on our doorstep, I can’t recall any of those scenarios having happened. The most recent encounter that I had was while leaving choir rehearsal after it had rained. Those who were seeking shelter from the rain on our doorsteps were more than willing to move so that they would not be stepped on or around and so as not to impede those of us who were leaving the building. Sometimes they demonstrate better social manners than we do. If we were to plan our days based on fear, then most of us wouldn’t attempt to even get out of bed each day. We certainly wouldn’t drive to work, school, the store, or even to church because the risk of an accident or some other misfortune is simply to high. Dean Morris’s sermon about the rich man and Lazarus yesterday struck a chord with me as to how it relates to this conundrum. I was going to try to quote (or paraphrase) a part of it, but found after listening to it again that that is not possible. The whole is more than its parts. I still feel that the “No Trespassing” signs would represent the wall, that was between the rich man and Lazarus, to more than the few homeless people who seek some limited shelter from the rain. Are we really willing to build a “wall” between us and our Lazarus? We need to find a better solution than that.

    It is also good to see this as an ongoing discussion of how we can best approach this rather than a black and white, yes or no result.

  2. Michael Adams permalink
    September 27, 2010 5:34 pm

    I’m wondering if it would be more appropriate to post some rules of conduct like, not blocking doorways/ramps, no drugs or alcohol, clean up after oneself, etc. along with placing information about homeless services in a wall mounted box (with a sign stating that it is there) so that those folks desiring services would have that information readily available to them. We probably should include an invitation to come to church, too.

  3. jamiemcelroy permalink*
    September 27, 2010 5:36 pm

    Reading Michael’s comment, I realize I may not have been clear when writing up Ofc. Linkiewicz view of the situation in my earlier post.

    Ofc. Linkiewicz was not predicting there would be violence toward our parishioners by the homeless folks sleeping on our stoop. He was predicting violence between homeless folks attempting to sleep on our stoop. The issue is that when you have inherently stressed and over-tired folks (some of whom have been drinking or using drugs) trying to share an awfully small scrap of space under an over-hang, the experience of the police (and, in my opinion, common-sense) dictates that violence between them will occur.

    I don’t think that point of view is based overly on fear. And I also think that if we are to truly minister to the homeless we should be just as concerned about making sure they are not drawn into a potentially violent situation as we are of offering them a place to sleep out of the rain.

    • Michael Adams permalink
      September 27, 2010 5:56 pm

      Of course, there is the potential of violence among the homeless (probably little more than among us in our daily lives). I failed to include that, but was my intent because that too is a fear. In recent years, violence on the homeless hasn’t been so much by homeless on homeless, but by privileged (non-homeless) on homeless. At least, those instances that get news headlines. Several years ago, there was a group of homeless on the sidewalk every night in which one member obviously had a library card and would sit and read aloud to his friends in that small circle of light that the street light provided. I can recall only two instances when I was approached by a panhandler when leaving the church in the evening. In my dealings with and observations of the homeless population, panhandlers and substance abusers are scorned by most of the homeless too. They do have their own moral standards in most cases.

      • jamiemcelroy permalink*
        September 27, 2010 9:39 pm

        Michael, as I just commented in a reply to a later comment below, I think we need to steer clear of impugning each others’ motives when we debate these issues. If you disagree with those (like Ofc. Linkiewicz) who argue that allowing folks to sleep on our stoop will inevitably lead to violence, then please say so, and say why you believe so and why you believe they are wrong. Or maybe you’d concede that there may be violence between the homeless but it is worth the risk of such violence for us to be hospitable. (I think that is your argument, right?)

        But when one of us points a finger at another’s motives, I think that can lead to an argument over who has the best motives, over who is–in a sense–the most spiritually pure. And I think that if we get into a debate over who is the most spiritually pure, we’re all going to lose.

  4. jamiemcelroy permalink*
    September 27, 2010 5:38 pm

    Just saw Michael’s second comment:

    Those are great ideas, Michael, and the sort of thing that we touched on in our meeting yesterday–and which I hope we can implement one way or another.

  5. September 27, 2010 5:55 pm

    Jamie, thanks to you and the Cathedral leadership for tackling these kinds of super-difficult decisions and opening up dialogue on them; there are definitely no easy answers here.

    I came across a few interesting articles on Google that run the gamut on ways churches (especially inner-city) across the U.S. have or haven’t handled the very same issue. So I guess I have more questions than answers after a “deeper-dive”, but at least this whole conversation has me thinking about what we/I can do in the context of the larger parish family.

    This may be a very elementary shot in the dark, but have we thought about (at least for starters) borrowing a page from other denominations, and putting in place, something like the St. Vincent de Paul society. I’m really thinking out loud here (and hopefully won’t get too beaten-up for these rough ideas), but would it help [?] if we, say had a designated collection box for cash offerings to assist (at the parish’s discretion); even if those funds go just to address whatever soft-costs we have from whatever we decide to do. And secondly, perhaps if we can’t address the actual issue head-on, perhaps the least we can do, as a parish, is try to offer whatever resources we can to support the community efforts. (Food or clothing donations, etc.)

    I know we’re doing lots in other areas of the city to try to help, and that this is a challenge we can’t necessarily tackle alone, but perhaps this is just one more thing we need to take on as best we can, even if we are assisting other efforts to service the homeless community. I know my suggestions don’t necessarily address the “on our doorstep” issue, but perhaps if we put our collective heads together we can find a way to make a difference as a parish family, even if we’re taking baby-steps.

    Again, I thank you for all you’re doing here and look forward to hear what others think we should/could do.

  6. jamiemcelroy permalink*
    September 27, 2010 6:03 pm

    Thanks for your thoughts and ideas and brain-storming, Tim. I hope (and expect) we can take up your suggestions as we move forward. And if you’ve found any interesting articles on this question during your “deep dive” please post the links.

  7. Matt permalink
    September 27, 2010 8:34 pm

    The other side of violence:

    “In 2007, Florida ranked number one in the country in lethal and non-lethal attacks *against* homeless people.”

  8. jamiemcelroy permalink*
    September 27, 2010 9:01 pm

    Matt, I appreciate your concern about violence against the homeless. And I think you’ll have a hard time finding anyone at St. Peter’s who is not concerned about that. But that stat isn’t relevant to the question I raised above (the question I assume you mean to be weighing in on), namely: Will allowing folks to sleep on our stoop lead to violence between them, as Ofc. Linkiewicz has asserted?

    And my larger concern is that making rhetorical thrusts like that leads to a kind of “us versus them” discourse that I really hope we can avoid. I do not think that any of us are in possession of spiritual or ethical purity on this issue. And I hope that none of us are trying to “win” or “score points” in some sort of rhetorical competition regarding this issue either.

    I imagine that you are bring up that stat because you’re concerned that some members of St. Peter’s are only viewing this issue from their own, self-interested perspective. And you’re seeking to open them up to the perspective of the homeless. Maybe I’m wrong about–that’s just what I imagine are your reasons for that comment–but if I’m right then I think you’re making a rather negative assumption about the point of view of other St. Peter’s parishioners. And I believe that we need to think the best of one another and give each other the benefit of the doubt when we debate these kinds of questions as a parish community. That way, I think we’ll be most likely to learn from one another and grow in the knowledge and love of God, and most fully discern what God would have us do in this particular circumstance.

    • September 27, 2010 9:49 pm

      Actually, I think I see where’s he’s going with it though, Jamie. Orlando, FL was voted the “most unfriendly” city to homeless folks in the US a few years ago. And not too long ago, our own PD chopped the tops off of the tents of the homeless [how embarrassing for us all]. With all due respect to Ofc. Linkiewicz, I think we have a problem in our fair city and it’s easier (for our PD anyways) to just roll all homeless people up into the ‘unmotivated bums’ category.

      Regardless of what the specific statistics are according to the City, and despite the fact that we’ve had way too many Bible-thumping “Christian” mayors, our City hasn’t acted very ‘Christ-like’ when it comes to this particular issue.

      So, of course the PD is going to tell us, “keep them off your church stoop,” they’ll drink and fight; that’s the same excuse they used the last time the box-cutters came out.

      This ain’t pretty, no matter how they want to ‘spin it’.

      I hate to ‘go there’, but I think the city higher-ups are going to tell us what which defends their previous actions; they just don’t want them here. We’ve run ordinances to keep them off benches, not pan-handle, we’ve kicked them out of virtually every neighborhood in this city because nobody wants them in ‘their backyard’ — so I think the stat does speak for itself.

      And in the officer’s own words (see link):
      “I understand liability,” Linkiewicz said, “but you think Jesus was worried about liability? Let’s do the right thing and get these folks off the street.”

  9. Michael Adams permalink
    September 28, 2010 9:26 am

    I may be being misunderstood. My intentions are not to impugn anyone’s opinion or motives. I’m just cautioning against reacting entirely from a perspective of fear. Ofc. Linkiewicz and others have raised valid points. I’m just stating my position based on my own experiences with the homeless which, I admit, is not Ofc. Linkiewicz’s experiences. We need to find a way to minimize the threat of potential violence while remaining caring and loving toward those who find themselves at our doorstep.

  10. Betsy Adams permalink
    September 28, 2010 12:10 pm

    Thank you Jamie, for putting this topic out there. We have really needed to have this conversation for a long time.It will become even more relevant as our spaces are finished. For the past several years we have been asked about Cold Night Shelter and Family Promise hosting and have been able to defer that conversation because we “don’t have the space”. The finishing of our spaces may bring these things back to the table, so it is good to be beginning an honest conversation now.

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