Last night, I was honored to speak from a panel of United Methodists who work with those suffering from homelessness and displacement. First, let me say that I am not the expert, I am just the pastor of a church that houses other leaders of other wonderful programs such as The Little Pantry That Could and Reconciliation, Inc. My church, in partnership with a wide range of faithful volunteers from other churches and Hands on Nashville, tries to provide as much in the way of radical hospitality as we possibly can through weekly meals, hosting agencies that provide aid, providing gathering space and such. Simply, we try to open our doors to the community and function under that Biblical mandate from James – extend mercy before judgment.
So, once a week we open the doors to everyone who just needs a hot, nutritious meal and some warm community. We see a large cross-section of our community: families in poverty, those who suffer from lack of shelter, those who are recently displaced by job loss, those who are just getting out of prison, prostitutes, teenage crack addicts, children. This is just one of a few programs going on that seeks to serve the displaced in this church building. Downstairs on Saturdays, there is The Little Pantry That Could, Stacey Downey and her team will see over 100 of various folks who cannot be categorized very easily. She gives out an unimaginable amount of fresh produce and groceries each week and tries to take each stray person under her wing in one way or another. A phrase you will hear the most from Stacey and her team is “you are part of our family now.”
We also house Reconciliation, Inc., an agency that actually began in our church basement some 25 years ago, now run by Malinda Davenport Wilson, Ph.D. She works with those recently released from prison, their families and their children. She tries to impact the recidivism rate and prevent the children of prisoners from following their parents back there. In short, she tries to lead them to a better life. Some 80% of children with an incarcerated parent end up in prison.
What you realize over time in being around all of this is that people generally suffer from homelessness and displacement due to a failure of some significant human relationship. Someone failed them along the way that they counted on and now they are here at your doorstep, in your kitchen, in your basement, in your meeting room for therapy, drunk at your doorstep, dirty, crying, looking for a place to call home, literally and figuratively, searching desperately for some people or a person with which to make a significant connection because that is all that really ever mattered anyway. Why did God allow this to happen? Everyone asks that. I have no earthly idea, I usually say, but God has given us the tools to do something about it now, the precious gift of compassion. When we come together, we discover it.
Last night, there was a guy in the crowd who came to Nashville as a “tramp” – his word. He said that people had told him that Nashville was “tramp” friendly. He got here and realized that all the “tramps” were taking advantage of everyone’s kindness and not getting any better, just living off the good will. He said it made him question whether or not having all of these services is a good thing, “doesn’t it just make the problem worse?” he asked. He also said that it seems really condescending from his perspective, that churches would just offer meals and assistance without ever really getting to know the people or trying to change the problems. He felt that churches were just being played by the “tramp” community in Nashville.
He had a great point. You’ve heard the phrase, “Charity gives but justice changes.” This is what he was referring to. He didn’t see any real changes happening around him. He thought we were just blowing smoke, that we were all just being played by the players.
I reminded him that being played is part of the business of compassion. It’s not what we set out to do and of course, it’s great when we can avoid it. But, it happens. Jesus was played by Judas, he let the whole thing unfold. We don’t get into acts of compassion to avoid being played, we get into it so that some people, a few people, can recognize what it means to receive love and choose to be changed by it. Perhaps the numbers won’t be great, perhaps we won’t solve homelessness in our community, Jesus never fixed the political problem of poverty, however, he gave us the tools to heal one another. Healing is the very first step in any process that means anything at all.
When we give a meal or learn someone’s name or take someone to Target to buy them underwear, we are doing what we can in the moment to heal. This leads to other things, it leads to that person deciding they want to apply for food stamps or apply for housing, something they had not done before because they just thought no one cared and they were living in a complete and utter state of despair. This act of healing then gives that person the courage to try trusting again, to become part of a small group that deals with issues of addiction and recovery. This leads that person to search for a part-time job, maybe it’s selling the Contributor or cleaning out gutters, the point is it leads them to clean themselves up and apply for life again. You can’t just tell a person who has been rejected from the human community to just go out and get a job. Applying for a job means that you actually trust that there is some system out there that gives a damn about you. You have to heal them first, you have to do something as significant as washing their feet to restore their trust in humanity. This usually happens gradually with several communities and several people touching one person’s life.
My friend Malinda (the psychologist) who runs Reconciliation, Inc., and has worked with the community in prison for over 18 years says to me all the time, “you can’t play a player.” We are all players, those of us who seek to do something about the displaced in our community. We know that we are playing with fire, we are playing with human souls who have been disconnected from what gives life and they have been forced to go feral. Some will play you because it is all they know. It’s important that you stick to the truth and the truthfulness of your own story when offering acts of compassion. I assure you that if you don’t know your own truth, you will find it as you risk these acts, intermingled there at the foot of someone else’s cross.