Thursday, January 17, 2008

An Open Letter To Sunnyside Methodist

A local church who has been hosting a meal to the homeless for twenty two years has considered closing the doors to the meal for two months in the middle of winter in response to pressure from a couple neighbors. I wrote this letter to the church in response:

My name is Steve Kimes and I am one of the pastors connected with the Coffee House that meets in your basement, providing ministry, mercy and grace to the many folks that are homeless, mentally ill and developmentally disabled.

First of all, I want to thank you for providing us this place to minister for more than twenty years. Sunnyside Methodist has become a name of hope in Southeast Portland for the outcast. Many other churches over the years, but it is Sunnyside that has obtained the reputation for mercy and love that many denominations, many ministers many servers have worked for.

I understand that it has not been without sacrifice. Over the years, it is Sunnyside that has also taken the brunt of all of those who do not wish to experience the sacrifice that comes with the ministry of Jesus. It is Sunnyside that has been attacked by neighbors and community groups who have decided that ministering to the needy among us is not right for this neighborhood. It is Sunnyside that has defended the meals and worked with the community to make it a positive place for everyone. We appreciate this work and we know that it is necessary for the continuance of God’s work of grace.

I want to share with you what I see as being the ministry of the meals and how that differs from some neighbors who might argue against the meals and their ministry. You see, these neighbors see the meals as a gift to the ungrateful, unproductive and undeserving. I see things a little differently.

The meals are, frankly, a church. There are people who come for different reasons, but ultimately it is all for the sake of God’s glory.

The servers some to serve God through serving the needy. They do this at the cost of their free time, their money, their family time and their relaxation. They do this because they love the kingdom of God and the service of the needy more than their personal needs and wants. They come to Sunnyside because they love Jesus and want to serve Him by serving the poor. For these, the Sunnyside basement is a place to wash feet as Jesus did.

Many of the ones served come because they want to honor Jesus. Some of these folks are housed, some are mentally ill, some are homeless. But they come specifically to participate in the Bible study or to worship with the gospel music. Some come to speak to others about Jesus and His love and grace. Yes, they all eat of the meal, but they came not for the meal, but to minister to others who came for the meal. For these, the Sunnyside basement is a place for them to seek the lost.

Others come without thinking of God. Perhaps they come to eat, while others come because their friends are there and they want to spend time with them. Others come because they need a warm, dry place to spend the evening in safety. But even these receive from the Lord. They get ministered to by those who came to minister. Many of these pray together with us. Many of these hear the word of the Lord that they would not hear in other places. They are not forced to hear God’s word, but when they are ready, they are invited to participate. They receive the prayers of many when they openly implore others to lay hands on them and cry out to God for their needs. For these, the Sunnyside basement is a place to meet God when they did not expect Him

Yes, there are troublemakers that come. Of course, with every group, there are some who do not appreciate the peace and grace that are offered to them, and they might try to stir things up. But does God not also minister to these? Is not God the one who loves the ungrateful and wicked, and does he not call all of us who follow Jesus to minister to these as well? For these, the Sunnyside basement is the place where the prodigal is called to come home.

Overall, the “meals”—what I call church services— are infused with the Spirit of God. I have seen ailments instantly cured by the Spirit of God. I have seen the Spirit bring peace to those filled with anger. I have seen the Spirit bring truth to those who were filled with lies. I have seen the Spirit give a love for God for those who were haters of God. I have seen bitterness, disputes, frustrations, doubts and anxieties fade at the coming of the Spirit of God. The Spirit brings to the basement of Sunnyside peace, long-suffering, joy, hope, self-control, and truth.

Some neighbors see the meals as a gathering place of the unwanted population. In this I agree. The unwanted of society are the ones that Jesus wants. The sinners, the outcast, the prodigals, the helpless, the ones who perpetually trip up—these are the ones whom Jesus longs to cling to, to love, to offer grace to, to lift up, to be the true child of God. Where the unwanted are, there the Spirit lives, works and breathes new life. Our church—housed in your basement— is the church of the Lazarus’, those who hunger and thirst for justice, those who mourn at the tragedies of their lives. Our church is the church of the anawim—the poor who seek for God to deliver them because all else has failed them. And these shall inherit God’s kingdom.

Admittedly, this ministry comes with issues that need to be resolved. It is a difficult calling to do as Jesus did—to offer healing and hope to the prisoners, mentally ill, desperately sick and poor. It was difficult for Jesus and it is difficult for anyone who participates in it. But if we endure, then it is not really the needy who will be saved—for God will find others to minister to them—rather the salvation is for us. If we continue to minister to the outcast, despite the persecutions, despite the rejections of our society, then we will be saved. “You will be hated by all for my sake, but the one who endures until the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:22).

It is easy to focus on the very few who cause trouble, and to forget the many innocent who will be forsaken should this meal be permitted to close, even for a couple months.

For Blind Bill who comes every week to eat and to escape from his isolation.
For those from the group home who find in the meal a place to associate in public and to be themselves.
For Larry, a Catholic brother who has sacrificed his Fridays for years to come and serve.
For Kevin, who has played guitar as he was able and participate in the meals as he has had need.
For David, with OCD, who gains comfort from his false guilt and hope in prayer.
For Brent, a Seventh Day Adventist brother who prays and who begs for prayer, depending on his spiritual need.
For Loren, whose ministry team from Gresham has minister to these folks with clothes, blankets and lunches for many years.
For Pat, who in leadership has humbly served by cutting hair, bringing peace with her spirit.
For Jack, who gently prays and ministers the gospel to whoever is in need.
For many, such as Wayne, Trucker and Marvin who desperately need a warm and dry place to hang out in the evenings, and people to talk to in order to draw them out of their sufferings.
For Doug and Fred and others who come just to hear God’s word.
As well as all the others who are too many to mention…

Please let us not fail Lazarus. Let us not fail the prodigal. Endure in love to them, even as God Himself does. If plans are needed, let us create them in the midst of the ministry that Jesus calls us all to. Let us not send Lazarus to the cold until we figure out what to do with him. Let us not send the prodigal from the place in which he comes to his senses, back to the pig filth until we make a plan. Let us not send Dorcas back to her home without a place to minister. Let us not send the sinners and tax gatherers away from Jesus. Let us not send away the children who seek to be blessed by Jesus.

Instead, let us all work together to continue to do the work of Jesus, and solve any issues together as we do this work without failing.

Steve Kimes
Pastor of Anawim Christian Community
A Mennonite Church among the homeless and mentally ill in Portland

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