Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Homeless Humanization

Among the homeless in Gresham, there is fear.

The official statement in Gresham is that homelessness does not exist in their town. This is the statement of the mayor and the police. However, there is at least a hundred chronically homeless folks in the city of Gresham, a suburb of Portland, OR. Yet the homeless that are there, for the most part, have been raised in Gresham, and the town in their permanent residence, so to speak.

The police have done what they can to force the homeless to move out of town, to make the official statement to be true. They regularly force people out of their camps, even throwing away their tents and blankets and sleeping bags. They regularly check on people who look homeless, whether they are or not. In the past, they have waited for the homeless outside of churches where the street folks worshipped in order to pick up anyone who happened to have a warrant. This practice was stopped because of the concern of middle class citizens who express their dismay at that practice. The police also attempted to deny some homeless folks access to the library because they were camping on public property. This attempt was thwarted by a Multnomah County judge.

But more than this, some people have been targeted with brutality. Mitch, a gentle, quiet homeless man, was attacked by a police dog and so was walking with a limp for the rest of his life. Another couple was recently beaten senseless by the police. The homeless are regularly threatened. I, myself, was last year threatened with arrest because I was a witness to the verbal abuse they poured upon innocent people.

The problem, as I see it, is not one that can be rectified by judges or by taking each situation as it comes.

The city that denies the existence of homelessness is only one issue. In Portland, public bathrooms are closed so that the homeless have no place to use the toilet. This is a basic human necessity, yet it is denied to one segment of the population. We all need to have sleep in order to live and to function appropriately, but the homeless are denied the right to sleep because they cannot establish a place themselves. If they get a place to sleep then they know that they will be rousted out of their sleep one of these nights and told to move on. It is a basic necessity of life to eat, and yet some cities are denying even churches an opportunity to feed street people. It is a basic necessity of life to have shelter from the cold, yet every neighborhood wants to deny any place for the homeless to congregate indoors.

Ultimately, all this is based on one issue: the denial of street people’s humanity.

Everyone in all segments of society would agree that street people ARE people. Yet societal forces are denying their humanity, taking away their ability to function as physical beings. They are being denied the very survival necessities that would be considered abuse to any animal—denying sleep, a place to go to the bathroom, a place out of dangerous weather, and food. It is not that there are not resources available for the homeless to have these human necessities met, it is that society is denying their humanity to grant them access to these resources.

My main question is, what can be done? How can we communicate to a society that denies our humanity, our very existence? Is there a peaceful means to establish the re-humanization of the homeless? Does anyone have any ideas?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Faith Works

George Mueller is my hero. Okay, one of my heroes.

He was a 19th century missionary to Bristol, England, who determined that the church did not have enough faith. He made two radical transformations of his own parish. First, he changed the way the church collected offerings. The majority of money churches received in the days was to have parishners pay to reserve pews. The ones who paid the most, had a pew closer to the front. It was a social gesture-- it didn't matter if they ever used the pews, just that they paid for it. So George Mueller stopped the practice and instead placed a box in the back of the church. He invited people to put money in the box, and then trusted the Lord.

For years, Pastor Mueller struggled to make ends meet, but all along the Lord provided him with the finances he neede to keep his family warm and fed. Then he decided to make another tremendous step of faith: With his meager resources, he would open an orphanage, but never ask for funds to support it. This was his "experiment"-- his action of faith to prove that God would provide for His work, without any fund raising necessary but to humbly ask God for assistance. As proof of God's faithfulness, Pastor Mueller wrote a journal, full of stories and accounting of the finances that were brought in due to prayer, not charity events or support letters.

In Anawim, we have adopted this method of "fund raising." Diane has always been opposed to any kind of asking for money, and while I have not been as extreme as she, I agreed to adopt this policy for our ministry. Occasionally we would ask for socks or food, but we have not, as yet, ever asked for money.

This proved to be a challenge when the Lord led me to quit my job in 1998. We were to depend on Him and to see Him work, without asking, without income. And yet, in our state of poverty, we were to assist the poor and homeless with our resources. This was not done as a scientific experiment of faith. We trusted that God had already proven himself. So we did this as a simple act of dependence. Of becoming poor so God could prove His wealth.

I see God as my boss and so He will provide. In our community house, those who live there work outside the community as the work is provided, but no one is working a full time job-- only part time and work as it comes. In my household, I require everyone to work for the church or the household for ten hours a week, and that is their rent. If they want to do other work outside, I encourage them to do that, but I do not require any financial return to the household. The Lord has always provided for us so we could pay our bills and buy groceries and still feed more than a hundred people a week outside the household.

A few months ago our household was completely out of groceries and I wasn't happy with the Lord. So I prayed and said, "Lord, my family needs food and you said you'd take care of them. So please provide us with groceries today." That same day, one of our household went out on his bike and found a huge amount of frozen food in a dumpster. And that same morning a friend of mine who I hadn't heard from for more than a year called me up and said he wanted to meet with me. When we met, he gave me 200 dollars, telling me that the Lord told him to give it to me for whatever was necessary. I was able to then go immediately to the store and buy groceries for the house.

Less than a month ago, our electricity was about to be shut off, as well as my phone, which is the central phone for the ministry. We just didn't have money to pay for it. I never ask for money, and though I don't have any problem with asking for money from our congregations, because they receive a lot from us, I don't do that because I don't want to frustrate homeless folks with not being able to help us when we are in need. But we have a new service that has more middle class folks, so, after prayer, I decided to ask them. That evening, after some folks came up to help us out with our need, we counted up the money and it was exactly TO THE DOLLAR of the amount we needed to pay off both bills. No more, no less.

Just two days ago, we were out of wood pellets. I had the money to buy some more pellets-- twenty five dollars-- but when I went to the store they were out. Just as I was driving around to look for a yellow pages, a friend of ours named Tom called me. "Steve," he said, "how are you guys doing for pellets?" I was a little surprised, but I explained our situation. So he told me about someone who had just posted 17 bags of pellets for sale for 50 dollars. I called the man right away and asked if I could just buy half of them, and he agreed. Then Tom called again, and after I explained the agreement, Tom said, "No, that' won't work. Meet me and I'll give you the other 25 dollars." So that gives us heat for the rest of the winter.

God is amazing and He is a great Provider. Sometimes it seems that He's a bit stingy, but it is only to increase our faith and the faith of those who know us. When I mean stingy, I mean that often he provides just barely enough for our needs and little more. Of course, I also think that this might be because of my own weakness. God knows that I'm not great with money. I spend on myself much more than I ought, but I always meet our needs first. So perhaps he just gives me enough to meet our needs so I don't go crazy and purchase what I ought not.

This aspect of our lives is one of the most surprising for those who have lived with us for a long time. Housemates living with us have been anxious, until they see how God provides again and again. We have never had our electricity shut off (close, but it hasn't happened yet). My family has never gone hungry. We have always had gas to get food to our meals. Every time a car has broke down, another had just been given to us or someone was able to give their car up for a week. Sometimes living by faith seems insane. But it works.