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At our annual Memorial Service Friday evening I prefaced the service with these remarks:

On the Christian calendar this is Good Friday, on which is observed the death by crucifixion of Jesus.

It is an awful story, of course, and the emphasis of the Good Friday story is how the world could possibly do this or allow this happen.

Allusions have been made likening the beaten, humiliated Jesus on the cross to the Suffering Servant who is spoken of in the Old Testament’s book of Isaiah who is described like this:


“he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
   nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. 
He was despised and rejected by others;
   a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
   he was despised, and we held him of no account.” 

In the ages-old liturgies for Good Friday, there is an part of the service known as “The Reproaches.” One reader details one or another of the abuse heaped upon Jesus in the last hours of his life, and then that’s interspersed by the responses of another who bewails, “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? What have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!”

The emphasis the Church has elected to make in its approach to Good Friday is to take the story and ask, “How could we possibly allow this to happen to God?” But I think God would rather up-end that question and ask, “How could we possibly allow this to happen to a fellow human being?”

How could we possibly allow this to happen to a fellow human being?

Yet look: we allow such neglect and abuse to happen to our fellow human beings all the time.

That’s why we’re here this evening.

homeless jesus sculpture small

In life, those we remember this evening may themselves have been “acquainted with infirmity,” perhaps even “despised and rejected,” “held of no account.”

But tonight we will not just pass by. We will remember. And not only remember, but honor.

And bear in mind (in the words of Jay Crowley) that “all our crucifixions are but resurrections unborn.” 

Science has now shown that myriads of species—perhaps as low as bacteria—have “languages” by which they may communicate with other members of their own. But human beings remain at the pinnacle of the language-makers, able through our words to express even the finest of nuance in feeling and concept.

How has it come about, then, that we have then come to discount and neglect this most beautiful gift?

Language, by its nature, facilitates relationship.  When people cease to talk to one another, relationships suffer, atrophy and die. And with the poisonous factionalism and hyper-partisanship characterizing discourse, that’s exactly what we see happening today.

Stories are told of “back in the day” when, as much as Republicans and Democrats in Congress disagreed with each other on politics and policy, they still developed strong personal friendships with each other. Why, Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill regularly had dinner together! Today, there are those who have come to Congress who never have and “by principle” never will even acknowledge the existence of some “on the other side of the aisle.”

Well, that’s a “principle” that sucks. Forasmuch as this intransigence has affected the formal workings of the political sphere, through talk radio, social media, and internet outlets the extreme factionalism has trickled down to warp much ordinary human interaction. Litmus tests have been set for whether I will deem you a worthy human being anymore. It’s become okay for even the strength of family bonds to be broken if one disagrees with the votes other family members have cast, or holds a different view of God than they do, or simply holds a set of opinions that may be different.

And that’s not just crazy. Anything that sets about to so tear asunder human relationships is nothing short of evil.

Here’s where language comes in. It can be used as a blunt instrument to attack. But as rich an instrument as it is, it can alternatively be used to build bonds of understanding.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a movement that had arisen among some residents in Lents to rid their neighborhood of the ministrations of our Mobile Hospitality Center because they believed its presence was only making worse the homeless problems they were experiencing there. I first became of the breaking sentiment through a small barrage of critical messages that were posted on Nightwatch’s Facebook page. Those were then followed by some menacing voicemails left for us late at night. Then I started receiving emails and phone calls.

Because the emailers and phone callers identified themselves, I was able to communicate with them. While it would have easy for me to either dismiss them as “yahoos” or “cranks,” I knew it was important for me to listen. Unsurprisingly, I discovered that their complaints were being fed by a lot of misinformation. At the top of their list was the belief that Nightwatch was comprised of a bunch of carpetbaggers from the suburbs who elected to come to Lents from their safe neighborhoods to feel good about themselves serving the poor, but with no regard to the people who actually lived there. There were also misconceptions about what we did during our two-hours-per-week operation. A couple of complainants characterized our work as “throwing street parties for drug addicts.” Many believed that all the litter they found in the neighborhood was due to Nightwatch not picking up after itself. There were even those who believed our vehicle was needle-distribution van.

But there was more listening than that I needed to do. I needed to hear what underlay all the anger the residents in Lents were feeling. While I believed that Nightwatch was being scapegoated, I couldn’t deny the anger was real and it had to be sourced somewhere. What I heard were some stories about the dimensions of the homelessness problem that were truly horrifying. About human waste being discarded just about anywhere, for instance. About campers carelessly disposing needles around elementary school playgrounds. And finally, about the residents imploring the city over and over and over again to do something about the problem, yet being left with the feeling that they were being totally ignored.

In electing to talk with our detractors, I was able first of all to dispel some of the myths they carried about Nightwatch. Many didn’t even know we had serving in Lents through lets talkthe Mobile Hospitality Center for as long as six years. Until recently, we operated so “under the radar,” with no evident disruption to the community, that they didn’t even know we were there. Furthermore, they didn’t know we only found ourselves in Lents because churches in Lents asked us to come help them there, and that practically all the volunteers that serve through the MHC were their own neighbors.

But in listening to them, I was also able to affirm that they were justified in their outrage of the abuses some of the campers were perpetrated. If they were engaged in any illegal activity, there was no reason to treat them any differently than they would anyone who was breaking the law—they should call the police. As far as the alienation they felt from the city because of its responsiveness, I told them I was more on their side than they no doubt realized. I told them I believed the folks in Lents were being treated unfairly by the city, that they never were paid the same attention than were the residents in the Pearl District, Eastmoreland, or the West Hills. As a blue-collar neighborhood they were invested with the same care, and if if they staged that protest against City Hall, I would be among the first to stand up with them.

Did it make a difference? I can say it did for me personally. I can draw all sorts of conclusions about people (all nasty ones) when all I have is their anonymous social media postings to go by. Adversaries take on a entirely new dimensionality when you get to know them. You can see the possibility of even becoming friends.

But it looks like it made a difference in other ways as well. Last Tuesday evening, a “town hall” meeting was scheduled in Lents to address the homelessness crisis, and it sounded like a good number were going to attend “loaded for bear,” with Nightwatch being raised as a convenient target. In the course of my conversations with concerned Lents neighbors, I had been asked whether they could share my responses with others. Apparently, the grapevine distributed them widely. When the meeting came, a detailed presentation of the issues didn’t even mention Nightwatch. Only at the very end was it even alluded to when a gentleman rose and said, “You know how to get rid of the homeless problem in Lents? Get rid of that van that distributes the needles.” He was shouted down.

One of the things I told those in Lents with whom I communicated was that, in sympathizing with their concerns, we at Nightwatch would strive in all that we did to do better.

Especially in these times of high partisanship, in terms of keeping lines communication open, that’s something we all could say.

We could all do better. 

It had been quite a while since I had last seen Evan. Fifteen months, he said, in his estimation.

So what do you say when someone has been away from the Hospitality Center for so long? “Hey, Evan, good to see you”? But the fact that he was back taking advantage of our services might imply this was not good news for him.

Indeed, it turned out that it wasn’t.

It was clear to anyone who ever talked with Evan that he had a lot going for him. He spoke rationally. He evidenced a strong sense of personal responsibility. He didn’t use any substances. And he worked—in typically Labor-Force jobs where the duration was limited and the pay was barely minimum wage, but he would have considered himself a “moocher” if he didn’t work.

And somebody else had observed that about Evan too, because roughly fifteen months ago, a friend of a friend who ran a construction crew hired Evan full-time as a laborer. By scrimping, Evan was able to save enough to get into an apartment and also buy a car. It was enough for Evan to feel he had it made.

But all the hard physical labor took its toll. His back went out, then his shoulders, then under a tendonitis diagnosis he was told not to lift more than ten pounds—ever.

You’re pretty useless as a laborer if you can’t lift more than ten pounds.

His personal convictions prevented Evan from applying for worker’s comp. He knew the business of the contractor he was working for was itself struggling financially and he didn’t feel right about filing a claim. “You don’t do that to a friend of a friend,” he said.

Things rapidly domino-ed after that. He lost his apartment and car in the same day. His laptop malfunctioned and he had no money to repair it. While he did have a phone, he lost the charger to it, putting it out of commission. And the reason he now found himself back at Nighrwatch was that a girlfriend he was staying with finally asked him to leave.

I asked him whether he currently had any source of income and he said, “No.”

Some people have simple answers for dealing with the poor and homeless. They’re all just freeloaders, right? Or have purposely chosen a life of dissipation by taking the avenue of alcohol or drugs? Or are just overall wastrels and ne’er-do-wells?

Then explain someone like Evan.

A congressman even proposed this week requiring work for food stamps, with no exceptions. He even had the audacity to say that the Bible justified him in his position.homeless sign

But then how do you account for someone like Evan, who would like to work but can’t? Or those with mental illness who have not the capability of keeping focused on a job? Or single parents who can’t afford child care costs and transportation expenses to allow them the freedom to get to work (and, of course, we know that child-rearing isn’t itself a job)?

I used to say that Nightwatch was a place of last resort for those who had nowhere else to go. As Evan’s plight indicated, that still remains very true.

Ultimately if there is to be hope for folks like Evan, the system is going to have to create ways to accommodate them.

Until then Nightwatch will still be here.

What an interesting week this has been.

When I first went online at the beginning of the week, I found this newly-posted slam on Nightwatch’s Facebook page:

This organization is enabling destructive and abusive campers to overtake a low income neighborhood and pollute a creek. The camp they are supporting and continually re-establishing at 92nd and Flavel is keeping the camp residents in a giant crab bucket - no one gets better, sober or housed.

Relationships aren't good if they are abusive relationships.

 

We very rarely get slammed. So receiving this one set me back on my heels.

Imagine my reaction then when later in the day two more irate messages were left, both by different people but essentially the same in content and tone.

Hmm, I thought. Was Nightwatch being made the target of an orchestrated effort by those in Lents to get us to leave? But having been going there for six years and setting up our Mobile Hospitality Center in exactly same place, why now? We always had seemed to have cordial relations with the neighbors there before.

Then I got a call from our liaison with one of the churches we partner with in Lents. Known as someone who was committed to Nightwatch, she reported that she was getting harassed by her neighbors for her involvement.

Then a threatening message was left on our voicemail. And emails of protest from Lents citizens began appearing in my inbox.

Sure seemed like an orchestrated effort, all right.

What seemed to prompt people’s ire was that an encampment had arisen in the last couple of weeks within spitting distance of where our Mobile Hospitality Center sets up no tents in lentsFriday evenings. Those in the encampment were not very circumspect in their activities. There was a lot of drug usage, and with drugs came little care for the upkeep of the camp, meaning waste was spread everywhere. There were also allegations that some of the campers were particularly menacing to passers-by, so locals were afraid whenever they made the trek to and from the local MAX station.

And the contention was that Nightwatch was responsible for all this; that the camp had been set up where it was because they were drawn by the services Nightwatch offers at the site two hours a week (the phrase used by some who got in touch with us is that we held “Friday night street parties for addicts”; and that if we just moved, the camp would move with us.

All this, despite the fact that we have been going to that site for six full years without any issue (no camp seemed to have followed us there six years ago!). And despite the fact that the Johnson Creek watershed has been a chronic site for homeless camps for years.

When you come under attack like this, it’s very easy to become defensive and see those who are attacking you as your enemies. But that’s not fair when it comes to the residents of Lents. They have had an anger that has been festering in them for years because they feel that when it comes to gaining the ear of the city, no one listens. Lents is a blue-collar neighborhood, of modest and low-income. A good number of its people are living just this side of homelessness themselves. And they have a right to gripe if the city doesn’t respond to their needs the same way it would when being confronted by the needs of those living in Eastmoreland or the West Hills. The folks in Lents have for a long time thought their neighborhood was being treated as dumping ground.

And you know what? They’re right.

The presence of a whale of an RV prominently emblazoned with the name, “Operation Nightwatch,” on it has just offered them a lightning rod for all their frustration.

We don’t want to see homeless encampments in Lents—or anywhere, for that matter. We just go there because that’s where they happen to be located. And the reality is that, until a comprehensive housing policy is funded and employed—as well as the same justice practiced toward the poor as it is toward the well-heeled—Lents is where you’re going to find them.

I’ve responded to some of our emailers from Lents, and opening a simple dialogue has helped us appreciate each other’s point of view. And we’ll be meeting in another week or so with our partner churches in Lents that help us Friday evenings with volunteers and food to talk about how we might sensitively address their fellow neighbors’ concerns.

Because if we’re ever going to get a handle on truly addressing this messy monster we call “homelessness,” it does no good to adopt an adversarial stance.

For our partners, the people of Lents, and the campers too are really neighbors, all.

Have you ever personally experienced poverty?

The closest I came, I think, was when I was just beginning my career in the ministry. The grand total of the salary my little rural church paid me was $6000. Of course, that was 1976, and it would be true to say that “$6000 was worth a whole lot more back then.” But in context, it wasn’t really worth that much more. Six-thousand dollars then was worth about $25,000 today—just over what annual minimum wage will earn you. And what I remember was living on such a strict budget that, after I’d paid all my regular monthly obligations, I had a “mad money” balance of $14 that I was free to spend on discretionary items—which might include anything from a newspaper to a box of Girl Scout cookies to a new tube of toothpaste.

I remember never being able to hold myself to that $14 monthly limit, as there was always something that would come up. I always felt myself sinking . . . .

But that wasn’t true poverty. For one thing, I was secure in the knowledge I had a back-up if a true financial emergency arose. I had parents and other relatives who would help me if I ever asked. I never did, being almost rabid in my need to feel self-sufficient and build my independence. But I have to admit that so much of my ability to endure the anxieties of those times came because my confidence was built on the knowledge I had well-heeled others who would care for me.

The truly poor have no such others. In many cases, what family and friends they may have are just as poor as they are. Hence, there is no confidence that can be engendered from knowing that if a set-back happens it need not develop into a crisis because there will always be a fall-back to bail them out.

Indeed, precisely because they have no fall-back, even the slightest setbacks can easily erupt into crises. What might be only inconveniences for us who have the wherewithal to handle them can snowball for them into full-blown calamity.

Linda Tirado in her autobiographical Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, offers dozens of personal illustrations of how this is so. For example:hand to mouth

I once lost a whole truck over a few hundred bucks. It had been towed, and when I called the company they told me they’d need a few hundred dollars for the fee. I didn’t have a few hundred dollars. So I told them when I got paid next and that I’d call back then.            

It was a huge pain in the ass for those days. It was the rainy season, and I wound up walking to work, adding another six miles or so a day to my imaginary pedometer. It was my own fault that I’d been towed, really, and I spent more than a couple hours ruing myself. I finally made it to payday, and when I went to get the truck, they told me that I now owed over a thousand dollars, nearly triple my paycheck. They charged a couple hundred dollars a day in storage fees. I explained that I didn’t have that kind of money, couldn’t even get it. They told me that I had some few months to get it together, including the storage for however long it took me to get it back, or that they’d simply sell it. They would, of course, give me any money above and beyond their fees if they recovered that much.

I was working two jobs at the time. Both were part time. Neither paid a hundred bucks a day, much less two.

I wound up losing my jobs. So did my husband. We couldn’t get from point A to point B quickly enough, and we showed up to work, late, either soaked to the skin or sweating like pigs one too many times. And with no work, we wound up losing our apartment.

She goes on to say:

Because our lives seem so unstable, poor people are often seen as being basically incompetent at managing their lives. That is, it’s assumed that we’re not unstable because we’re poor, we’re poor because we’re unstable. So let’s just talk about how impossible it is to keep your life from spiraling out of control when you have no financial cushion whatsoever. . .

. . . [W]e know the value of money. We work for ours. If we’re at 10 bucks an hour, we earn 83 cents, before taxes, every five minutes. We know exactly what a dollar’s worth; it’s counted in how many more times you have to duck and bend sideways out the drive through window. Or how many floors you can vacuum, or how many boxes you can fill.

It’s impossible to win, unless you are very lucky. For you to start to do better, something has to go right—and stay that way for long enough for you to get on your feet. I’ve done well in years that I had a job I didn’t mind terribly and that paid me well enough to get into an apartment that met all the basic standards. I’ve done less well in years where I didn’t have steady work. The trouble’s been that my luck simply hasn’t held out for long enough; it seems like just when I’ve caught up, something happens to set me back again. I’ve been fortunate enough that it’s rarely compounded, and I’ve stayed at under sea level for short periods instead of long-term. But I’ve stared long-term in the face long enough to have accepted it as a real possibility. It’s only an accident and a period of unemployment away.

This is the reality of living as a poor person in America. So when we have politicians who say, “Maybe if those folks would just forego buying the newest i-Phone, they might be able to afford health care,” you want to say, “Stop just talking to your buds in the frat house and go on down to talk to those staying in the halfway house, and see what life among the struggling is really all about.” And imagine how much more the crises of the poor will be multiplied if, as current policymakers would have it, Meals on Wheels, school lunch programs, home energy assistance and housing subsidies are all eliminated.

The Congressional Budget Office, in its analysis of the proposed legislation to replace the Affordable Care Act, has concluded that the new law could end up saving Social Security as much as $3 billion. But that’s because as many as 17,000 could die in 2018 because of the law, removing them from the roles.

It is clear that now, more than ever, the poor need those who “have their backs.”

>We need to join together to keep the light shining.