Home

This morning as I made my morning coffee, I looked outside and saw someone whom I assume to be without a home right now doing something on the corner.  It appeared that their stuff had fallen off their bike, and they were rearranging and organizing and restrapping things.  All this was right in front of my poetry post, which currently offers these words from Brian Doyle: “We are only here for a minute, we are here for a little window, and to use that time to catch and share shards of light and laughter and grace seems to me the great story.”

So I wondered what the story of that person was, what had happened that they needed to recombobulate on my front yard, why they didn’t have a place to live.

We don’t see many people experiencing homelessness in our neighborhood, but we do see many of them around the church.  There’s been someone staying in our parking lot for the last few weeks.  His cart and tarp are a familiar sight, and we have let him be.  This morning, though, I noticed he was out and all his stuff was scattered about.  I wondered what was going on.  My co-pastor husband went to talk with him.

He learned his name and heard a shard of his story.  He learned that someone had robbed him this morning.  Our friend left at 3:45am to go collect bottles and in that time, someone came and stole his clothes and his phone.  My husband also learned that a few weeks ago, some people threw shit on him while he slept.  This man talked about how very tired he was.  He’s been in the lot for a few weeks and never once asked us for help, for a bathroom, for anything.  He wants to be off the grid, unseen, and safe.  He feels less that way now.

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the idea of home, because I realized that we have now lived in Portland longer than we lived in Wisconsin, where we lived before; yet Portland doesn’t feel like home yet.  If pressed, I would say that home is where my two most beloved people are.  But it is also a place, a physical place where you have roots.  I’m not sure where that is for me.  It might be the extended family place near Mt. Rainier, but it also might be New Jersey.  Go figure.  And yet every night I sleep on a bed with a roof over my head, and I wake up and make coffee, and no one has robbed me or harassed me.

I’ve been thinking about home on the heels of World Refugee Day, and how horrific it must be to have to leave one’s home and never go back, to be homeless even while living in a refugee settlement or in a country where you don’t speak the language or know the customs or worship the right god.  The stories of refugees should shame us all into so much action and generosity.

I’ve been thinking about home this week as the city published the recent survey of the number of people sleeping outside, and the number is up 10% from where it was last year.  At a meeting I attended a few months ago, the person who heads the city-county joint effort on reducing homelessness talked about the struggles to find people temporary and permanent shelter, and the larger problem of the availability of affordable housing.  The numbers were depressing.  I asked him how he got up every morning, and he said he looked at the number of people who did move off the streets and into shelter, or out of shelter into more permanent housing, and that gave him hope. I suppose there are shard of light there, but still.

I wonder if, as a society or as a nation, we have lost our sense of home.  I would say that when people throw shit on another person, we’ve lost our sense of home.  Maybe home is a moral compass.  Maybe home is the place where, as Robert Frost once wrote, when you go there they have to take you in.  Maybe home is the place where we feel safe, or the people we feel safe with.

I dream of converting our two-car garage into an apartment that we could rent out at a truly affordable rate.  We don’t have the money to do that right now, but I haven’t let go of the dream.  In the meantime, I learn.  I advocate.  I go to meetings.  I talk to people living on the streets or in our parking lot.  But it never feels like enough.

What is home to you?

How do we make home for all?

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Living in the tension

“Mom, why do we have guns?” That’s the question my ten-year-old asked as we ran a few errands Sunday after church, when I had referred to the Orlando shooting in worship and she asked what had happened.

“Well, people used them to hunt so they could have food.” But that wasn’t quite right.  Not at all.  “People used them to kill each other in war.”

“Why do we have war?”

“Well, people see someone else as their enemy, as someone who wants to take what they have, as someone who is dangerous.  Or someone who has something they want.”

“Then why do we have enemies?”

Oh, child of mine, I didn’t ask those sorts of questions when I was ten.  The assassinations of the 60’s were not part of my childhood memory, nor was the Viet Nam war.  My first political awareness was Nixon’s resignation, and that didn’t involve guns at all.  My dad and brothers hunted; we had rifles and shotguns in the house that were always locked up and never loaded.  When we were held up at gunpoint at home when I was a teenager, no one thought about getting one of those guns and starting a shoot-out with our assailant.

Maybe the bigger question is why we have enemies.  That same Sunday, at the end of worship, two men experiencing homelessness came to the narthex seeking help.  That’s been happening a lot lately – there are so many people and not enough public bathrooms or soup kitchens or mental  health facilities or shelters.  There may not be enough time or kindness, either.

One of our deacons was talking with them very patiently and I interrupted the conversation.  I thought wearing the big black robe and the pretty green stole would give me some authority when I told them I was so sorry that we weren’t able to give them cash, but it didn’t. I listened.  We prayed.  I’ve remembered their names – A.J. and  Avery.  I’ve prayed for them all week.

Are A.J. and Avery my enemies?  Do I wish them harm? No.  Did I wish they’d go away so I could get off my feet and get a cookie and cup of coffee? Maybe; how horrible of me.  Do they wish they had guns so they could get what they need by force?  I doubt it.

It was an unsettled day, Sunday.  I was so aware of the tension of being safe because I’m a straight woman and the worry that someone might target our church because we have a rainbow on our sign.  I was aware of the tension that I’d had a nice shower in the morning, and put on clean clothes, and had breakfast and would have lunch as I talked with these men who hadn’t seen a shower or a full meal or a sober day in God knows how long.  I was aware of the tension in wanting my daughter to delight in the world while having to tell her the realities of the world.

The tension is still there, and my prayer is that nothing reaches the breaking point.  My prayer is that out of the tension comes something hopeful or healing, maybe even beautiful, the way a beautiful note is played over the taut violin string.

But maybe that isn’t up to me.  But maybe it is.

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We were visited

Aaron was in worship again on Sundayo.  I wasn’t surprised – I’d seen him around the building this week, and had commented on the nice green blazer he was wearing, to which he replied, “I’m a natty dresser.”

Aaron is a friend of our congregation, a man in maybe his 30’s who is experiencing addiction, homelessness, and lives with mental health issues.  He shows up for worship now and then; lately, on high holy days.  I’m beginning to wonder if he isn’t a messenger from God.

On Sunday the choir led most of worship.  We (I sang with them) presented portions of a rather extraordinary work entitled “Calling All Dawns” by Christopher Tin.  Twelve songs, incorporating sacred texts and poetry from many cultures, that describe the cycle of day, night, dawn; life, death, and rebirth. We sang seven of the songs, in Swahili, Japanese, Chinese, Polish, Hebrew, Farsi, and Maori.

I gave a short reflection, and wrangled the doctrine of the Trinity with the Bantu word and African ideal of ubuntu – “I am because we are.”  I think it worked.  Maybe not.  But it was my hope to weave together the context of the music with Trinity Sunday with our call to be community to each other and the world.  Oh, how we preachers stretch sometimes!

So after the service there was much hugging and complimenting and the usual handshaking.  As things started to clear out, I saw Aaron sitting by himself in the back pew in the transept.  I sat with him for a minute or two.

His eyes were watery; he had alcohol on his breath.  I asked him how he was.  “Fine. I guess.”  I asked him where he was sleeping these days. He gave me a look as if I should know better than to ask.  Then he said “On the sidewalk.”  I asked him if he had a tarp or a sleeping bag.  No.  Then he said, “A buddy of mine let me sleep on the floor of his house last night.  This guy – I don’t what he’s been through.  But he’s still really kind, still sort of innocent.  You know, it’s like you said.  Community.  We all need it.”

In the last year I have learned that two things can ground the most ethereal, theological, grand worship: a bald child who is battling cancer and a homeless man who comes to worship because he craves community.

Maybe God sent Aaron to us this morning to remind us that as much as we sing about following the way and praising God and living out peace, we must never forget that it begins in the pews and on the sidewalks that surround the church.

I wish I knew how to help Aaron.  I know how to give him cash and food; I know how to pay for a motel room for him.  I also know he would probably not be accepted into a shelter because of his addictions, and I know shelter spaces are too few in our city.  I wish we had better mental health practioners who worked with the homeless; again, the few we have are overloaded.

So for now, I do what is inadequate: I welcome him in church.  I call him by name.  I recognize him not only as a child of God, but as a messenger of God.

And the message is that we have work to do.

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Wandering – but lost?

It’s just one of those ministry days.  A meeting here or there, a little pastoral care, some reading to prep for class, checking the calendar to make sure I’m not missing anything.  And two encounters with homelessness that have gotten me to thinking but not drawing any conclusions.

Our congregation participates in a Portland project allowing people experiencing homelessness to sleep in their cars overnight in our parking lot.  It’s not a great solution; it’s a pretty terrible one, but sometimes it’s the best choice some folks have.  We work with a shelter that provides a temporary “home” for families and helps them find more permanent homes, and today I met with a family that will be our parking lot guests until a space at the shelter opens.

If you met these people at McDonalds or Safeway, you wouldn’t think twice about where they lay their heads at night.  A mom, a dad, a rambunctious two-year-old boy, a sweet girl almost one and almost walking.  They were on their way to renting-to-own a house; turns out it was a swindle, and they lost all their money.  They’ve been sleeping in their car for six weeks.  They go camping when they can so they can stretch out in their tent and let the kids run around outside.  Mom and Dad are the biological parents of both kids.  He’s had the same swing-shift job for three years.  She is well-spoken and a very attentive and patient mother, taking classes. And they call their Xterra home, at least for now.  We’ll provide them with a porta-potty, a designated parking space, access to showers and laundry, and prayers.  And probably some diapers and gas cards and cookies, if I know my congregation.

This afternoon I was waiting outside the church entrance with the parents and some of the kids in our children’s choir.  They are on their way to the local university to be real-live subjects for college kids studying to be music teachers.  It’s become an annual outing, and the kids love it.  Riding light rail, going to college, performing for young adults, plus pizza and a movie at the end.  Woo hoo!  Good times.

So we’re outside waiting when a man who is obviously homeless starts coming down the sidewalk.  “Obviously homeless” – that’s telling.  And judgmental of me.  And descriptive.  He had scraggly facial hair, random layered clothes that were stained and too loose.  Shoes that have seen more than I have in my lifetime.  He had that look in his eyes that made me want to usher all the kids inside.  But I’m trying to be a role model here so we stayed and acted non-anxious.

He catches my eye and says something to me that I think is “what time is it?”  I don’t have a watch or phone, and tell him I don’t know.  He asks another mom there “what time is it?”  She tells him 3:30.  He says something else, and she is patient and kind and says, “I’m sorry, I don’t know.”  Then he sees my husband, the co-pastor with me.  He goes nose-to-nose with my husband, tricky because there is a cigarette (unlit) dangling out of his mouth.  He gets a bit belligerant, and the kids notice.  My husband very patiently, very calmly starts to move him along the sidewalk while the rest of us do usher the kids inside.  Now my daughter is beside herself, worried that this man will punch her dad.

My husband comes back; he’s fine.  He comforts my daughter.  The kids all want to know about his guy.  What’s wrong with him?  Why did he act that way? I am blessed to have great adults around.  We say things like “his brain works differently”  “we don’t know what he thought he was seeing” “he’s someone who needs help”.

I don’t even know how to draw a lesson out of these encounters, except to say that many people wander, but not all of them are lost.  But some of them are lost, and have been for a while, and it will take a lot more than cookies and kindness to help them find their way home.