Wake up Call

“Pastor, can I talk to you just a minute?”

The fellow asking has a laugh-lined face and a voice gravelly from cigarette smoking. I stop mid-stride, and give him my full attention.

He tells me that he’s homeless, and that he sometimes sleeps on our handicap access ramp, because it’s a gentle slope, and wood rather than cold stone, and has a roof to keep off the rain. He wants to make sure I’m okay with this, and that I’d know who he is, should someone call or the police ask me about the man on our back porch. He assures me that he comes late at night and leaves early in the morning, and will not be in anyone’s way.

“But,” I sputter, because I’m a Vermonter and it’s the first thing into my head, “the snow, the cold?”

“My bag is good down to zero,” he says, “and just the shelter from the roof and the side of the building is usually enough.”

I furrow my brow at the ‘usually.’

Now I don’t know that it’s my place to give out sleeping spots on my church’s stoop, and I’m simultaneously torn between sorrow that I really can’t just give him a key to the front door and shame/horror that one even needs to ask if the church, the building that houses the people who represent a wandering, oft-homeless rabbi and his work in the world, is a safe place to sleep. So I say the only thing I can think of, which is to call him by name, and tell him that I’ll recognize him should I see him there or should somebody give his description, and that I am okay with him seeking shelter on our ramp.

He goes downstairs to the food pantry, and I go inside to my office to wonder what in the world it means to be in ministry in a place where three or four people call or stop in a day looking for money, where a night on the street in certain times in January can in fact be fatal, and where the institutional body we call church can sometimes be so anxious about the survival of its ministry that we sometimes forget to do the ministry of survival. I’m not saying that we have the wrong response, but I wish we could have more.

Go ahead. Ask me if I embodied the presence of Christ today. I shudder at the answer, because he was present in that conversation, but I think he had a gravelly voice and some laugh lines.

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16 Responses

  1. Wow… I just don’t know what to say. It leaves me with so many questions… thanks for sharing

  2. Awesome. Because of our modern American church culture, it’s often difficult to live out the Sermon on the Mount without offending someone.

    Ya dun goood.

    -J

  3. @Kristen,
    You’re welcome. Yes, this is a slightly different context than I am used to.

    @Josiah,
    That is entirely too true. thanks.

    Becca

  4. Why not give him a key? Not in a “pop in on your own” way, but in a “let’s work to make Hrist-with-laugh-lines part of the solution. Is there a room in your church where cots could be set up for the homeless at night? I bet the red cross could supply cots for you from emergency stock, and consider it proactive outreach for severe weather victims. Can CWLL be called to minister to others, spreading the word about a new safe haven to those in need? Food Pantry, Kitchen – hot meals for the sleepers?

    What would Shane do?

  5. This is but the beginning of the conversation with him. This may be a different case, but sometimes we are asked to witness, sometimes we are asked to help. The more you find out what he’s asking, the more you will know what to do next. You are the wisest, most caring person I know- you will know what to do…

  6. @Lissa,
    I can’t give him a key for the same reason that you can’t give out keys to the building where you work or draw down some of the funds you’ve raised and give them to a particular person in need of treatment. It might be consistent with the values of the organization in which I serve, but we are still an organization, with a building that needs to be safe for the whole community, including children, and insurance and liability and the whole nine yards. There is a food pantry that runs out of our basement, and a free lunch program, and these must comply with certain standards (the pantry in particular) in order to receive funding. All the government’s talk about faith-based community organizers aside, there are guidelines that things like shelters need to obey.

    What would Shane do? He would–and has–get himself arrested for violating occupancy codes. There’s a reason he works outside the system. I struggle to witness to the system from the inside.

    @Benji,
    Indeed a beginning. And thanks, babe, for your totally unbiased (and I know no less genuine) praise. ❤

    Becca

  7. […] it’s houselessness.* Posted on September 19, 2008 by Becca Clark My husband commented in my previous post that my conversation marked a mere beginning in a chapter of my ministry, and […]

  8. I wasn’t suggesting just go out and have a copy made and pass it off — but to design (or change) a system whereby the people in need become part of the solution.

    Incidentally, we do give out keys to our buildings to volunteers who require space, after proper vetting. We do have a very, very small amount of money available for individuals in crisis that can be used for particular expenditures. Knowing that our system is and must be strong and powerful and supportive and capable means building in at least a small net to catch the people who will slip through the chasms between programs.

    Reading your next post, it sounds like there’s a definite long-term, systems-based approach required to build a sustainable solution — and you are immensely suited to tackle that. But as you observed, winter is coming — quickly — so a temporary solution may be appropriate?

  9. Hello Becca!

    Found your blog today and I’m enjoying reading it. My husband and I visited Montpelier last October for the first time and it’s a really nice town. Wish I’d known about you and your church as I would have loved to have visited. Makes me happy to hear of a woman pastor and a young’n at that ! Not that I’m “old” since I recently turned 30. ; )

    Was going to ask if you prayed about the homeless situation? Not just talk about it,or wish you could do more, but seriously go before the Lord in prayer and ask Him what He’d have you do to take care of His homeless children? God’s bigger than red tape and rules and wishing. Maybe have a prayer meeting with the congregation and spend an hour, or three, praying as an group body united in Christ about subjects like the homeless situation etc. Since the Bible says where two or more are gathered that Jesus is in their midst I bet some real change could be had for the town and their homeless people!

  10. @Stacy,

    Welcome, and I’m glad you found my blog!

    I’m new to this church and to Montpelier, so you’d have met my predecessor last October and not me. If you’re visiting Montpelier again, stop on by and I’d love to meet you!

    The answer to your question is personally yes, as a church and as a community, no. I see this having three levels. My own (and other individuals’) seeking God about this and seeking what is just and how to be involved, coming together as a congregation about it, maybe devoting an entire morning service or more to it, possibly inviting some homeless folks to share part of the message as well, and finally the larger community (and from my perspective the ecumenical community) being in prayer and action together about it. The ecumenical group has been largely inactive, and I think if we could come together in mutual understanding of the real need in our community, lift that in prayer and then work together for action, we can be vessels of change.

    Thanks again for reading and commenting!

    Shalom,
    Becca

  11. Becca,
    Perhaps there is always the call of the “middle way,” whether Wesleyan or Buddhist. And what Aristotle would call “virtue,” a practical (might one say pragmatist?) centering in on right action. It is always limited by humanity, no? Sort of trying to find someone in Albany and finding them in Vermont.
    JMc

  12. @Fr Joe,

    Surprise! Yeah, so I’ve been really, horribly remiss in not sending out our little letters letting people know we’ve moved (or anything else that’s happened in the past 3 years). It’s on my to-do list. Maybe next week, when I’m more or less taking the week off. Sorry about that. I hope you weren’t literally looking for me in Albany…

    In other news, yes, you know me: I get all passionate about something and then have to take a step back and figure out how, practically, action might be taken to address that something. And I get very impatient with our human limitations. Could be that’s why I love Wesley and his seeking perfection, spiritual and otherwise. Makes my littler perfectionist heart go pitter-patter.

    Bless,
    Becca

  13. Rev. Clark –

    Saw the profile in the Bridge and decided to look at your blog. It would be great to meet and discuss affordable housing and homelessness. We have a recent report which I authored on homeless families which is available on the VHFA site (under “about VHFA” and select “Publications” on the drop-down) and the VT Housing Awareness Campaign site, http://www.housingawareness.org. We are also hosting a statewide housing conference on Tuesday, Nov. 18th, at the Sheraton in South Burlington (www.vhfa.org/conference/) which has an entire track of workshops on homelessness, along with many other housing-related subjects.

    I live in Montpelier, so getting together would be pretty easy.

    Let me know.

    Pax,

    John

  14. O foolish Galatian!
    JMc

  15. […] Posts Grieving WellWake up CallPrayers with the […]

  16. […] Becca, you say, I thought you cared about housing and people living homeless? Didn’t you blog about that at length? I did. And I also said that what we need to begin to address that situation […]

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