Thursday, June 22, 2006
Both sides, however, have latched onto one common slogan: “Support Our Troops!”
This slogan is bandied about on either side of the street as though the other side somehow doesn’t get it. In spite of their fervor many of the rally attendees have, no doubt, stepped over the bodies of disabled veterans while walking to the rallies.
I got a call the other day from the Ranger newspaper asking if Bread & Roses had seen any veterans from the Iraq War yet. We haven't. I had to be honest with the reporter. I told her that it takes time for troops' families to give up on them.
People come home from war totally mangled in mind, body, and spirit. In spite of all the sloganeering out there, the responsibility for the welfare of veterans ultimately falls on their families. Many, many families are unable to shoulder the responsibility. This doesn't make them bad or irresponsible, nor does it mean that they don't love their veteran. It DOES mean that taking care of a person who doesn't sleep at night, who suffers from flashbacks, who turns to alcohol for solace, and who becomes sorely irritable, even prone to fits of rage, is EXTREMELY difficult and should not fall on family alone. But it does fall on family alone, because everyone else is too busy sloganeering.
With time, the families give up. I know this because we at Bread & Roses have fed, sheltered, comforted, and advocated for veterans of every war from World War II to the Persian Gulf War. And we are criticized for it.
Veterans who suffer from PTSD often turn to alcohol or drugs to ward off bad memories, as well as to blunt their emotional response to being alienated from society. Imagine enduring the horrors of war for your nation, and then being left to rot in the gutter as a reward. You’d start drinking too.
Homeless veterans experience not only homelessness, but also the stigma of being considered the “undeserving” poor because of their addictions and “anti-social” behaviors. Pedestrians yell at them, spit on them, call them names, and tell them to “get a job”.
This will be the fate of many of the troops that everyone wants to “Support!” when “support” means waving a sign.
I'm frankly sick of all this "Support Our Troops" bantering on both sides of the war debate. We should all stop yelling this mantra and start doing it.
[Co-written with Mindy from St. John's]
At Capitol City Pride Day on June 17, the Rev. Canon David James, rector of the church, and several parishioners gathered at the church's booth in
Those church members who participated later talked about how they felt people's tiredness, hurt and stress fall away, if only for a moment or two. Reactions from the blessed ranged from tears to drawn-out sighs of relief, knowing that they were among Christians who didn't judge them and who carried a message of God's unconditional love for all.
Some people might be shocked at the fact that a Christian church would openly and freely bless gays. In spite of the Gospels, in which the central message is God’s love for us, the most common stories we hear that involve the words “God” and “gay” also involve Fred Phelps, who picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay victim of a hate crime. Or Pat Robertson, who blamed Hurricane Katrina, the attacks of September 11th, and the Iraqi insurgency all on the sexual orientation of Ellen Degeneres. Robertson was even quoted as saying, “
Armed with their Bibles, conservative Christians are waging a crusade against gays all across
In spite of this, there are a number of passages that conservatives use to try and justify their views. I’ll go through them one by one.
“Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”-
Many people refer to the opening chapters of Genesis as a suggestion that heterosexuality is the only natural form of sexuality. This is flawed logic. Genesis pairs Adam and Eve, but does not condemn homosexual relationships. The Adam and Eve story is silent on the matter.
The story of
Hospitality to strangers was one of the most important values of old times. The desert is harsh and dangerous; to withhold your hand from strangers could have spelled death for them. The sin of
Leviticus reads: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” This is the clearest the bible gets on homosexuality. It ONLY refers to male-male sexual partnerships.
There are a number of things to note about this. First, there are two sets of codes in the Old Testament. The first set regards ethics or morals. We see these in the Ten Commandments. The second are the “Holiness Codes”, which are a set of social norms for Jews of ancient times.
The Holiness Codes were designed to separate the nation of
The passage from Leviticus was just one of the Holiness Codes. It was not a moral commandment. It was intended to prevent Jews from participating in Canaanite practices, which included the exploitation of male prostitutes in the Canaanite temples.
One of the rather beautiful aspects of the Gospel message is the union it promotes among people, even people of very different backgrounds. Jesus first challenged nationalistic separations through his willingness to heal the daughter of the Canaanite woman. Later, while preaching love of neighbor, Jesus is asked, “Who is our neighbor?” To this He replies with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus teaches that differences in nationality and culture are not to be a barrier to love.
In his letters, Paul writes in the same thread. Division and acrimony had arisen within the Church; the Gentile Christians were not being circumcised and were violating kosher laws. As a result, many Jewish Christians refused to eat or otherwise commune with the Gentiles. In an attempt to breed tolerance, Paul writes to the Roman Christians a long, and now famous, argument that salvation is not gained by strict adherence to outward religious codes such as circumcision and kosher guidelines. Salvation comes by faith, a faith shared by Jewish and Gentile Christians alike.
The passage used by some to condemn gays is near the beginning of this letter of Paul to the Romans. Paul writes, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by wickedness suppress the truth. …though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking… Therefore God gave them up to the lust of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves… Their women exchanged customary intercourse for uncustomary, and in the same way also the men…”(Romans -27)
Paul here is criticizing the Roman pagans for idolatry. Following the sin of idolatry, they made themselves more important than God (“they did not honor him as God”), and concurrently made themselves more important than their neighbors. Therefore God gave them over to impurity, and following after their idolatrous fashion, they “were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, [and] malice.” (Romans 1:29)
There are a couple important things to note here. First, Paul’s criticism of the Romans is a hook for the Jewish Christians. The first sentence of the next chapter reads, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others…” He turns the argument of idolatry against the Jewish Christians! Apparently they were in error when they placed their personal customs at a higher priority than Christian communion.
Secondly, this passage does NOT refer to monogamous, faithful homosexual relationships. Paul is criticizing idolatry, and the selfish, lustful, and gluttonous behaviors that accompany idolatry. The excesses of ancient
Paul was not talking about loving, long term homosexual relationships. He was criticizing debauchery and sexual exploitation. These are hardly the words to describe the love that two people feel for one another when they wish to be married.
In Corinthians and Timothy, Paul gives a couple brief lists of the sins of “wrongdoers”. “Sodomites” are mentioned, but here he is talking about male prostitutes, not homosexual relationships. He also, again, criticizes at length the sins of idolatry and sexual exploitation.
Conservatives, when debating gay marriage, often like to throw around the terms “unnatural”, “unclean”, and “abomination”. Yet, for all their quoting of Paul, it is Paul who refutes them when he writes, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” (Romans 14:14)
There are a great number of homosexuals who are now striving to be allowed to marry. They courageously wage their campaign for marriage on the battlefields of the courts and legislatures of the land. Marriage is a holy sacrament. It teaches us, through our spouse’s love, the love that God holds for us. It also teaches us, through our love for our spouse, how to love God.
By condemning gays as “unclean”, conservatives make themselves vulnerable to Paul’s accusation of idolatry. They would allow personal customs and preferences to stand in the way of the revelation of God’s love through marriage.
By offering blessings to gays, and even on occasion to gay marriages, the Episcopal Church is indeed breaking from traditional norms. But the Scriptures (especially the New Testament) were never intended to be normative in effect; rather they were intended to be transformative.
Our common faith is one of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. The central message of the Gospel is God’s undying love for us. The central command of the Gospel is that we are to love one another as God loves us. It is high time we stop telling gays that God hates them.
Here is what Fr. James wrote to Integrity about
"That morning, as I was getting ready to go to the parade it occurred to me as a straight priest, how unsafe the church has been, and is being to this day, to LGBT folk. So, I went into the church and got one of our 'Bishop's chairs' and took it to the booth. I made a sign that designated the chair as the 'Blessing Chair.'"Throughout the course of the day people would come by and ask 'what's a blessing chair?' Our response was 'the Episcopal Church in
Just imagine, after years of “faith” based persecution, and after being alienated from the faith community you were raised in, being welcomed back with open arms and a blessing. Imagine being told, for the first time, that Jesus and His Church don’t hate you. This is Christ’s message made personal.
The behaviors of us Christians have been extraordinarily hurtful to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. In spite of this, many of them still love the Church. They have often shown a more Christ-like patience for us than we could muster for them. It is time for repentance and reconciliation.
Sunday, June 11, 2006
I did something this week for which I become deeply angry when others do the same. I cleared the brush in my back yard to prevent homeless people from camping there.
My wife and I live in the new Bread & Roses house on
When we first moved in, our landlord was excited to be able to support Bread & Roses, but nervous about how we would work out as renters. Our neighbors, who rent from the same landlord as us, were very nervous about our presence.
Neither the landlord nor the neighbors are bad people. In fact, the landlord recently sat for lunch with me and a good friend of mine who lives with serious schizophrenia. The two of them got along fabulously. If this friend of mine were to camp in my back yard, though, it would cause a problem. It could scare off the neighbor’s customers.
And there has been a problem. There have been at least one or two people camping in the back yard each night for the last couple of weeks. The neighbors have commented to us on the situation a few times now. I have gone out each night at odd hours to, in the kindest fashion I could muster, ask them to leave. And finally a few days ago I cleared out the brush to eliminate discreet places for people to sleep.
As I cleared brush, I meditated on how screwed up this situation is. Homeless people need to sleep more than other people need to use credit unions. They need to sleep more than other people need to practice yoga, or get haircuts, or buy office supplies. And the truth is that sleeping homeless people do nothing to prevent people from practicing yoga or stopping in at the credit union. It is the fear of homeless people that stops them.
Sleep is not a choice. It is not a privilege, nor a luxury. It is a necessity. People have to sleep somewhere. There are more than 1200 homeless people in
As I worked, I thought about the scriptural story of Lazarus at the gate of the Rich Man. I thought about Matthew 25, “What you do unto the least of these, you do unto Me.” I thought of Jesus violating the laws and customs of his day to help the Canaanite woman. I recited the Magificat to myself and meditated on the Beatitudes. My faith, my politics, my worldview, and my commitment to others stand in direct opposition to the actions I was taking.
I hate our system. I hate it because it forces us to choose between evils. Because I either have to forbid camping in my yard or get shut down, to commit an injustice now or face a greater injustice later. What do I do?
"Nature produced common property. Robbery made private property." -St. Ambrose
The following is text from an email I sent to Mr. Ramm:
My dear friend Jim,
I, sir, am a christian anarchist and a card carrying member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or "wobblies"). I think that qualifies me as a proud "filthy commie scum", and an enemy of hate. I would be greatly honored if you would list me with Jade, Sarah, and others on your website. Thank you and blessings on your day.
Saturday, June 10, 2006
(Reprinted from my submission to the Voice of Olympia–Nov 2004)
I can’t quite remember the exact moment in which I met Stephan. I do remember, though, that he had recently stepped off a bus from the prison in
Stephan was a middle-aged black man with big hair, pointed cheek bones, and a lower lip that curved out and down a little at the center like an old shoe horn. He had a beautiful smile that lifted his eyebrows and cut deep, chevron shaped wrinkles at the corners of his mouth. When Stephan walked, he stuck his rear out and leaned over a bit, taking short steps because of a back injury. His ankles were swollen and he had a big, round, distended belly that made me think of Somali children starving in the desert.
Stephan had joined the military as a young man, most likely to stay out of trouble or to pay his way into school. He served in the Navy through the late ‘seventies, spending most of his time traveling around the Pacific. The Navy, or more accurately, all the Armed Forces, suffered from an extraordinarily low morale at the time, and drug use was prevalent. Stephan’s ship was chock full of drugs collected at the various seaports of
After two and a half decades of hopping from job to job and from town to town nurturing his addiction, Stephan was arrested and incarcerated. He hated prison. He told me about having to listen to people scream at night as he tried to sleep. Once, he said, a guy hung himself in his cell and the guards marched all the inmates past him to get a good look before morning breakfast.
One day Stephan was particularly ill and needed to go to the hospital, but was being stubborn. Nick, one of our advocates, went running after Stephan to give him his home phone number in case Stephan changed his mind. Realizing he was lacking a pen, Nick went into the nearest establishment, a bar, to borrow one. Unfortunately Nick was under age, and, after being chased out of the bar and around the block by an angry and violent bartender, had earned from Stephan the title of ‘Damned Cool Caseworker’. Stephan had stood back giggling at the whole spectacle.
People often have funny notions about who drug addicts are. Most people imagine that drug addicts are universally desperate, dishonest, irrational, and dangerous. They rarely notice that cigarette smokers who don’t have cigarettes often behave the same as the stereotypical drug addict, and that we are all surrounded by cigarette smokers. At any rate, we miss out on the personality and character of people when we dismiss them as “junkies”.
As Stephan and I got closer, his courage became increasingly visible to me. Stephan’s probation officer had been relatively easy on him. He had known that Stephan was still using heroin, but continued to give him chances in light of Stephan’s thirty-year addiction. Then one day, most likely under pressure from his boss, the P.O. suddenly requested a clean urinalysis, within the week. Stephan dropped his habit cold turkey, and
Every winter, pneumonia becomes an epidemic among the homeless. It seems as though everyone in sight is coughing, hacking, and sweating. A few months ago, Stephan came down with pneumonia and was hospitalized. Under normal circumstances, Stephan should have recovered after a couple weeks and been back on the streets and in our lives. But Hepatitis C, gotten from a dirty needle, had been eating away at his liver, and causing fluids to back up in his lungs, belly, and ankles. Instead of steadily getting better, Stephan’s condition crashed as his liver gave out.
“Well, it looks like this is it, buddy,” I said to him, shaking a little. Stephan squeezed my hand, held it up against his cheek, smiled for a moment, and said, “The last couple weeks have opened my eyes...” And then his voice became too weak to understand.
Nick, Selena, and I visited him the next day. We held his hands and read Psalms to him as he died.
In life, Stephan was a friend to many, a guest and a brother to us at Bread & Roses, and a junkie to most of the rest of society. He was imperfect, addicted, and afflicted with illness. In the very moment of his death, though, the man that Stephan was, his very existence, the memory of him was rarefied and transformed in my mind. As he died, I thought of how he had stuck it out in the emergency room as he kicked heroin, and of his extraordinary courage. I looked over at Nick as he held Stephan’s limp hand. At this moment I realized that it was Stephan who trained Nick and who trained me and inspired me to be who I am today. And he became for me like an angel sent from heaven to make us good.
I know that this is all a simplification, that I am mystifying an imperfect and mortal man, yet I also know that he was all of these things in his imperfect and difficult life. I also know that we all embody such a beautiful nature, and that it is imperfectly expressed through the filter of our own fallibility.
You see, the memory of a person changes for us when they die so that we might have a chance to recognize real human value for once, to see it anew because we can’t take it for granted anymore.
Life looks different to me since Stephan died. I had an intense commitment to his health and sobriety, and failed. But in this failure I discovered the real contribution I had made to him, and that he had made to me. The job of Catholic Workers, of the volunteers and staff at Bread & Roses, is to be a family for the people on the streets. The only authentic commitment one human being can make to another is the commitment to love.
[Note: Though I carefully remove names of Bread & Roses' guests to protect their confidentiality, we at Bread & Roses try hard to share the names and stories of the dead in order to honor their memory. So I have not removed names in this post.]
Three months after I joined the staff at Bread & Roses a man came to our door in desperate need. Terry Seibert was one of the long-time homeless, nicknamed “Crusty”. He was an alcoholic with a pocked face and bulbous nose, a scratchy voice and a permanent scowl.
He arrived at the
I am ashamed to say that I recoiled a bit at his odor, and asked him to stand outside a few minutes while we arranged a shower and a change of clothes. One of the other volunteers gave me a severe look and invited him to come in and sit in our bathroom. Terry was pale, short of breath, and dizzy.
We got him showered and cleaned up, and I arranged a bed for him in our shelter. The next day, Selena rented Terry a hotel room. A struggle ensued to place him in a nursing home, lasting two weeks. No-one would take him.
Selena visited Terry daily. They had been friends when Selena worked in the soup kitchen. Terry and Selena shared a great fondness for good literature, and had spent hours at the old kitchen discussing poetry and trading books. On her last visit with Terry, Selena came into his room and asked Terry how he was doing. He replied, “Where is the life that we have lost in the living?”
It was a line from “The Rock”, by T.S. Eliot. Terry died the next day.
Though Bread & Roses has never (at least in my term of service) been so openly and explicitly filled with spirituality as the Tacoma Worker, it has had an impressive history, spirituality and culture. When I moved in, the house was decorated with photos and paintings of Dorothy Day, Mohandas Gandhi, and Woody Guthrie. Posters and flyers quoting the great leaders for social justice adorned the walls. Our dining room, ringed with a painted border of wheat stalks and roses at the tops of the walls, served as an office and was cluttered with desks, notepads, photocopiers, and file cabinets. Selena, a former nun and devout Catholic (at the time –she has since left the Roman Catholic church and become a Unitarian, no less devoted to God) exerted a profound influence over the household, though. She emanated a “nunly” energy, and could say the most extraordinary things! She seemed a pillar of wisdom, marked with an occasional dirty joke or scandalous remark just to keep us on our toes. I had shown an interest in the spirituality of the Catholic Worker, and she fed me great books and innumerable stories.
One day in December, four candles, three purple and one pink, appeared on a table in our living room, along with some flowers. A couple of guests asked me what the candles were for, and we speculated in whispers amongst ourselves before I approached Selena to ask her their meaning. She explained to me that it was Advent, the celebration of the coming birth of Christ.
For the next four weeks before Christmas, we gathered in the living room to read scripture and discuss the meaning of the birth of God’s Son among humanity. The gatherings were required of no-one, but there was a strong interest among guest and staff alike, and our living room was crowded with quiet worshipers. Selena explained to us that the Advent candles, one for each of the four weeks before Christmas, were instituted by a Roman Catholic monk, and with a little smile on her face she declared the monk a rascal. The three purple candles were a proper expression of the asceticism in monastic life, solemn lights to guide the faithful. The fourth pink candle, added to stir things up, represented joy and reminded us that God is love and to never forget to be happy and to love one another. The candles burned pure in our home and all were still for a while.
(Taken from a journal entry in the early spring? of 2004.)
It took me a half-hour to get out of bed this morning. This is a chronic problem – I have always been a grump in the morning – but only recently has it become what seems to me to be an unfair luxury. After sitting up and rubbing my eyes for five minutes, I picked up random articles of clothing from the floor, put them on, and walked downstairs. I peaked around the corner and found that T-- was still asleep on the living room couch.
T-- was recently released from a psychiatric hospital. She had lived with us twice before, leaving once for a stay in jail and a second time into an apartment of her own. T-- is mentally ill, an alcoholic, and suffers from emotional trauma so severe I would not have thought it possible until I met her. T-- is also funny, and a good cook. And when she is sober and trying to socialize, you can acquire a deep sense of both her discomfort and her real need to be accepted. It shows in her shifty feet, hunched shoulders, and the question like tone of her statements. Sometimes she will say something quite serious, quite important, and then laugh a little, sheepishly, as though her thoughts must seem absurd to anyone else.
I heard a hysterical bout of cackling coming from the kitchen, and found R-- dancing around the stove, elbows bent and hands flopping, as he cooed at some ridiculous concoction in a frying pan.
R-- is mentally ill, too. Schizophrenic, in fact, but his posture is totally different from T--’s. R-- is not particularly a drinker, but he has a kind of drunken lurch akin to a blend of “Seinfeld’s” Kramer and Captain Jack Sparrow of “Pirates of the
Once R-- was sitting on the back porch, smoking cigarettes with
“What party is that?”
“Oh, it’s non-partisan.”
“Don’t give me that college bullshit!” he replied.
A couple months after I joined the Bread & Roses Catholic Worker community, I was asked to build eighteen bunk beds for the men’s shelter. R-- was staying at the shelter at the time, and I invited him to help. I found R-- to be a far better carpenter than I (which isn’t saying much, to be honest). I was particularly impressed, however, with his patience for my fumbling, and his willingness to share his skills with me. R-- was companionable, and liked good music, and we got along well as we worked.
We invited him to live in the Hospitality House a short while later.
As I walked to the fridge, I smiled and said “good morning” to R--, and to E--, a homeless veteran living in the basement.
After digging around the fridge in search of a decent vegetarian breakfast, I gave up, poured myself a cup of coffee, and stepped out to the back porch for a cigarette.
“Anybody know who the lady is who’s sleeping on the dining room floor?” I asked.
A--, a kind, simple, rather quiet man, walked by us and into the kitchen, saying “good morning” as he passed. A-- lived with his parents until he was about 45 years old, and became homeless after they died. At first he needed a staff person to help him get from place to place on the buses, and later was aided by others on the streets. He stayed at the men’s shelter for a couple years until we invited him into the House of Hospitality.
Altogether, the Hospitality House has five bedrooms, plus two dorms that we built into the basement, and a large room above the garage. On average, there were eleven people living in the house. We have, at times, had people sleeping on the living room couch, the living room floor, the dining room floor, my bedroom floor (three men, in fact), and Selena’s bedroom floor, all at once. The house has been so thick with people that we practically had to climb over one another just to reach the refrigerator in the morning. In addition to this, there are typically twelve women living in the four bedroom duplex next door that serves as our women’s guesthouse shelter. And forty-four men packed into bunks at the men’s shelter, so tight that a Navy admiral would be impressed.
We had to fight the temptation that came at times to believe that Bread & Roses is responsible for all of the 700 people who are homeless in the
A few days ago I went with Megan to visit the Tacoma Catholic Worker a second time. I plan to visit them every week, now.
I felt a little less awkward, a little more comfortable getting to know folks this time. I talked with Harlan for a while, and discovered that he had been at Guadalupe House for fifteen years and at another Worker house for twelve years prior to that. Father Bix has been there since the founding of the Tacoma Worker (25 years ago?), and they have other volunteers who have been around for many, many years. What experience! I could only dream of the day when Bread & Roses has a staff with such longevity. At Guadalupe this longevity breeds a comfort with the work, the guests, and among the staff that is not only visible in the interactions between the staff, but that also permeates the whole atmosphere of the House. They have a culture, and traditions, and a history upon which their community rests.
At the staff gathered to plan the evening. They assigned tasks, discussed the menu, planned for the liturgy, and ended with a prayer. At the doors opened, and for the next half hour there was little to do but socialize with the guests and volunteers. At we were called to gather for the service, led by a woman named Mary. The service opened with a prayer, followed by readings from scripture, and Mary’s lecture on the life and works of St. Vincent de Paul. Then Mary began to bless a loaf of bread and a pitcher of grape juice.
Mary announced that “here at Guadalupe House we have a tradition of open Communion. The only requirement to partake of the sacraments is that you have a desire to accept Christ into your heart.”
As the bread and the juice came around, I took it with a little eager grin on my face, like a child accepting a forbidden cookie offered in secret by his grandmother. I was so incredibly grateful.
The fall is beginning, and the nights here are beginning to get the moist chill so familiar to a Northwest boy like myself. I can’t wait to see my breath in the air in the morning.
I went to visit the Guadalupe House Catholic Worker in
There is a beautiful view from
There is a mural painted on a retaining wall that runs along the west side of the street, with bright, bold colors, blue and orange, red and green. A weathered hand holds up a squash, a hammer breaks the chain binding down a fist. A vegetable garden, about a half acre in sized, occupies the opposite side of the street. And Guadalupe just beyond.
As we approached the house an old Hispanic man greeted us from the porch. His face was like crumpled burlap; deep wrinkles running south from his cheekbones parted around his mouth and his skin puffed out around his eyes. He flashed a friendly but wily smile at us, like he knew something we didn’t. We introduced ourselves and he showed us inside.
I was very excited to meet Father Bix. I had heard so much about him, a priest, an old wobbly, and a catholic worker. I imagined him to be a big, burly man with a gruff voice, but comfortable in his collar as he is in the struggle against injustice. And Spartacus was said to be seven feet tall, right? I blushed a little to myself as I noticed my tendency to build up heroes in my own mind.
The interior walls of Guadalupe House are cluttered with icons, crucifix’s, and prayers written on scraps of paper and pasted up, so that one is filled with the sense of being in some kind of church or holy place, except that each piece was placed by a different person at a different time with no overall scheme but the organic rhythms of people living in community.
A fellow sitting in the corner hollered at me, “Hey Abraham!” as we walked into the dining room. I found this funny because no-one else would think me an Abraham type, and he looked quite a bit like a Moses, with shoulder length matted grey hair and a beard of equal length with no part or seam to distinguish beard from hair. I smiled and said, “Hi, my name is Phil”, and we shook hands. A middle aged woman named Dotti, one of the workers, greeted us warmly and then went to tend to the concerns of one of the guests. Megan and I stood around awkwardly for a minute, shifting on our feet and looking around, and then we each found a seat on the couches lining the north wall.
A man, roughly my age, was seated next to me, and I found upon inquiring that he had just completed a year in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and had been temporarily hired on as paid staff at his old placement at the Nativity House. He informed me that the Tacoma Catholic Worker community consisted of five houses within a two block radius, and 25 live-in volunteers. These houses included the Guadalupe House of Hospitality as well as a house of prayer. Guadalupe serves dinner on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights, with the Tuesday dinner being preceded by liturgy. The staff take turns leading the liturgy. In the mornings showers and laundry are offered, as well as the customary pot of coffee. There are about 15 guests living in the five bedrooms of the house, and I’m not sure where the staff sleep. They have a strong relationship with the local parish, as well as with the Nativity House (which is, I believe, a project of Catholic Community Services).
Dotti called us to gather close for the liturgy, and began with a prayer. We sang a psalm, and then the readings: a story from the Book of Ezra about the rebuilding of the temple and the return of the Jews from exile, and a reading from the Gospel in which Jesus denies his family and says that all who listen to the word of the Lord are his family.
A discussion followed, and a man across the room spoke up. “God talks to me all the time,” he said. “It’s simple. There are two paths. The good one and the bad one. God tells me, ‘Get sober’. But I take the low road, I still use. I just got out of jail, and I know I’m a goin’ back. I talked with my kids on the phone the other day, but I ain’t seen ‘em in fifteen years…” His voice broke, and his eyes welled up.
At the end of the service, we lined up to eat, and another dozen hungry people who had opted out of participating in the liturgy crowded into the room for the meal. The food was fantastic. There was chicken and rice, a variety of salads, pasta, and corn bread with peanuts and bacon cooked in.
After the meal, Megan and I both moved into the kitchen to help clean up. A fellow named Chuck was directing the cleanup. He was one of those “God’s children” types, the kind you feel good just being around. He loved to talk, to ramble on-and-on, and kind of danced around as he talked and cleaned. He had a cleft palate, a speech impediment, and, I think, a mild blend of mental illness with developmental disability. But he could, and loved to, run a kitchen crew, and we all gladly obeyed his directions. I was reminded of the “old” Bread & Roses.
The last week has brought for me a new discovery: It hurts to be unwanted.
Let me offer a little background. We at Bread & Roses are opening a new House of Hospitality at the old Yoga Center building on 4th Avenue. The move represents the fulfillment of a long term dream – to return to our old way of life as Catholic Workers, and to create a more home-centered environment for our Advocacy Center.
The new house on 4th will, first and foremost, be a home for myself and Meta, my wife. Secondly, we will be hosting the Bread & Roses Advocacy Center in the new house. We believe that moving the Advocacy Center (previously located in a storefront office at the corner of State and Washington) into a home will be tremendously advantageous to the program. The atmosphere offered by a warm, vibrant, comfortable home will dramatically affect the dynamic of our work, creating a more informal, far more personal environment in which to serve our guests.
Imagine – rather than walking into an office, signing in, and meeting with an advocate at a desk – walking across a welcome mat into a friend’s home, offered a cup of coffee, and asked how your day was. This is the experience we want each person to have as they come to our door seeking help with navigating the social service system.
As we have been moving during the last week, though, the dream of the new home has been tempered by the reality of the fear, prejudice, and even hatred held by our larger society toward the poor.
One of the new neighbors told me that he wished the landlord hadn’t rented to us. Many of the neighboring businesses, while really wanting to support us, expressed fear that our guests would drive away their customers. A front page article was printed in the Olympian that focused rather narrowly on the “not-in-my-back-yard” issues that plague Bread & Roses. One of our former neighbors was quoted as saying that he was “ecstatic” that we were moving away from his business.
While this all is very understandable and ought to be expected, it has certainly been an unpleasant experience and has affected the excitement that Meta and I have felt about our new home. It also, in the most powerful way that I have experienced, hit me with the day to day reality for my friends on the streets. Our society simply doesn’t want them. By proxy, they don’t want me as their neighbor either.
Two days ago I read the readers’ comments posted on the Olympian’s website in response to the article about our move. The following statements are taken directly from those website postings:
“Kick them to the curb and make them leave downtown. All they do is bother people. Lock them up and throw away the key - these people are USELESS!”
“…you would be a fool to let your children anywhere near them… …These people can’t make decisions for themselves and it is about time the public made them comply with the law.”
“We have a lot of homeless because they migrate here like birds looking for food! …If you feed the pigeons more will come!”
“As far as mental illness goes they don’t have a problem remembering to ask everyone for change as they walk by and what time ‘Din, Din’ is down at good ol’ Bread and Roses. I think the only mental illness most of these people have is called ‘lazyitis’.”
“I’d say the move is a step in the right direction. If we can keep them moving closer and closer to Tacoma, it won’t be long before they are IN Tacoma. Now that would be great.”
“Homeless people are worthless trash! Take them out behind the barn! Now that is problem solving at its best!”
“The VAST MAJORITY of these bums (homeless) choose to be that way. …They choose their lifestyle of being drunk and/or high wanting free hand outs and most likely will NEVER be productive citizens within this or any other community.”
“I too work with these people everyday and almost all of them are complete dregs on society. You people are enablers who allow this type of behavior to continue with no end in sight.”
“I’m sure this news is going to make 4th Dimension Computers very happy-- NOT!!!! Just what they want-- bums hanging around harassing their customers, and maybe even breaking into their building and stealing things. …Phil Owen better do something constructive about riding hard on his clients. How about paying for a police presence to make sure the clients aren’t breaking the laws?”
“You don’t continue to move a problem around, you ELIMINATE it… …Get rid of B&R and then we’ll get rid of the creepy homeless panhandlers downtown who freak normal people out.”
“…invite some of these people into your home, where they will piss on your carpet because it is too much trouble to walk to the bathroom, will leave their needles for your children to find, and will take everything you don’t have bolted down before they walk out the front door, all the while calling you filthy names.”
“If you let them fend for themselves the problem will fix itself, the ones who are hopelessly addicted will just spend their money on their drugs and die from malnutrition.”
“Its ok to hate bad people.”
“Shame them, humiliate them, Make them beg for crumbs. Put them in jail.”
“I wish it were legal to hunt the homeless.”
This kind of hatred speaks for itself; I don’t think I need to elaborate much to create a picture of the kind of bigotry that homeless people face each day.
When I was seventeen and just beginning to recover from homelessness myself, there was a woman who, together with her reluctant husband, opened her home to the youth of the Bald Hills. Not all the youth of the area gathered at her home, but it was a haven in particular to the rabble and hoodlums. These were the kids who were breaking into houses and prowling cars in the neighborhood – the potheads and meth-heads, the runaways, and the rascals. Rizae didn’t institute a program or create an organization; she just offered what little she had for a safe and friendly place for us kids to hang out. I rented a place on her couch for $100 per month, and brought my own food (two packets of ramen per day). From time to time she’d sneak me some macaroni with hotdogs.
I think most people would be terrified to do what Rizae did. Why, the kids would tear our home to pieces. What if they sell drugs? What if the neighbors complain? The impressive thing is that all these juvenile delinquents turned into angels when they were at her place. They were kind to one another (a miracle in itself), respectful of Rizae and her husband, and were unstoppable dishwashers. Rizae did nothing more to encourage this transformation than to be friendly, personable, and welcoming, yet soon the joke among the kids was that she was the neighborhood “mom”.
This is what a House of Hospitality looks like. A House of Hospitality is a place where it is easier for people to be good. It is a place where people can become healthy. Its strength rests on people like Rizae, people who have a burning drive to live in community with others, and who see the good in others and desperately want them to see it in themselves. Each and every person who took me in when I was a homeless teenager was operating a House of Hospitality. And now Meta and I have the opportunity to operate a House of Hospitality ourselves.
Meta and I want to welcome the homeless into our home because the homeless aren’t welcome anywhere else. We want to welcome the homeless into our home because everyone should feel wanted. We want to welcome them into our home because we know them, and care about them, and because we have a fundamental belief that it is possible for people to be close to one another even in the face of challenging circumstances. The homeless are persecuted, reviled, hated, and abused, much as Christ was in his time on the earth. Nonetheless, we believe that it is possible to overcome these challenges and create a little piece of the “Blessed Community” here in our home.
For Christians this time of year is Resurrection season. It is time for our community to put down the bloody nails of hatred, and to step into the light and beauty of the Resurrected life of love. Please, come and visit us in our new home. Come share a cup of coffee and a little conversation with our guests. You will be surprised and delighted with the result.
This blog is primarily an archive of submissions for the Canaanite's Call, a publication for radicals of faith. There will also be additional posts that have not been published in the paper, though they will be in keeping with the spirit and purpose of the paper. The following piece explains our mission:
When I sat down for coffee and picked up the newspaper one Sunday morning (I generally read the Olympian), I was struck by a great big photo on the cover of the South Sound section. Two women squared off with each other, nose to nose, faces red with anger, yelling and pointing fingers at one another. What was the argument? …The war in Iraq.
According to an editorial published several days later, many complaints had been sent to the Olympian since that photo was published, accusing the editors of a bias against the peace movement and of choosing to portray the only bitter incident in a largely peaceful gathering.
The truth of the matter, however, is that there is a great deal of bitterness and acrimony between the two sides of the war debate, and that little communication occurs between peace movement activists and war supporters.
War supporters often label peace activists as ungrateful, naive, and cowardly hippie-dippies who ought to just get a job – or leave the country. Peace activists often label war supporters as ignorant, aggressive country-bumpkins who ought to put up their shotguns and get an education.
Both sides yell “Support Our Troops!”; it has become the vitriolic rallying call to hippie-dippies and country-bumpkins alike. Yet I have yet to meet a single person (outside of the Catholic Worker at least) who has offered their living room couch to a disabled homeless veteran.
The problem in the debate is that very few people are willing to approach their ideological opponents as intelligent, thoughtful human beings. The spirit of fellowship is utterly absent. This dynamic is not limited to the war debate, either. It has shown up between business people and homeless people, business advocates and homeless advocates, cops and the homeless, Evergreen students and townies, liberals and conservatives, etc.
It is the official position of this paper, the Canaanite’s Call, that our opinions, though important to us, are far less valuable than the way in which we relate to others. Our purpose is to humanize people who have been dehumanized, to offer dignity to the marginalized, to advocate for direct personal responsibility for community problems, and to advocate for reconciliation and love between all people.
You will not find a lot of political diatribe in the Canaanite’s Call, though what you read may alter your political views. What you will find is the human story brought to life in a politicized and polarized world. No matter what your politics are, this paper will challenge you, disturb you, and could even make you angry. Or it might make you fall in love with your neighbor.
-Phil Owen, editor