Sunday, July 13, 2008

Go With God

Tonight, I attended the annual dinner of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, which this year honored Reverend David Bloom's more than thirty years of service to our community. David laid the groundwork for the ITFH somewhere between his work at the Church Council of Greater Seattle and one of his numerous faux "retirements" while he was employed as the "Faith Community Organizer" at Real Change. While that position wound up being something we couldn't sustain, David's work led to the first Building the Political Will to End Homelessness conference and the deepened involvement of congregations in homeless advocacy and service provision. Over the years, I've learned that seeds that at first don't seem to take can send down roots that remain hidden for years. Then, one day, there's a new tree for people to climb on.

It feels as though the faith community is on the verge of a turning point of sorts. The Church Council of Greater Seattle has new leadership in veteran community organizer Michael Ramos, and is more committed to their social justice mission than ever. More and more congregations are supporting SHARE/WHEEL's tent city work by hosting the encampment on their property. Numerous congregations have aligned with the Sound Alliance organizing effort for economic justice. The Archdiocesan Housing Authority is organizing churches for legislative advocacy on housing issues. Rich Lang over at Trinity is working with faith community allies to engage more deeply in this work and move through charity toward justice. The Rauschenbusch Center for Spirit and Action has roared to life and is starting to hold public speak-outs in Westlake Center.

Tonight David spoke of the difference between optimism and hope. He is not optimistic, he said, over our prospects of ending homelessness. This pessimism is well-founded. Bullshit pronouncements from the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness aside, things have been getting worse for approximately thirty years, and that trend line shows little prospect of changing.

There is, however, reason for hope. Optimism under these circumstances is just whistling through the graveyard. Hope, on the other hand, is an exercise in prophetic imagination. Hope is visionary, and is less about belief than will. Hope, said Emily Dickinson, is "the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all."

When Michael Ramos spoke on behalf of the Church Council at Camp4Unity last June, it gave me hope. That hope is sustained and furthered whenever I see people or institutions extend themselves in the service of justice. We're not winning yet, but the tide, it seems, is beginning to turn. Michael's speech is reproduced below.
In the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, we read, “God says, this rather is the fasting that I wish; releasing those bound unjustly, setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke. Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and homeless. Then, your light shall go forth like the dawn and your wound shall be quickly healed.”

The Church Council of Greater Seattle mourns the deaths of the more than 250 women and men who were homeless and who have died in recent years. A county and city as prosperous as ours can only be considered great when we are moved with radical compassion such that the most displaced are valued with the most affluent, and that our very selves are offered as a bridge to mend the unconscionable gap between rich and poor in our midst. Homelessness is, from a faith and human perspective, a scandal that calls for a conversion of heart in all of us, lest we grow complacent and tolerant. Behind each death is a name and a life, that that to the Women in Black, Church of Mary Magadalene and Real Change, matter. In memory of these people, let us stand so that others may not fall.

Our faith traditions call us to prioritize those who are poor. The measure of our economic and social decisions is our impact on those who are most vulnerable. What is done FOR the people most affected? What is done TO the people most affected? How do they take part in the decisions that affect them? When more than 2,600 people can be counted on the streets in our county as homeless on a given night, a 15% increase in the same areas over last year, we must ask ourselves how we are addressing this priority. When one night in May, 42 people are turned away from Operation Nightwatch, a final sanctuary for those without a place to stay, the crisis is lack of shelter, not a few tents in the woods. The principle must guide the policy must guide the practice. The people who are marginalized, neglected, abandoned, homeless need to be made the basic criteria for a continuum of care that provides for shelter first even while we create new sources of housing.

As a key partner in the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness in King County, we too believe that housing is a right and that we need to come together to provide the home and the support services for each in need. More than 150 of our congregations demonstrate their commitment to this vision each year, as well as our own programs. Yet, when there is nowhere else to go, even the legitimate health and safety considerations for our public spaces must yield to the demand for survival of those who camp in order to live. As sweeps become a matter of policy, it is these people who bear an inherent dignity who must have a say.

We appreciate the 20 additional shelter beds and the case managers who visit the tent encampments. But, the primary concern for safe shelter has not been adequately addressed. We ask the city to revisit the Tent Encampment policy so that the loopholes in it not serve as an excuse for further harm to those with whom we ought to be concerned. That would be a thoughtful follow-up to another memorial for those whom society judges, but whom we uphold and affirm as people whom God deems worthy and valuable in his sight.

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