Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Mission of the Mission and Questioning Authority, Part I

A provocative topic in the corner of Homeless World Sacramento I best know has to do with a discussion between a homeless man and Union Gospel Mission’s Night Manager that quickly got out of hand.
A statue called "Homeless Jesus" shows an
exhausted man sleeping on a bench. There are
marks from nail holes on the figure's feet.

The homeless man in question is someone I don’t know but have heard quite a bit about.  For the purpose of this blog post, I’ll call him Joe Cambridge. From facts from his life I’ve heard and others that are provided on Joe's public Facebook page -- many of which can be verified from evidence found elsewhere on the Internet -- it is clear that Joe is brilliant and during his prime years as an adult he was an amazing creative person who enjoyed considerable success.

But, over a period of years, Cambridge’s life has fallen apart such that now for the past six months or year or whatever he has been a homeless man who makes use of River District homeless services – in particular Loaves & Fishes and the Mission – to sustain himself, get fed, stay clean and get by. He often sleeps in the Mission dorm.

The discussion that blew up was on the evening of April 10.  Cambridge tells us about it on Facebook. Some of the discussion was easily overheard by the many homeless men in the Mission chapel at the time.

The gist of Joe's complaint is this: Joe was upset by the new policy of ejecting homeless people during chapel for falling asleep in their chair. Joe wasn't himself falling asleep, but a friend was who got ejected. After receiving four warnings, any sleepy homeless guy gets punted to the street, meaning he would miss the evening meal, getting a shower, if he wanted/needed one, and, if he had one, lose his bed in the dorm. Joe wrote in Facebook, "The policy seems to me, mean and ill-conceived, and just plain wrong."

So, Joe went in to see the Night Manager in his office that abuts the chapel to get an understanding of the thinking behind the new policy. "Big mistake," wrote Joe in an assessment in the aftermath of his attempt to broach the topic.  "[The Night Manager] immediately went on the defensive saying that 'you people' (!!!!) are only here because [the meal and a bed in the dorm] is free, he would never hire any of us, if we don't like it we can leave. Not addressing the concern, but going off on a rant on how bad the homeless are. Amazing. Just amazing. I thanked him for his time and got out of there."

There is no excuse for the Night Manager's behavior.

I had a bed at the mission for over a thousand nights during the period of my penniless homelessness, beginning in April, 2008. And during additional nights, when I couldn't get a bed, I came for the sermon and meal.  The primary Night Manager that Joe writes about had the same role going back to before the time I first stayed at the Mission.

During my several years being dirty and out on the street, I went in to talk to the Night Manager a couple of times.  I don't recall my reasons for going to speak with him, but both times he was fully cordial, listened intently to what I had to say and was kind and forthcoming with his responses.

Plaque for the Homeless Jesus statue.
Nonetheless, I learned that the Night Manager wasn't someone easy to approach. He was often very angry about things I couldn't guess at. His is a difficult job, no doubt; there are frequent crazy, intense problems he has to deal with. But while I witnessed him making decisions that seemed very appropriate at ending a confrontation of some sort [including, btw, when he 86'd me from the mission for a two-week period], there were other times he seemed too harsh and lacking in compassion. But, then, my take on conservative Christianity, generally, is that it is too harsh and lacking in compassion.

There was one period of time when an old homeless fellow, Lincoln Smith -- known by everyone at the Mission as "Smitty" -- was having problems. He would get into a bunk bed that wasn't his in the dorm and was cussing a lot. This would cause him to be ejected. Yes, he was drinking, but it was also clear, to me, based on troubles my parents had, that dementia was a factor. Happily, there was a senior guy in the Mission's Rehab Program with whom I could discuss my dementia theory. Smitty's antics were better tolerated thereafter. [I was glad I found the right guy to talk to about the problem who would take up "Smitty's cause," working around the rigid rules and lines of authority such that Smitty was treated appropriately until the doctors and social workers could weigh-in to re-organize Smitty's life.  However, I don't know how much re-organizing got done. Smitty died as a direct result of his alcoholism soon after.]

As to the Night Manager's assertion that 'homeless people only come for the free food and bed,' that is often the case. Some of the preachers come, stand behind the lectern, and spend much of their time berating the guys in the chapel seats. I understand there is quite a lot of that these days. If you insult your audience and don't have a clue about the difficult circumstance of being homeless, you lose people's attention. In sharp contrast to the scowling preachers, there are others like Jimmy Roughton; Rev. Mooney; Juan; and the folks from Downtown Baptist Church; Slavic Trinity Church; Heart Talk Ministries; and others, whose love for homeless folk is clearly real; palpable, even. And the guys in the chapel chairs, then, are most likely to carefully listen to what is said.

But, to be fair, there is certainly a not-insignificant portion of homeless folk in the chapel seats who are not going to be interested in anything any preacher or church person has to say. These folk tolerate the expenditure of one hour in the chapel for the benefit of getting a meal and maybe, too, a shower and a bed. I think this is a circumstance that the Mission has to simply accept. There are going to be uninterested people at every chapel service; it's simply the nature of the association poor people have with any rescue mission. The Mission cannot coerce people to listen to the preachers' messages; that would be unproductive to the goal of saving souls or teaching what the Bible has to say. The Mission should accept that it does something greatly beneficial even when it only provides a poor person with a meal; and/or a shower; and/or a bed. Think of it as goodness for goodness' sake. Think of it in terms of Matthew 25:40.

The second part of this two part series can be found here: "The mission of the Mission and questioning authority, Part II."


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