Great and Holy Friday

It is not lost on us that the ban on outdoor serving of hot, nutritious meals to homeless and other poor people in Philadelphia goes into effect on April 13, Great and Holy Friday. The whole community was given very little warning.  The proposals came out during Lent. There is at least a one month gap where there is no legal provision for outdoor serving and no adequate indoor venues for serving of food. If  all were to comply, what does the city expect this to look like? Let’s see. Hundreds of hungry, desperate people loose on the streets, with nothing but their dignity and freedom left to lose. Dumpster diving is sure to go up. Panhandling is sure to go up. Mugging is likely to go up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the restaurants and convenience stores in center city weren’t mobbed and stripped of some of their food.

How does this improve the health or safety of anybody? My recommendation to anybody would be to stay away from Philadelphia until the city grows a heart and stops this violation of human rights and curtailment religious freedom. It is not going to be a particularly pretty or safe place.

The goal of the city’s plan is to bring all organizations firmly under the city’s control. When that happens, it effectively makes them all city programs. They all become secular. They will be viewed by the poor and homeless as part of the monolith and no longer to be trusted. Their approach betrays a basic misunderstanding, on the part of the city, of the psyche of homeless people. Homeless people are the people who did not respond well to institutions or bureaucracy. The one universal that can be stated about the homeless is that they don’t fit in. It should come as no surprise to the city, yet somehow it did, that those of us who have been serving them for years or decades are a bit like them. I have been telling mayors for decades that the city can have all sorts of great ideas, but there is never going to be one good idea. It will take thousands of good ideas to help the thousands of homeless and poor people we serve. We need multiple approaches.

More important than any approach or any idea is relationship. And all of the city agencies and bureaucracies and shelters and programs are all designed to nip those in the bud.  All of the orientations warn against personal relationships and teach you to keep a professional distance. This is their fatal flaw. Let the professionals do what they do, but what people need more than that is family and community. Among the myriad of volunteers serving on the street, people can find someone with whom they can connect. This relationship can continue regardless of their housing status. People need alternatives, friends, dignity, freedom, family and love.

 “This is just another example that shows that our country is being taken over by control freaks. There seems to be this idea out there that it is the job of the government to take care of everyone and that nobody else should even try.
“But do we really want to have a nation where you have to get the permission of the government before you do good to your fellow man?
“It isn’t as if the government has “rescued” these homeless people. Homeless shelters all over the nation are turning people away each night because they have no more room. There are many homeless people that are lucky just to make it through each night alive during the winter.”   - Hawaii News Daily, March 21, 2012

Pray for us. We intend to continue serving the poor. We also intend to continue to fight these anti-christian mayoral decrees.



God DOES Believe in Atheists

Twice in the last week, at the same stoplight, I have found myself behind the same car with a bumper sticker that says, “God does not believe in atheists.” I’m sure whoever stuck it there did it to be funny and somehow thought provoking. Who knows? Maybe, this is what passes for evangelism these days in evangelical circles. I find it offensive, a slander against God; and I have evidence that it is not true.

About twenty years ago, it was a Wednesday. We used to serve on Wednesday nights in Phila. I led a Bible study in Graterford Prison in the afternoon, Bethann would make the soup and we would go down in Joannie B’s van. Different people would make sandwiches. There were four of us guys who would go down. It was like clockwork. We arrived at JFK Plaza at 7pm. This Wednesday, everything fell apart. Bethann had to go somewhere with the girls or fill in at work, so could not make soup. The usual sandwich makers all called me, one by one, with car trouble, or schedule or money trouble; no sandwiches. Les calls. He forgot that he and Joan and the girls had a thing that night, so no Les, no van. The other two guys call. They can’t come. It felt a little like the opening of the book of Job.

So, like Job, I had a conversation with God. Also like Job, I probably got a little more specific than one is supposed to get in prayer. While I was making a loaf of sandwiches and grabbing a gallon of iced tea and stuffing them into the trunk of my Honda Helix Scooter (Bethann had the car), I was praying that God would send someone who had never been out to serve before with something really special for the guys. Don’t ask me why I prayed that. I don’t know why my brain works the way it does. “Behold I am fearfully and wonderfully made!”

So I head down to the city on my red scooter. I arrive at the Love Park to a line of about 75 men waitng for dinner. I have a gallon of iced tea and a loaf of bologna and cheese sandwiches in my trunk. As I am pulling up, an Electra 225 or LeSabre pulls up and parks. A lawyer gets out. I know he’s a lawyer by the way he walks. (I come from long lines of lawyers, horse-thieves, and circuit-riding preachers on both sides; and since the last two professions have fallen into disuse.) His suit and his car were pretty good tells as well. He opened the trunk of his car and started to take out cases of cold cans of soda, then hot casseroles and shrimp rolls. I asked him if he did this regularly. He said he had never done this before. He was there because he had a client who was supposed to do community service and he just wanted to make sure he did it.

I said, “Praise God! You are an answer to prayer!”

He said, “I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in God.”

I said, “It’s obvious to me that He believes in you.”

We served side by side until everyone was fed and the food was gone. It was a real treat. Once again I told the man, “I thank God for you. You are an answer to prayer.”

Once again he protested, “I told you, I told you, I don’t believe in God!”

I said, “That’s OK. He still believes in you. Thank you.”

I know that the last thing I said to that man is probably offensive to many who may read this. I just thank God I am not God who will separate the sheep from the goats. When I read what Jesus said about the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, the one thing that comes through to me every time is that everyone is surprised. Some of the best Christians I have known, I have later found out called themselves atheists. Some of the most miserable, bigoted, hateful people I have known are firmly convinced they are on the inside track for Glory. Some days, that’s me.

“For peace of the whole world, for the stability of the holy churches of God, and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord.”

We are called as a royal priesthood, not to judge the world, but to intercede for it. Let us not fall into the evangelical trap of sorting everyone into categories of lost and saved; into prospects and allies. People are people. Everone is hurting. None of us has all of the answers. Let’s be honest. Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. I am Orthodox because we let the mystery be.