- St. John Chrysostom
Wow! Talk about fire and brimstone preaching!
And people think I’m harsh.
Jesus never said, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for life!” Confucius said something like that. A lot of people who don’t like to give alms quote that. Ironically, a lot of right wingers say it to oppose food assistance programs and other aid programs. I say, ironically, because they are the same people who oppose support for public education. We all know the grain of truth in the saying. The problem is, that it has been turned into a slogan to advocate against direct aid to poor and starving people, including children.
Jesus did say to give to whoever asks of you and to not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing when you give to the poor.
There is a grain of truth in Confucius’ saying. That is that a man will be better off if he has some skills. I don’t think he meant to say withhold the fish until he learns to catch one himself, even if there is no river or lake or pole or line or hook to be had. This reminds me of something a wise African (again, not Jesus) said, “Empty bellies have no ears.” But there is only a small grain of truth in Confucius’ saying. I don’t use it at all. It is not part of my vocabulary, because I find it generally demeaning and paternalistic.
Just because a man is poor does not mean he knows less than me. I know a homeless man who went to Yale and is articulate and sharp. Odds are, he could teach me more than I could teach him. He is of African descent. I am of European descent. I have friends with means who can rescue me when I get into trouble. He does not. He does not have a chip on his shoulder, though. He is cheerful and proud in the best sense of the word. It is a small thing to share some food with him for what I receive in return. I know veterans who have never been able to reenter society fully after combat. They have life skills for coping on the street without harming anyone and actually making it safer for many who are less aware. Do we make them jump through our hoops or do we just respect them for who they are and share God’s bounty for what it is? It is God’s bounty, is it not? “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof.” We need to stop arrogantly and greedily thinking that it is our own to hoard and not to share. I am crying now. I will stop.
During Lent, there are a lot of retreats. At The King’s Jubilee, we never retreat. Yes, we go to services and pray and meditate, but we don’t let up in our service to poor and homeless people. Lent is a time for the church to advance in almsgiving. People remember the services. Do they remember to do service? Parishioners remember to fast. do they remember to give alms?
Make a monthly pledge to help end the shame of homelessness in Philadelphia.
When I say shame, I do not mean shame on the homeless. It is a shame on us as a society for being so mean spirited that we would rather have three vacant houses for every homeless person, and we will let them go to waste based on false notions of private property, glorification of greed, and lack of creativity and sense of common humanity.
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
- Isaiah 58:6-12
February was a blur. First, I was sick with the flu and bronchitis so bad that I could hardly do anything for two weeks. Bethann got it, too, not as severely, but with the bronchitis. On the 17th, we were both going to make it to church for the first time in three weeks. She sat up on the edge of the bed and told me she thinks she is having a heart attack. I got her some aspirin and water. We got dressed and I rushed her to the ER. It turns out it was very bad atrial fibrillation. She was in the hospital until Friday. They installed a pacemaker on Thursday. We did make it to church on the 24th.
On Thursday, February 28, we made soup and I got supplies and went to Giant to get the iced tea. In fact, that is why I was a little late getting to the city. I was a little disoriented, not focused on the fact that it was Thursday, for the entire day. I know that sounds funny and it is, but our life has been that disrupted by various forces and events lately. Serge and Alex and Serge and Alex (that’s not a typo, two different families) dropped off sandwiches. Brian came and we headed down to the city. When we arrived, I realized that it was the last Thursday of the month and the people of Holy Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church made the soup and brought the iced tea and cups, etc. I said to Brian, “I’m an idiot. Leave the soup and iced tea in the car. Just grab the sandwiches. I forgot which week it was.” I let Fr. Chris know what I had done and told him that if he ran out of soup, we had plenty more!
They served the line. Everyone got plenty. A little bit after we got there, Linda Notskas arrived with blankets and quilts and a few coats from St. John Chrysostom Albanian Orthodox Church. We helped her give those out. She had a car full, but she felt heart broken that she didn’t have more. She is such a sweetheart. God bless her.
Well, the crowd cleared. We packed up. We said our goodbyes to the folks from Holy Annunciation. They shared their well wishes and hugs for Bethann. We were just about to get into the TKJ-mobile, when Alex came over. (the 3rd Alex of the evening) I was so glad to see him. I had his cellphone, which he had arranged to have mailed to our house. I asked him if he wanted soup. He was surprised we had any left, so I told him the sorry tale of my forgetfulness. One thing led to another. We had several more stragglers. It turns out there had been a lecture at the Free Library about the persistence of poverty in America that a number of the guys attended. They missed our normal serving line. We ended up giving away well more than half of the soup and all of the iced tea. The guys were very appreciative. They had made a difficult choice to go to this lecture and discussion, but had chosen long term edification and hope for progress over a hot meal. God used my absentmindedness to be the ram in the bush to provide for them and bless them for their wisdom.
“But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.”
- 1 Corinthians 1:27
When I started this ministry, 24 years ago, I had been a Mennonite prison chaplain who was also ordained in the New Jerusalem Pentecostal Holiness Church. The King’s Jubilee actually started in State Correctional Institution at Graterford in the Saturday morning E Block Bible study. E Block was the quarantine unit at the time, where inmates first came into the state system to be sorted out to be shipped to the various institutions where they were to do their time.
Things had gotten funky with the Mennonites. One of the pastors who had founded the prison ministry I supervised threatened to kill me when I would not allow him to bring contraband, inflammatory literature into the Montgomery County Correctional Facility. We went through a conflict mediation process. Everyone there agreed that he was in the wrong, but he would not budge or admit any wrong. In the end, it was a case of if you ain’t Dutch you ain’t much, and I was fired the week before Christmas, even though I had given three months notice so they could have an orderly transition and not damage or lose ministries. They did not care. The ministry in Philadelphia with over 300 volunteers and the only tutoring for women was shut down. Chaplain Sid Barnes at Graterford let me keep the Wednesday Bible Study and the Quarantine Unit ministry, because I had been the most faithful in them. In the case of the latter, I had started it. It was in this Bible study that the vision for this ministry was formulated. It is the vision of Christ’s first message in the synagogue, which was taken from Isaiah 60, “to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord!”
Yes, we serve meals to homeless people in center city Philadelphia, but that is not all we do; and that is not all we have done or all we hope to do! Serving the homeless in center city was the task the men in the E Block Bible Study particularly assigned me to do. You see, I told them that no one in this organization I was starting was going to just sit on a board and Monday morning quarterback. Everyone was going to be on the front lines. Furthermore, I wanted them to tell me where I should serve. Within five minutes, 150 convicted felons came to consensus, with no input from me, that they wanted me to serve the homeless in center city Philadelphia. If any of you know this demographic, you should recognize what kind of miracle this was. I took this as my “Macedonian Call”. I started to serve one night a week and have not found a good reason to quit. During Mayor Wilson Goode’s years, we dealt with the rowdy crack heads and the prostitutes. Fast Eddie Rendell had the police harass us all the time. We were investigated by his undercover units at least three times. Each time, I managed to tell them that we would go to jail rather than stop serving, because we needed to obey God rather than men. Mayor Street’s cops tried to tell us that the parks were private property. He was about to aggressively enforce the sidewalk ordinance, when “a routine sweep for bugs” turned up FBI bugs in his office and he had bigger fish to fry. Last year, Mayor Nutter decreed that we could not give away food to poor people in the parks. We had to sue him in federal court to retain our right to do so.
While this was going on, we started a clothing ministry in East Greenville, Clothesline, that continued at Peace Mennonite Church. We also held several music festivals for the poor and homeless in Philadelphia and Pottstown. We served for several years in Pottstown and Stowe, PA. We started a similar ministry at two sites in Columbia, SC, that a local Vineyard church took ownership of. The prison ministry at Graterford continued for several years, until Gov. Tom Ridge stopped all ministry in the prison in a knee jerk reaction to an incident in the mosque there, in 1996. We did Project: Lydia in Northampton County Prison for the women until they did not allow us to include notes or New Testaments. We had a Monday Evening Bible Institute for a couple of years. We started Operation: Clean Start. We have moved countless sets of furniture for people moving into apartments. There have been various other projects.
In 1999, we were chrismated into the Orthodox Church. Our family happened to come into an Antiochian Orthodox Church. The King’s Jubilee remains independently incorporated. I am sorry that I was so zealous, as converts often are, that almost all of our former supporters and volunteers dropped out of the ministry, as they saw this as an “Orthodox ministry.” I don’t know why this is such a problem, because my theology has not changed. When I first interviewed with Fr. Boniface, he kept asking me questions. With every answer, he just said, “You are so Orthodox!” Later, I found out that he was right. I had just read the Scriptures and the Fathers and had been Orthodox in my theology for many years and had just been longing for home. That being said, there is no reason my old friends can not join me. We have had Jews and atheists and Muslims and Methodists and Buddhists and Catholics serve with us and they have been happy as clams. We are not there to proselytize anyone. I still say what I have always said, “We do what we do in Jesus’ Name. If you don’t have a problem with that, I don’t have a problem with you joining us.” “In Jesus’ Name” does not mean that we preach at people. It means that we serve according to His will, with respect, love and dignity.
The occasion of this article is that I had a conversation this week with someone who told me that she wanted her church to support The King’s Jubilee, but wasn’t sure they would, because someone would say, “Well, they are Antiochian. Let the Antiochians do it.” I replied, “That’s stupid!”
We receive no budgeted or regular support from the Antiochian Church. My question to you is: Are you Christian?
This is ridiculous! No wonder the Orthodox Church is going nowhere as far as gospel witness is concerned. People say that it is growing fast in America, but that is only because the other churches are imploding under theological liberalism and gnosticism. There are fewer Mennonites in North America than there are Orthodox, yet they support 1,000 foreign missionaries, while we Orthodox barely support 20. We are going to punish the poor, because I was chrismated in an Antiochian church? Hey folks, I’m not Syrian. I’m not Greek. I’m not Russian. I’m not Serbian. I’m not Armenian. I’m not Ukrainian. I’m not Albanian. I’m not Georgian. I am American. Some of my ancestors have been here since 1628. I am trying to be Christian. I suggest that you try to be, too.
Jesus did not come to preserve ethnicities. He came to “build a new nation.” We have too much that needs to get done to worry about which bishop or which ethnicity or even which denomination or even which religion we belong to. Read Matthew 25. Everyone is surprised at the Judgment!
I’m going forward. I am sick of this Orthodox infighting and the jurisdictional nonsense. If this upsets you, I’m sorry. People are dying homeless on the streets. I think that is more important than whether or not we do things in the Antiochian or Greek or Russian way or not.
Lead. Follow. Or get out of the way.
We serve in Jesus’ Name.
This month marks the completion of the twenty fourth year of The King’s Jubilee ministering in Jesus’ Name. People tell me that this is a feat in and of itself, while I am disappointed we have not accomplished so much more of what we set out to do. One thing is certain, we cannot run the race to win, if we are looking backward.
I think, as Orthodox Christians, we have forgotten this. We are always remembering our traditions and our Traditions. We are remembering our Saints and our feast days and our ethnicities, forgetting that Jesus wanted to take us from many and mold us into “one new nation.” The Saints looked forward to the prize and understood that the traditions are not there to bind us to a dead past. They are there to bind us into the living vine and give us a running start into the future; if we let them. But we need to understand that they are not the end in themselves. They are scaffolding, if you will. The services of the church are not just there to perpetuate the services of the church. That would be a grand Ponzi scheme or like Amway without the soap. Yes they have beauty. Yes they are worship. Yes they have value by themselves, but they are apostolically intended to equip us and save us to DO good works, not to sit around and just be saved.
St. Paul laid out the purpose of the church in his Epistle to the Ephesians, especially in chapter 4:1-15
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord,one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8 This is why it says:
“When he ascended on high,
he took many captives
and gave gifts to his people.”
9 (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. [NIV]
The church is given the gift of “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers”, sometimes called the five-fold ministry, “to equip his people”, the church, ” for works of service”; that’s the part we have been neglecting. Works of service are good works out in the world. The early church rescued abandoned infants who were left to die. They buried the pagan dead, whose families could not afford or risk the time for proper burials. These works are not recorded in our writings, because there were not arguments over them like there were over doctrines and church government, etc. They were recorded in the accounts of pagan witnesses who marveled at the risks Christians would take to do such acts of generosity, compassion and courage for people who were not even part of their faith community. It was the substance of what it was to be a Christian. These tasks are what knit the church together while they were hammering out the other issues. It was the soap.
I have been trying to communicate this for years. Recently, Richard Stearns coined the term in the title of his book which speaks of this very problem: The Hole in Our Gospel. It is not just the Orthodox who are plagued by this blind spot. We tend to get focused on organizational maintenance, instead of mission achievement.
Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” The gates of hell are not going to mess with the church if the church is not doing anything to mess with them. In that case, they are already winning. The gates of hell need to be stormed!
We have a vision to end homelessness in Center City Philadelphia in the next five years. It is very doable. However, it is impossible if we keep acting the way we have been acting and thinking that we can just be happy serving people meals on the street for the duration.
Last year, we had to sue in federal court to keep serving food to homeless people in the parks legal. I received exactly zero support from the archdiocese and the local church to do that. Two parish friends did come on their own to witness the proceedings for one day, but I received no pastoral counsel or encouragement. At the time, I was so involved in the case, my health and focus on the business suffered and we nearly lost our house. If we want to make a difference, we can’t just leave each other hang out to dry like that. I searched for the church for 30 years to have a covering for situations like this, not to be left totally alone like I was. So this ministry making it to its 25th year has been a feat by the grace of God.
The case brought into focus our reason for existence. It is not to serve ourselves and just satisfy our own religious needs to serve the poor. That would be to objectify these homeless people. No. We need to meet them as brothers and sisters like St. John Chrysostom said, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice.” As we serve, occasionally we are surprised by grace and we may even find Christ. In the hearing, I also learned that there are only 170 homeless men and women who live in the parkway area. This is consistent with the number we serve. I say only, because this is a very manageable number to target to help them transition off the street. But we need to do it in a caring, Christian manner, that respects their freedom and their dignity, and equips them with the social network to cope in their new surroundings. I feel there are many in the Orthodox Church, with their immigrant experience, who are uniquely suited to this ministry. There are transferable skills of adjustment.
We need to think on a larger scale than what we have been thinking. We can do so much more. And in so doing, Christ will be glorified! We have always had a motto here: “If we can’t do it in Jesus’ Name, we don’t have time to do it.” That’s why we have never received government or United Way funds and never will. We want to be doing God’s work without strings. God’s work should be paid for by God’s people. Let us set the pace and be the example. If the government likes what they see, they can try to copy it.
If you just want to make yourself feel good about helping people, or want to make the kids in Sunday School feel good about helping people, yes, we’ll take your money and your sandwiches and your power packs. People, this may help communicate a tiny aspect of the gospel to five and six year olds, but it is not the core task of the Church, and it is not the best we can do for the homeless! We need to mature in our faith. We are to be making such a difference in the world that the world takes notice and either wants to be like us or wants to kill us! I can assure you that no one was ever martyred for having chanted the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete perfectly or even near perfectly. But “all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” (2 Tim. 3:12) To “live godly” is to care for the poor and the fatherless, the widows and the orphans.
There were not always homeless on the streets. There is no reason there should be homeless on the streets now, except for the greed of others. We have more than enough vacant homes to house all of the homeless. That is prima facie evidence for a failure of our economic system. But, just in Philadelphia, if we can muster the pressure and creativity, we can restructure the existing resources to end homelessness at a lower cost than what the social service/prison/shelter industry is spending today. We need to work together. We need to be prophetic. We can be the salt and the light that God created us to be in Christ. We need to understand that it is more important to be Christian than it is to be Greek or to be Russian or to be Lebanese or to be Serbian or to be Dutch, etc. We find when we get out into the world and do works of service together, that we are then “built up” and we begin to “reach unity in the faith.”
We are trying to solicit monthly pledges of support, so that we can actually have a reliable base so we can make a difference and start working our plan. We have received a few pledges. Mostly, we have received one time gifts and some people wanting to make sandwiches. Thank you. But we won’t be able to move off square one at this rate.
People have been talking about Orthodox Christian jurisdictional unity in North America for years. What would be the point? Let’s start working together. Let’s make a difference in our world for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Let’s make a difference in Philadelphia, where no one works together! Let us show them how. We will find unity. We will naturally grow together into the head, who is Christ. The jurisdictions will eventually catch up. It may take them a while. They are not used to dramatic forward movement.
Today in history: February 12, 1946: Isaac Woodard Jr., African American World War 2 veteran decorated for courage under fire during service in the Pacific, is beaten by South Carolina police until he’s blind. This is just hours after his honorary discharge from the military. While covered up at first, his case soon became widely known and sparked national outrage, creating an initial spark for the 1950s-60s civil rights and Black freedom movement. While he was still in military uniform on a Greyhound bus from Camp Gordon in Augusta, GA en route to his home, the bus driver cursed Woodard for asking to stop to use the restroom, then pulled the bus over at the next stop and called the police. The Batesburg, SC police beat him, then jailed him and beat him some more to the point of blindness. South Carolina authorities did nothing for 7 months, until Orson Welles, Joe Louis, Count Basie and others started a public outcry.
Woodie Guthrie wrote the song, “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard.”
Finally the pressure grew until Federal indictments were issued against the police who beat him, but they were found not guilty by an all-white jury that deliberated for only 30 minutes. Forced to do something, President Truman then signed Executive Order 9981 on July 28, 1948, abolishing racial segregation in the military.
You may ask why I post this on a site about ministry to the homeless. Most of those whom we serve are African American. These events are within the living memory of many of them and within the conscious memory of all of them, having heard the stories from their elders. We need to honor those who have paid the price and understand that integration and civil rights and access to higher education didn’t come about because enlightened, white liberals generously gave them to them. They were paid for with blood.
I don’t think most people realize that Rosa Parks did not just impulsively decide to not stand up and give up her seat on that bus. She had arduously, spiritually and psychologically prepared for that moment. She had been to an intensive training on social change and non-violent resistance at the Highlander Folk School. The community had prepared for the all too predictable reaction and the plan for the bus boycott was already in place. The stage was set for this soft-spoken, gracious, Christian lady to become the match that lit the fire to burn the whole house of cards known as Jim Crow down!
But old demons have ways of rearing their heads with new guises. Nixon’s “War on Drugs” has led to horrible consequences. It was aimed at people of color from start to finish, even though drug use is higher among whites who have higher disposable income.
Now, with US incarceration rates higher than any nation ever, even those of apartheid South Africa or Stalin’s Soviet Russia, don’t think that the fight for human rights in this country is over! If you are Latino, you are three times more likely than a white man to be locked up. If you are black, you are eight times more likely to be locked up. Yet crime rates don’t follow the same patterns.
We need several more Rosa Parks’s today.