1/11/2006

Welcoming the homeless individual or congregation

I've been reading the recent posts about sacraments on several Quaker blogs recently.

Here's something of a different angle, comparing and contrasting a local Catholic church with our unprogramed Friends meeting.

My wife Robin M. used to work at St. Boniface Church, a Franciscan parish here in San Francisco, in the low-income Tenderloin neighborhood.

St. Boniface is a vibrant, multicultural parish. They conduct masses weekly in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese, and once a month in Tagalog. They have a neighborhood center that includes a homeless shelter. They are affirming and welcoming to all people, including gay, lesbian, and transgendered people.

The Friars founded St. Anthony's Dining Room next door, and today it includes a medical clinic, justice education workshops for donors, and numerous other services. Finally, the sanctuary itself -- restored and seismically retrofitted thanks to a citywide major fundraising campaign a few years ago -- is welcoming to the homeless, who may sit or lie on the pews, and sleep if they want to, as long as they don't disturb others.

Clearly, this is a congregation where the Spirit is alive and well, and comes through in many forms. And it is, of course, a place where the outward sacraments are celebrated.

It really blew me away recently to learn that an African American Catholic parish, Sacred Heart, which had closed because they were not able to raise funds to restore and retrofit, moved in large part over to St. Boniface to the 9 AM mass. So not only is St. Boniface welcoming to the homeless individual, they are welcoming to the homeless congregation!

To me, then, St. Boniface demonstrates that the path to the Kingdom of God is not a matter of outward forms and sacraments, or lack thereof.

It's a matter of the amount of love and community we create.

So, do unprogramed Quakers, at least at my meeting, do as good a job as St. Boniface? No, but comparing and contrasting our meeting with St. Boniface is not quite fair. For one thing, we don't have as many members and don't have the depth and the staff -- including both men and women religious -- that they do. But it's not a matter of outward sacraments or not. It's a matter of what we do with what we have.

But the question remains, as Johan Maurer has put it, whether or not we put "quakerishness" ahead of our faith? I do think the "Quaker distinctives" have a vital role to play in the wider Church body. Though in the end, the true test is whether or not they bring forth light and love and siblinghood among the brothers and sisters in the meeting....

(The question need not apply only to Quakers, of course. We could ask the same question about whether "Protestantishness" or "Catholicness" or "Orthodoxness" has become more important to some churches than bringing forth light and love within the blessed community and out into the world.)

Would our Friends Meeting be so hospitable? Not at all clear!

When I raise this question, I fear my own meeting falls far short of the ideal. We are located in the low-income South of Market neighborhood. A neighbor of ours, in the residential hotel around the corner from us was recently featured in the documentary, "Waging a Living," about people living on low wages. (Here's an SF Chronicle story about him.)

The front of our meetinghouse has a protective overhang in the rain. For several years we tried to allow homeless people to sleep on our doorstep in the face of city regulations and police officers either discouraging or forbidding same. A man died on our doorstep -- Bobby -- and we held a memorial service for him, and many folks came from the streets. In the end, though, the behavior of the folks was not very helpful either, especially as some of the "regulars" like Louie who helped self-police the looseknit community moved on, and so the practice ended a year or so ago. And we haven't taken any particular steps to interact with homeless people, that I'm much aware of anyway, since then.

We regularly have folks from the neighborhood, both housed and unhoused, stop in, either for worship or just for coffee hour or our monthly potluck. Sometimes we encourage the more befuddled or seemingly menacing folks to move elsewhere.... which is true and practical and yet I'm not sure it's really right. Will we at least try as a community to move in the direction of encountering Christ in "the least of these"? If we are not truly equipped or prepared for that encounter, what then?

And are we not equipped out of fear on our part? or is it just wilting in the face of the sheer, heartbreaking magnitude of some of the problems many unhoused folks face? and which feel way beyond our capacity as a volunteer faith community to deal with in any compassionate way?

I don't know the answers. To engage with the questions is the very least our meeting can do.

1 comment:

Jennifer C. said...

Hi Chris,

For a long time, our Worship Group was sustained, at least in part, by a homeless individual who agreed to come each week and open the door. His faithfulness is an inspiration to me. Sometimes I think, "Oh, I'm too busy to go to meeting today." Then I remember that at least I get to leave my house and drive straight over, instead of riding the bus/walking from the shelter. It is a bit uncomfortable, though, when we chat about what is going on in attender's lives. Is it appropriate to offer him money? Would that be seen as demeaning? But is it okay to do nothing while a vital member of our small community needs help? For Christmas, we gave him cards to Target and Starbucks and bus tokens...