Weaving the Foundation

Passage: Isaiah 58
Date: August 18, 2019
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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Earlier this summer, we were enjoying some time with our neighbors. We live on a corner, and the other folks who live at our intersection love the opportunity in the summer to get out and just visit with one another. An impromptu happy hour sprung up, and we were catching up. While this was going, a couple started setting up camp on the parking strip at a neighbor’s house. And then the conversation really took off.

We had seen this couple by the library for a few weeks; just the two of them, with a train of shopping carts that they would circle up at night, under a tarp, as their little home. I’m sure the staff at the library had asked them repeatedly to move on, and they did – four blocks east to our little intersection.

Some of us talked with them. They choose to live outside, and prefer the quieter east side to the dicier west side. They didn’t want to be a bother, but could they maybe charge their phone? While Gregg and I were talking with the woman, another neighbor, a likeable fellow who is less inclined to allow these folks in his neighborhood, started to harass her; we moved him along.

Complicating the situation was the house where they chose to set up camp. The family who lives there is dear to us, in part because the dad has been living for the past 18 months with a stage-four brain tumor.

What do you do?

I think it is nearly impossible these days for any of us who live in Portland not to see the reality of homelessness in and around our city. You can’t escape it. Shopping carts, tarps, folks sitting at street corners with cardboard signs asking for help – people living without a place to call home are everywhere.

Confronting homelessness can bring out the worst in us – anger at the mess, judgment and condemnation, an impatience that can lead to cruelty. But acknowledging the reality of homelessness can also bring out the good in us – a desire to be generous, a compassion,an urge to change larger systems that allow this manifestation of poverty to persist.

If we take a step back and look at the larger picture, I think the reality of persistent homelessness, particularly here on the West Coast, points to a fraying of the social fabric. A study from the National Institute of Health gives us some historical perspective. 

“In the 1950s and 1960s homelessness declined to the point that researchers were predicting its virtual disappearance in the 1970s. Instead, in the 1980s, homelessness increased rapidly and drastically changed in composition. The ‘old homeless’ of the 1950s were mainly old men living in cheap hotels on skid rows. The new homeless were much younger, more likely to be minority group members, suffering from greater poverty, and with access to poorer sleeping quarters. In addition, homeless women and families appeared in significant numbers. However, there were also points of similarity, especially high levels of mental illness and substance abuse.”

Last January, the city and county conducted their “point in time” survey – on one night, counting the number of people living on the streets, staying in shelters, and living in some sort of transitional housing. The numbers were both positive and worrying.

Compared to the point in time count in 2017, overall homelessness is down 4%, but the number of people of color experiencing homelessness is up by 4%. There are more disabled and older people who are living on the streets. But the number of homeless families with children is down by 50%, compared to 2017, and that is great news.(You can read the entire report here: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/566631e8c21b864679fff4de/t/5d434f685800cf0001847e20/1564692373569/2019+PIT+Report_FINAL.pdf

Why so much homelessness now? There are a lot of reasons: not enough affordable housing, not enough transitional housing or emergency shelter space, addiction, untreated mental illness, poverty,too many jobs that pay an unlivable wage, lack of family support,chronic health issues that go unaddressed,racism that pervades employment and housing practices,a frayed social fabric.

I’ve used that phrase twice now – “a frayed social fabric” – so let me explain by going back to Isaiah.

In the last ten or so chapters of Isaiah, the prophet addresses the people of Israel who have returned to their homeland after living in exile in Babylon for seventy years. During that time, they dreamed of returning to their homeland. They taught their children and their grandchildren about that land, about their God, about their customs.

Finally, they were able to go home, but everything was rubble. Buildings were a pile of stones, the temple was a useless heap, and perhaps worst of all, there was no sense of community. Some people never went to Babylon but lived among the ruins. Two disparate communities – those who left and those who didn’t – were trying to reweave their one community. The prophet needed to remind all of them of who they were, of who God was, and of how God called them to live.

It was not enough that they go through the religious rituals of fasting and praying. That was important but that was not all. The prophet reminded the people that woven into the foundation of their community and nation must be a care for one another and particularly a care for those who were most vulnerable: the widow, the hungry and homeless, and the foreigner. Caring for these was foundational for the people of Israel as they rebuilt, and we see the lasting effects of this foundation in the teachings of Jesus.

This would mean that caring for one another is foundational for us, too. But do some of our persistent social problems, like homelessness, point to a lack of care? Do they point to a fraying of our social fabric? I think so.

First let me say that does not mean I think that you all are uncaring. For the most part, people at Westminster experience love and concern and casseroles and cards when going through some sort of ordeal. Not everyone has that experience, though, and your pastors are aware that some people in our community feel invisible and unheard. We do so well here. And we can do better.

The larger picture tells a different story. Let’s expand our lens to the greater Portland area. Homelessness is one symptom of a frayed social fabric. So is the mayhem of yesterday’s Proud Boys rally. Our crumbling school buildings are a symptom, as is the gentrification and unaffordability of historically black neighborhoods here in Northeast Portland.

It is easy to care about the people affected by these things – to see the woman in her sixties sleeping under a tarp and know that that is so not right, to worry that kids and teachers and staff can’t drink the water out of the school water fountain, to watch our friends at Genesis Community Fellowship – or any other black church – drive from Gresham or Vancouver to go to church instead of walking to church on Sunday morning like they used to.

I will say that the experience of hosting families in our parking lot was eye-opening for me. Last January we joined in a program funded by the city/county Joint Office on Homeless Services and administered by Catholic Charities that allowed people experiencing homelessness to live in their car in our parking lot. Catholic Charities provided the necessary porta-potty, and our friends at Peace House allowed them to use their showers. Various members here did their laundry. We also helped out with Fred Meyer gift cards, allowed their mail to be sent here, shared potluck meals with them, and other things.

Which is to say that Gregg and I got to know these people and learn some of their story. In both of the families we hosted, there were chronic health issues. There was a lack of support from the extended family. Our guests did not experience addiction because that was part of the criteria of their staying with us. Both families had dogs, which might seem like an extravagance to some but was really a way of normalizing the situation and making those cars feel a tiny bit like home.

In both families, one of the spouses worked, but at jobs that did not paying a living wage for this area and at jobs that did not offer any sort of benefits. These families love each other, the way you and I might love our own families, and bicker with them, and hold them up when things are hard.

The fabric that could hold up these folks is frayed. It is expensive to live in Portland, and jobs for people who may or may not have graduated from high school simply do not pay enough money. Families break apart for any number of reasons – emotional immaturity, abuse, a difference of viewpoints that makes conversation impossible. Healthcare is really expensive if you don’t have insurance, and it’s easier to live with chronic issues than go through all the hoops to find affordable treatment.

How do we weave things back together? How do we darn this fraying fabric that is supposed to hold us up so that we can live our best communal life? Oh my goodness, it takes so much time and persistence I’m not sure most of us are up to the task.

But we can work on one thing, confident that others are working on something else.Right now at Westminster, we’re working on a few things that are darning the holes in the social fabric.

  • The Racial Justice Group is offering a film series, as well as meeting to share books and articles and ways to call out race-based hate and prejudice.

  • We continue to support local food pantries and homeless shelters while at the same time, through the work of the Interfaith Alliance on Poverty, to advocate for and work on affordable housing and housing policy that can open up more spaces for more lower-income people.

  • Our support of Living Cully, and their land acquisition fund, is helping to lay the foundation of keeping that neighborhood affordable.

What’s harder to work on are the hearts of people, to urge compassion, to argue for justice not only for some but for all, to train the eyes to see human beings and not problems. Jesus might say that the way to change hearts is to believe fully in this God who throughout the human-divine relationship upholds the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the hungry.

Isaiah might say the way to change hearts is to confront them with their sin, and then open up to them the possibility of God’s grace and new life.

I might say that the way to change hearts is first to admit what is right and what is wrong, and to take a long, hard look at those things. And think about where our own prejudices are, and why they are there, and ask if it’s time to let go of those things. And then look for who is making a difference, and thank them, and join them.

Then, as the prophet says, our light shall break forth like the dawn, and our healing shall spring up quickly; we shall call and God will answer; we shall cry for help, and God will say, “Here I am.”

May it be so.