A couple of weeks ago we had a program at church on the Homeless. Our youth had gotten involved with the problem at one of their mission trips this summer. We had four different mission opportunities this summer, so, if you were a kid at First Presbyterian you couldn’t really avoid one.
They came home ready to talk about the homeless. We had a whole worship service on the subject led by the youth and it was fantastic. The best part was when one of our high school freshmen, Zachary, stood behind the pulpit and boldly challenged our congregation to do something to help the homeless. I know I wasn’t the only person who was pumped and ready to help. Bring it on. All we needed was some homeless people to practice on.
The following week God sent us a homeless man. We called the cops on him.
There is more to the story than meets the eye and, on the whole, I was really kind of proud of our congregation more than I was upset with calling the cops.
It turns out this guy was a familiar face around town. He’s been a regular customer at the local food bank for about a year now and usually spends the night on the town square. So that kind of makes him an old friend. But that didn’t make any difference to our nursery lady Sunday. He scared the shit out of her.
Mitchell is slightly built, has very deep black weathered skin and wears his graying hair in dreadlocks. Now, dreadlocks are a little scary to most people. There’s the word “dread”, of course, which doesn’t help. Personally I find them kind of bouncy and light-hearted. I love the way Whoopie Goldberg’s dreads flounce around when she moves. But Mitchell and his dreadlocks were scaring our nursery lady.
And no one could really blame her. The incident exposed a very basic security lapse. Until Sunday I had never put much thought into the way our building complex is arranged. Our nursery is about as far from the Sanctuary as you can get and still be inside our building. We are a downtown church with every door unlocked on Sundays. And she was alone with a three year old when Mitchell showed up. I might have been a little scared myself.
The police had a brief conversation with Mitchell and left. People started arriving for Sunday School and the problem seemed to fix itself. That’s when I watched how we would treat our first homeless man since Zach’s challenge the week before.
I saw out of the corner of my eye that Mitchell stayed well supplied with doughnuts, coffee, handshakes and conversation. By the time I stopped to talk to him he was in a friendly mood and his only complaint was that he couldn’t get work. I came to the conclusion the guy wasn’t a mental case or a criminal, just an old guy down on his luck. I invited him to come worship with us and he said one of our others members had already asked him that and he was going to sit with him. Before the day was over, he had a stomach full of food, a short nap in our pew and a motel room for the night. All in all, I think we were fairly Christ-like to the guy.
I’m sure the church officers will discuss this at their next meeting. We are torn between the issue of keeping our children safe and our desire to be a welcoming church. We have to reconcile our responsibilities to our children and the woman who cares for them with the bold words of Matthew 25:35 “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
I don’t have the answer. But I found a nationally known program for the homeless called Church Under the Bridge and I’m taking Zach to Waco this weekend to scout it out. I’ll let you know what I find there.
As Rachel Naomi Remen says, “Perhaps the secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company.”