The Homeless and the Role of the Church

“Excuse me, are you in charge?” I asked the elegant woman who was setting up a serving table of hot pasta and bread.  A long line of people snaked around the corner and were already pushing and shoving, impatiently waiting to be fed. 

I smiled and stuck out my hand which she ignored.

“Why?  What do you want?” she responded snappishly.                                                                         

“It’s our first time here.  We’re from Mariners Church in Mission Viejo and we brought some food and clothes too and we don’t want to get in your way.”

The lady rolled her eyes at me and turned her back.  “Do whatever you want,” she barked.”

I was confused.  I had just arrived at the park near the courthouse in Santa Ana notorious for its large homeless population.  Why did this churchy lady who was supposed to be helping the poor act like I was a dog pooping in her yard? 

It wasn’t about a lack of need.  The need was OVERWHELMING.  There were about two hundred people in the small park meandering around.

My group chose another spot on the opposite side of the lawn and set up our tables.  Within seconds another fifty people were crowding around us.  I asked my Marine friends to stand guard while we tried to find a modicum of organization amidst the chaos. 

All of a sudden a frustrated homeless man started shouting there were scammers crowding to the front of the line.  He yelled out “They ‘aint homeless!  You come here to feed us cuz we got no homes and they take all our food and go home to their houses.  They are cheating.  They’re going to steal the clothes you brought for us and sell them at garage sales AT THEIR HOMES.”

Certain faces in the crowd –certain VERY clean faces stared at the ground in shame.

We did our best.  We tried to bring the folks with tickets from the police for sleeping outside to the front of the line and help them out first.  People argued and shoved and I tried to be stalwart when my heart-felt like a squishy noodle.

A little later some of the homeless girls I was chatting with pointed to a woman with four nicely dressed children taking off with about six bags of our clothes. They claimed she was a known garage sale scavenger and in her arms was my prized collection of baby clothes. 

NOOOOOO!

They were Kolby’s first sleepers and handmade diaper cloths and I actually cried while packing the bags –trying so hard to trust God and to let go of stuff. 

And now here was this lady –this garage sale troll stealing my baby clothes from the people in need to sell them for profit. 

So I confronted her.  She played dumb and pretended to not speak English and I stood there feeling pissed off and helpless. 

Do I take my clothes back or do I trust God for justice?

And so I let them go but my spirit started churning.

When I got home I debriefed with my husband and he explained the reason why the other church didn’t want us at the park was because they make the homeless sit through a gospel session before they are allowed to eat.  And here we were just giving away food and clothes for free.

How dare we intrude with no agenda?  No Jesus shoved down their throats.  We had the audacity to just hang out and meet a microcosm of the need at hand.

It makes me sick to my stomach and yet…

I want to go back with a desperation I don’t understand.  I am dying to return to this septic tank of poverty where people are robbed and beaten up for the clothes we just gave them.  Where the homeless are force-fed Jesus by stupid and obtuse churches.  Where predators exploit the poor and use the system to get free inventory for their garage sale business.  And people without homes are treated like criminals and ticketed while the corrupt steal from them daily.

I want to go back to see Gloria who was so sick she could barely stand and to hang out with Princess who fled an abusive husband and to connect with Joe, the sweet filthy man who did everything he could to take care of his friend before helping himself. 

Joe pointed up to the sky as I left and then pointed to me.  I smiled weakly, not really feeling very Christ-like.  I was furious and resentful at the unfairness of life.

And in this awful place where I wonder where God is…maybe Joe reminded me. 

Sometimes it’s just about showing up.

No room for the homeless in suburbia?

 He caught my eye as I drove up O’Neil Parkway – straggly beard, matted hair, tattered clothes-it was the distinct look of the homeless and my head whipped around in a double take. He staggered down the street, eyes cast downward, muttering to himself.

For those not familiar with my So Cal neighborhood of Ladera Ranch, it is the Disney of master-planned suburbia.  It’s manicured, lush and disturbingly homogenous. Deviation, unless it’s in Christmas light selection is seriously frowned upon. The Ladera association won’t tolerate any brown spots on our lawns and when we left our garbage can outside our backyard fence for a couple of days it provoked an association letter referencing a bylaw stating that no garbage cans can be visible from the street. 

“Oh no…What are they going to do with this guy?” I groaned to baby Kolby in the backseat. She slurped on her pacifier in response.

I tentatively pulled my car over to the right thinking I would stop and talk to the man, but the vehicle on my tail honked at me for blocking the one lane road.  Flustered, I drove on home and told myself I’d stop the next time I saw him, which turned out to be exactly two days later.

I turned the corner on Antonio to grab some nosh before church at the golden arches (yes I know, I’m an egg McMuffin addict) and noticed there were three police cars on the shoulder with lights flashing. I looked around for the cause of disturbance, figuring it must be pretty big to garner soooo much attention, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. 

And then I saw him, the devious criminal in question and my mouth fell open-it was the same homeless man I recognized two days earlier, only this time surrounded by five policemen. The cops had their arms folded and were questioning the man. I stared in bewilderment.  Does it really take a posse of cops to deal with one guy?

After the recent death of Kelly Thomas in Fullerton, emotions are high, even in Ladera Ranch, and the police force are being very careful around delicate issues (like the mentally ill and homeless among our midst). 

I entered the drive-through and picked up my food, straining to see what was happening, and then quickly drove back around.  The police had cleared out and so had the man. I didn’t see him anywhere on the long stretch of road, so he must have been escorted in the back of their car to another location.

Now, Mission Viejo (which Ladera Ranch is a part of) doesn’t actually have a shelter for the homeless.  When perusing the Mission Viejo Homeless Shelters & Services for the Needy website, I noticed the nearest shelter is 13.08 miles away in San Clemente.  This alone is disturbing on so many levels because there is nowhere for the homeless man to go.  Did the cops drop him off at the city border or did they take him to the nearest shelter in another city that accepts the poor?

Ironically, according to a blog contributor from Watchdog.com, Mission Viejo doesn’t have a homeless problem.  “I’ve seen two people passing through who seem to be homeless, but I’m unaware of any homeless person living here. The homeless people I know of (a man and a woman) have mental issues, and they’ve already rejected the idea of going to shelters. The woman told me about her distrust for government and the system. She’s living on the street because that’s where she wants to live.”

In my opinion, if Mission Viejo doesn’t have a homeless problem, it’s only because the homeless are clearly not welcome here. Now, I recognize this isn’t about the police–the cops are just doing their job (and I am so grateful)–it’s a much deeper issue that goes to the very heart of humanity.

It’s as if we, in Ladera Ranch/Mission Viejo pretend the marginalized in society don’t exist, when the truth is-in this economy-we are all merely one natural disaster or bad decision away from being homeless ourselves.  It’s just that most of us have become so skilled in image management you would never know the true state of our financial affairs. 

Much of Ladera Ranch is in debt up to their eye-balls, properties are foreclosing every day and most people are desperately trying to hold onto homes whose value has plummeted by half.  The only difference between this homeless guy and many of us is a credit card and a job we are clinging on to for dear life.  And our coping mechanism may not be in a brown paper bag, but we find it in an old prescription for anti-depressant meds sitting in our medicine cabinet.

And yet despite the overwhelming economic woes, I get the impression, though no one says it out loud, that having the eyesore poor (i.e. homeless) in plain sight might lower our home values (even more) or somehow destroy the neighborhood. I can only guess the film crew for my Real Housewife neighbor would take every precaution to leave the homeless guy out of the shots in our little paradise.

Why are we so afraid of poverty and brokenness? It’s not a contagious disease. Is this really who we want to be- people living in a gilded cage with no room for the less fortunate?

I understand the appeal of a place like Ladera Ranch. It woos me with its Mr. Rogers charm, but a nagging feeling remains, at what cost have we created our idyllic little utopia?

A Picnic with Frank and Chuck

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Gas Stations and Beggars

“Sometimes I would like to ask God why he allows poverty, suffering and injustice when he could do something about it.”

“Well, why don’t you ask Him”

“Because I am afraid that He would ask me the same question.”-Anonymous

                        ***

“Do you have any change? I ran out of gas and my kids and I are stranded,”

Startled, I backed up as the unfamiliar woman cornered me by my car as I filled it with gas.  It seemed like she had appeared out of nowhere and was now only inches from my face. 

“I’m so sorry, but I don’t have any money on me,” I explained, “Just my credit card.”

Sheepishly, she turned, and I started to breathe again when I realized she wasn’t going to rob me. She walked over to her car and my eyes followed her. She climbed in the front seat of a truck and I strained to see if there were kids in the vehicle with her. I didn’t see any, but I certainly wasn’t going to argue with her to cough up the kids before I gave her assistance.

I finished up at the pump and then started to frantically dig through my messy car to see if there were any quarters in the center console I could find for her.

My back was turned to the outside as I frantically looked for the coins, when I felt a light tap on my shoulder.  The hair on my neck rose as whipped around again.

In front of me stood a young blonde man, disheveled and in tattered clothes.  With a sad smile he asked me, “Do you have any money? I am trying to get to the beach.”

I shook my head no and climbed in my car and quickly shut the door.  Overwhelmed and feeling slightly hounded by all of the desperation, I started the car and drove off feeling conflicted and very much like Peter before the rooster crowed.  I suspiciously looked around for a third beggar.

“Ok God, I see them,” I muttered. “I see your people.”

I knew what God was up to. I had recently prayed a scary prayer.  Not the patience prayer (I am not that dumb) but the Bob Peirce prayer (the founder of World Vision). 

I had prayed with determined trepidation (like the great wuss I am) for my heart to be broken by the things that break the heart of God.

And now He was doing it.

Only the night before, I had shared with my husband how I felt God was stirring up in me compassion for the poor and needy.  I felt a sadness and burden for the oppressed that was rather foreign to my crusty and self-absorbed heart.  Every day, disturbing stories were coming across my path that brought me to my knees and a fire of righteous anger was beginning to slowly build inside my belly.

My husband asked me what my part was in this revelation.  I said there were two things.  I felt a tangible distance, almost desensitization from the magnitude of suffering in the world and secondly, I sensed God wanted me to write about it. 

The gas station, by the way, was in Anaheim, not some seedy part of Los Angeles or Santa Ana. Lately, I’ve been approached by beggars in the parking lot of Target in Mission Viejo, and repeatedly by a mother toting a little boy inside the Starbucks in Ladera Ranch.

The tentacles of poverty are spreading closer and closer to the insulated bubble communities we’ve built to keep it out. 

And suddenly, I can’t compartmentalize it all anymore; this mental box of poverty I’ve created that includes mission trips to Mexico and the sad little faces of children in Africa.  It’s not the separate place I make it out to be so I can sleep better at night.  Poverty is all around us and it’s too blatant for me to put it back on the shelf or cross off on a list of benevolent activities I do on a quarterly basis.

Honestly, poverty scares me. More than anything I think it’s the desperation.  Somehow, I’ve equated the poor with violence, and while they often do go together, I know they aren’t the same. Poverty seems to be more about limited options than aggression. But they get mixed up when I avoid the issue altogether.

I am afraid of changing and drawing close, but I am more afraid of doing nothing now that my eyes have been opened.

I wish I had some money with me in the car the other day. Although, reflecting on it later, it’s not like I couldn’t have bought the woman gas with my credit card.  My fear at times is paralyzing.

But next time, well…next time, I’ll be ready for the little tap on the shoulder.  In fact, I’ll be expecting it.

Image: dan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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