A resident carries a wooden pallet to his tent as the rain begins to fall on Tent City4 in Woodinville, Wash. The pallets are used to keep the tents off the wet ground. Kevin P. Casey photo.
It's been nearly 2,000 years since the Apostle Paul, a tent maker by trade, drew upon his professional vocabulary to explain the realm of God: "If this earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in the heavens, not made by human hands."
But in August, it was Northshore UCC in Woodinville, Wash.,—a church with a down-to-earth conviction about that heavenly promise—that offered an eternal measure of hospitality to a community of homeless campers whose earthly tents, quite literally, were being destroyed. Like Jesus, "they had no place to lay their heads."
In late July, about 100 homeless persons in the Seattle area were living in a makeshift tent encampment in a lot next door to St. Brendan Catholic Church in the residential community of Bothell, Wash. But when the city sued the Catholic parish for alleged improper use of its church-owned property, a new host site had to be found.
For a while, it appeared, no one wanted the marginalized, tent-dwelling residents in their own back yards.
That's when Northshore UCC offered its controversial welcome—an invitation for "Tent City4," as it's called, to use the church's property in residential Woodinville, about three miles away. It was a proposal that triggered anger among many in the suburban Woodinville community.
"We invited Tent City4 to use our property. É and two contentious meetings were held with neighbors [in Woodinville]," recalls Dennis Lone, moderator of Northshore UCC. "There was a lot of hysteria that these [homeless] people were criminals, and that people wouldn't be able to go outside at night. One woman even said she wouldn't be able to let her cat out of the house."
But, ultimately, Woodinville's city government stepped forward with a solution. It would offer a more-suitable, city-owned site for Tent City4, as long as Northshore UCC would serve as a sponsor-of-sorts for the city's new tent-dwelling residents. The church agreed, and the Tent City4 community accepted the land offer.
"We signed an agreement with the city, a temporary use permit," Lone says. "So even though they are not on our property, we are the sponsoring agent in the city's eyes."
Now, Northshore UCC finds itself expressing its long-standing commitment to radical hospitality in new-found ways. Church members and other volunteers helped 80 of the 100 residents move to the new site. (Twenty persons found other places to relocate.) The congregation built standalone showers on the site and members have been providing regular meals for residents. They also are recruiting other community organizations to get involved, because the current location likely will be utilized by Tent City4 residents for at least 100 days.
"We are recruiting people to support Tent City4," Lone says. "This has been an important lesson. Homelessness is a community problem, not just a church problem. So we want to find any individuals who want to become involved with this."
The Rev. Paul Forman, Northshore UCC's pastor, says that support among his congregation for Tent City4 has been "overwhelming." Forman, himself, is providing pastoral care for Tent City4 residents. He recently presided at a wedding service for two of its residents.
"I think we understand it as a religious obligation," Forman told a local newspaper. "We're a church that is open to everyone regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or economic circumstances. It's walking our talk."
When asked how the church's acts of justice and mercy have affected life inside the congregation, Lone says it's been a bit too hectic for much religious reflection at this point, even though, he says, their pastor has been providing theological underpinnings in his weekly sermons to bolster the congregation's spirits.
"Honestly, I think we've been so busy we haven't had time to reflect," Lone says, "but attendance is up. People have been coming who normally would have been skipping in the summer."
But Lone still has a sneaking suspicion that his church has latched onto something good, even though the full measure of this learning experience is still in process.
"I do know this is exactly the right thing for the church to be doing," he says, "even though I'm not sure in exactly what way, if that makes any sense."
"I mean, how often do you get an opportunity to do something like this?" Lone asks, reflectively. "We had the opportunity to do the right thing and we stepped up and we did it. How often does the opportunity present itself to do the right thing?"