"…and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Have a seat here, please," while to the one who is poor you say, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?" - James 2:3-4
What should the church do about overnight guests? Someone is already tenting in the trees down past the dumpsters. A couple has pulled an RV into the lot and "a couple of nights until we get it fixed" has stretched into weeks. The congregation is welcoming, believes in justice, wants to help. But this kind of help is messy and the more we talk, the messier it seems.
As part of the conversation, Adam stands up and tells his story. He talks about a series of losses and missteps, months on the streets turning to years; and then, a moment of clarity while panhandling, when a child put a bag of coins into his hand. At the bottom of the little cache of pennies and dimes was penciled a note, "I hope you have a good day, mister." That, Adam says, is the day he realized that what he missed most was not food or shelter or money, but human connection.
"Sure it's messy to welcome unhoused people," Adam continues, "but community is always a mess. Let's say a person comes to visit the church for the first time, and he spills a cup of coffee. Do you kick him out? Do you stand back, whisper about him? No. Someone grabs a towel to start cleaning up, someone gets him a new cup of coffee, and maybe someone starts telling a story, remembering her first time in worship, when her baby cried and cried but everyone hugged her anyway."
Oh dear Lord, you call us into community and community is so often messy. Even this prayer does not have a neat answer, a clean conclusion. Just an amen.
Jennifer Brownell is the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Vancouver, Washington, and the author of Swim, Ride, Run, Breathe: How I Lost a Triathlon and Caught My Breath, her inspiring memoir.