Time for Lent: Homelessness

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Our Lenten authors today, Beth Miller Kraybill and Ken Kraybill, are Mennonites from Seattle, WA. I had the privilege of studying with Beth at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, IN. At a school forum, Ken gave a presentation that addressed homelessness from both a local and national perspective. The story of how their home church gradually reached out to those on the streets really spoke to me, so I invited them to share their experience as part of this series on caring for others—the heart of peace and justice. I hope you will receive their story warmly. - Jeff Boyd

Learning to Love our Neighbors as Ourselves

Seattle Mennonite Church is an urban congregation that worships in a renovated movie theater in the north Seattle neighborhood of Lake City. On any given Sunday there are 80 to 100 participants. We tend to be well-educated, predominately white, middle-class, and heavily represented by 30-60 year olds. So how did we find ourselves actively involved in a Community Ministry to people experiencing homelessness in Lake City? It started by acknowledging the fact that people were literally sleeping on our doorstep.

The congregation had moved to Lake City in the early 1990’s. As elsewhere in Seattle, a number of people were living on the streets in Lake City. Within a short time of the church’s move-in, some people found a safe haven sleeping in the nooks and crannies surrounding the building. Church members would arrive for Sunday services just in time to see bleary-eyed, disheveled people packing their bedrolls and moving off the premises.

Pastoral and administrative staff began to have daily encounters with people simply wanting to talk, to use the phone, or asking for various forms of assistance. Many congregants learned to know individuals by name. Occasionally someone living outside would come in to worship or to have coffee during the Fellowship hour. Before too long, the church began to host a monthly Sunday evening meal for folks living on the streets.

The congregation’s call to ministry among our homeless neighbors continued to grow. Yet we were not sure how to proceed. We turned to Jesus’ example as described in Mark 10:

Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.”

What do you want me to do for you? That question changed our lives. When we began to ask, rather than assume, what the homeless community needed and to work collaboratively with them, we learned what mattered to them. For starters, we learned that people had access to food but had nowhere to cook or store it. They were interested in looking for day labor or going to medical appointments but had nowhere to securely store their few belongings.

Thus, we began the Stop, Drop and Roll program – a volunteer staffed block of time every Thursday from 6-8am and 6-8pm during which people could bring their belongings to the church in the morning for storage and use the kitchen to cook breakfast. They could then retrieve their belongings in the evening and cook and eat dinner together. Gradually we added more days.

Along with other churches and community volunteers we established a weekly Sunday evening community meal. By 2007, we hired a couple who share a FT position as Pastors of Community Ministry. We now have a drop-in center with showers, laundry, and kitchen open 6 hours, 6 days/week. Within the past year a permanent supportive housing building was built in Lake City and 15 of our formerly homeless neighbors are now housed. We are grateful and yet mindful that eight other people in this same vulnerable community have died in the past two years.

People experiencing homelessness are at risk – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. As one of our Community Ministers states, “Recovery from the trauma of homelessness is long-term work, and our hope is to be patient, goal-oriented supporters of people in that recovery.” God has given us eyes to see, ears to hear, and the example of Jesus to follow. When the “least of these” appeared on our doorsteps we were given scriptural guidance in order that we might respond. We are blessed indeed.

For more information, see the following:

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Today’s action step is to spend some time learning about the 100,000 Homes Campaign. The video and links on the website will provide plenty to think about as you contemplate deeper involvement. Alternatively, call your local United Way to find out what care is currently being given to homeless people in your area and what needs persist.

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Beth Miller Kraybill is an RN of many years who is currently morphing into a chaplain. She will graduate from AMBS in May, 2010 with an MDiv concentrated in Pastoral Care and Counseling. Ken Kraybill, MSW, works for the Center for Social Innovation as a Training and Technical Assistance Specialist in the arenas of homelessness, poverty concerns, and behavioral health.

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