Last night, fall started. Most of us remember the heat and don't trust that the temperature fell below 60 degrees last night. But the trees have been on edge, waiting to shed their leaves. As I drive to St. John's, overnight, the colors on the tops of most trees have turned. It's time. The trees know.
I want to write today about living a truly unique life. I think I'm one of those few who chose his life. God directed me, Diane trained me, but this life I've chosen was mine for the last 20 years. I chose a life of compassion, Diane and I chose to accept the sacrifices required to make it, and we pursued it long enough to completely burn out, unable, perhaps, to take another step. This is the path I chose, I wanted it and followed it to the end. If I died today, I could say that I met all the goals I set for myself twenty years ago (except that I have not yet published a print book). Not many people could say that.
But choosing one's own path, living a unique life, has to have an end. There are pressures everyday to stop living a unique life. To live a life of compassion and empathy. It might seem an easy task, but every social worker and counselor and church planter knows exactly how difficult the task is. There is the burden of taking up other's burdens, which I mentioned in the What's Wrong with Me post.
There is the other aspect of being committed to develop a community of the outcast. To create this community-- a community that respects the disrespected, that gives strength to the weak to make their own positive decisions, a community that honors the independence of every poor person who asks for help-- requires many different groups to create it. In our case, we had a denomination (Mennonite), other local churches, a community of financial supporters (no grants), a group of prayer supporters, churches committed to share a central piece of property, two church networking groups, a few loyal volunteers, as well as many, many homeless people over the years.
Everyone sees this as "my" work, "my" ministry, so they are always asking questions, and I have been just as happy about that. I have in my head a vision for a homeless church community, an idea of what a family house full of the homeless looks like and a vision for a multi-culture, multi-ethnic shared church property looks like. The visions are really detailed, and the direction for some may look petty-- the details that some think are unimportant are essential for the establishing of the vision. It is so detailed that I can't explain it all. It is as if I have three Brothers Karamazov in my head, and all I can do is point at each detail and say, "That fits. That doesn't."
This may sound as if I am a micromanager. I certainly was when it comes to seeing these visions become reality. I know, now, that I can let them go. Even if the stack of cards I laid so carefully out crumbles, I know that the work these three visions accomplished are solid. But if they continue, they must change. Because I won't be there to replace every fallen card. I can't. My fingers are numb.
Developing communities of the outcast, however, are a tough responsibility. Everyone is there to tell you what's wrong, from their point of view. Of course, everyone told me, at some point, that I was wearing myself thin, and I couldn't deny that. But some of the complaints were unique because, ultimately, no one could agree that the visions I had in my head were the right ones. I guess I can't disagree. Maybe another's vision would have been better. But how many visions have we seen come to life like Anawim?
-I remember a church group, who had never (at that time) worked with the homeless, came to me and told me how I should set up my organization like theirs, focusing on a logo, constitution and fundraising. I smiled and said that I appreciated the suggestions, but that wouldn't help our problems.
-I remember a homeless man sitting me down, telling me how I'm not helping the homeless as I should. I need to force more discipline, to require more effort for what I'm giving, otherwise they'll never learn discipline.
-Another homeless man, whom I've never met in person, but was trolling me from Canada, insisted that I was using homeless people for my own profit.
-Recently a police officer told me that I had to tell the homeless to go away, to clean up more (when they were already cleaning) to be more polite (to people who were screaming in their face).
-I had a number of neighbors tell me that I have ruined their neighborhood, that I brought all these homeless people into their neighborhood, when, in fact, I have been inviting the homeless into this same neighborhood for longer than they have been living here. That a church is about welcoming the outcast. That if they thought a church was about quiet judgmentalism, then I'm sorry to have broken their stereotype.
-I had churches who worked with us tell us to tell the homeless to stop being on the property when I wasn't there, because the homeless scared them. I told them that they needed to get to know them, that their parishioners were on the property without them at times, and that they needed to stop being prejudiced against people because they didn't have walls surrounding them.
-I remember, years ago, the police lining up my church in the parking lot yelling at them, and accusing them of stealing and generally being worthless. The officers screamed at me to get into the church building, and I refused so I could be a witness to what they were doing. Twelve officers showed up that afternoon and when the Lieutenant asked for who was in charge at the facility, I said that I was the pastor. He asked, what church are you pastor of? I pointed at the dozen homeless people on the ground, some handcuffed, and said, "This is my church." The Lt. looked at me and said, "You are the pastor?" "Yes." "These people have permission to be here?" "Yes." He shouted out to all of his officers, "This is private property and they have permission to be here. Let's go." And they all left. But not before one incensed officer shouted in my face about how I am enabling criminals in the city.
-I remember when we were renting the same church building from the owners, and the owners decided that my homeless folks were the cause of a recent break in, so they planned to lock my people out of the front of the church (where the bathrooms were).
-I remember being at a "mediation" session between that church and ours, when they were allowed to express lies about our congregation, but when it was our turn to say our peace, they shouted us down, not allowing us to say what was really going on.
I guess what I'm saying is that when you are developing a community of the outcast, everyone thinks you're doing it wrong. And you are the one who ruined everything.
All I can say is, accepting the outcast is a tough job. Putting other people in the place where they have to accept the outcast (even accept themselves) is tougher.