Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Support the Homeless in Downtown St. Joseph

Note: The content of this post was sent out in First Christian Church's newsletter last week. I've been remiss in posting it here.

The St. Joseph City Council will soon vote on releasing federal community block grant funds for the construction of a new homeless shelter in downtown St. Joseph. Community Mission, the partner ministry of Interserv, hopes to build the shelter next to its current shelter for homeless men, Juda House. The new shelter will also serve as a much-needed emergency cold weather shelter during winter months.

I spoke before the council on Monday, April 21 in support of the shelter along with other supporters of the proposal and even a former Juda House resident who has turned his life around thanks to the care and support he received. I was very proud and grateful that a number of First Christian folks were present to support the shelter. I am hopeful that the federal funds will be approved by the council.

I was disturbed and dismayed, however, by some of the comments made by a few of the council members. They repeated anonymous complaints about homeless people downtown and baseless concerns that another shelter would only attract more homeless people to St. Joseph. In their remarks, the council members in question referred to the homeless people in St. Joseph as if they were a problem to be done away with rather than as people to be cared for and supported.

As Christians, I believe we are not only commanded by God to care for people on the lowest rung of the economic ladder but we are also commanded to speak out on their behalf to people in positions of authority. Below, you will find the text of a letter I mailed to council members last week that explains my support for this shelter. I encourage you to speak out in favor of this shelter as well by either writing your council member or sending a letter to the News-Press. I believe that a polite and courteous letter by a concerned person of faith will send a strong message about what kind of community St. Joseph should be.

Grace and Peace, Rev. Chase Peeples

Dear ______________,

I am writing to urge you to vote on May 5th in favor of Community Mission’s two (2007 & 2008) grant requests for CDBG-Home funds for the construction of the St. Joseph’s Haven homeless shelter. Since coming to St. Joseph 15 months ago to serve as pastor of First Christian Church, I have been deeply impressed with and appreciative of the wonderful work carried out by Community Mission and its partner agency Interserv. They remain at the forefront of caring for the people in greatest need in our community. I believe that the plan to build the Haven shelter is excellent and that it addresses the needs of chronically homeless people which have gone underserved in the past.

Since I serve a congregation that has chosen to remain in downtown St. Joseph, I have had regular contact with individuals in need of shelter. Especially during this past winter, each week brought a new person or persons to our doorstep in need of a place to escape the frigid temperatures. Phone calls to the shelters in town routinely found them filled to capacity due to the overwhelming need. On a trip to deliver food to My Brother’s House, the emergency cold weather shelter, on one particularly freezing winter night, I found a group of men and even some teenage boys that was much larger than I had expected. The need is great and the agencies in St. Joseph that work to help homeless people strive valiantly to shelter everyone in need in spite of limited budgets and overworked staff, but the need exceeds the resources that are currently available. I shudder to think what the consequences will be if the Haven shelter does not become a reality. I predict that if the Haven shelter is not built, given these difficult economic times, St. Joseph will begin to find individuals frozen to death on its streets in winters to come. The planned Haven shelter is literally a matter of life and death.

In my short time here in St. Joseph, I have continually been impressed with the quality of individuals from area social service agencies and ministries, and as a member of the religious community, I am grateful for their difficult work caring for people who are often considered society’s castoffs but whom are deeply loved by God. At the same time, I have been disappointed with the lack of leadership provided by the city government and business community in addressing the systemic needs of people on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. The number of individuals suffering from mental illness, addiction, homelessness and chronic poverty are astounding for a community of this size, and the spotty history of addressing these needs in a broad-based and system-oriented manner is quite troubling. Approving the grants for the Haven shelter is a way for the city council to begin reversing a trend of long neglect by the St. Joseph city government and to demonstrate true leadership in addressing some of the greatest concerns of our community.

I would leave you with an anecdote that I hope will demonstrate the human dimensions of what is at stake in the vote for or against funding the Haven shelter. This past weekend I participated in an event that was organized and carried out by the men staying at the Juda House shelter for homeless men. I and other concerned members of downtown congregations joined approximately 25 homeless and formerly homeless men in picking up trash and litter around the downtown area. We filled two dumpsters full of garbage. The men from Juda House wanted to carry out this project in order to demonstrate to leaders in government and the business community that they are capable of giving back to the community when provided with support and shelter. Furthermore, I believe they wanted to demonstrate that they were people of worth—people just as worthy of respect and help as those who live in expensive subdivisions on the east side of town. They desired to be seen as human beings rather than as nuisances or problems. These men demonstrated to me and many others that they are worth investing in rather than discarding. I believe that if you can come to understand the men who will be served by the Haven shelter as human beings who are worthy of care and respect, then voting for the approval of funding for the shelter will be an obvious action to take.

Thank you for your consideration of my appeal and for your service to our community, especially the men, women and children who lack a place to call home.

Grace and Peace,

Rev. Chase Peeples

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Video of the "Keep It Clean Army" at work

In my last post, I wrote about working to clean up the downtown area with homeless and formerly homeless men who called themselves the "Keep It Clean Army." KQ2 picked up the story, so if you're interested in seeing video of the event click here.

Grace and Peace,


The "Keep It Clean Army" (Dialogue Column 4.18.08)

The Dialogue is the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter. I mention it just so that folks who read the snail-mail version can skip this post if they've already read it.

On Sunday afternoon, I spent some time picking up trash around downtown St. Joseph. This is not an activity I do every day. Even more unusual was the fact that I was doing it alongside people who have called those same streets and back alleys home. In addition to some members from First Christian and other downtown churches, the majority of the people cleaning up the streets of downtown St. Joseph were men who were living in the Juda House shelter or had lived in that shelter before successfully finding homes of their own. The event was initiated, planned and carried out by these homeless and formerly homeless men. The rest of us were along for the ride.

The way this all came about, so I’m told, is Roger Lenander, pastor of First Lutheran was down at Juda House talking with the staff there when some of the residents got in on the conversation. The shelter is up for Community Block Grant funding and there is some resistance to the shelter in city government and downtown business leaders. One of the main complaints is that homeless people in the downtown trash the area. These men know what is said about them and their friends, so they wanted to do something to change people’s minds. The men came up with the idea to call themselves the “Keep It Clean Army.” An idea was born, and the 25 or so homeless and formerly homeless people who showed up to work and the two dumpsters they filled up with trash demonstrate that they were serious
I usually crash and take a nap on Sunday afternoons, but I decided to get up off my sofa and join in with the work, because this seemed like the right thing to do. In churches, we read about God’s concern for the people considered “the least” in society and we recognize Jesus’ teachings to care for them, but rarely do we act upon what we preach. Furthermore, when we do acts of service or charity, we do so while viewing the people helped as somehow less than us. We fail to acknowledge their essential worth as a human being and child of God just as we fail to admit that in God’s eyes we are of equal worth to them. It is extremely difficult to take off the blinders of class and income.

As we worked together and afterwards shared a meal of hot dogs, potato salad and chips, I found these homeless and formerly homeless men to be people rather than a cause or a statistic or a burden to society. It seems that despite my beliefs about caring for those in need, I always need to be reminded that each individual living at the bottom rung of society’s ladder is a real person with a family, friends and dreams. Most of the men I met struggle with one type of addiction or another; many of them have on-going medical problems. Some of them have been on the streets for years. Yet, each of the men seemed to appreciate someone looking them in the eye and talking to them with respect. They appreciated that there were ministers and church members who would work alongside them—honoring the work they could do—rather than treating them as someone to preach at or offer charity to.

I have had many occasions for ministry with and to people who are society’s castoffs. Each time, I have a sense that such work is right where I need to be, not so much because I am a minister of the Gospel of Christ but because I am a Christian who claims to be living out the Gospel of Christ. I believe that every Christian should be spending time working for people in deepest need, because that is where Jesus would be were his earthly ministry to take place in current day St. Joseph. Indeed, that is where Jesus’ spirit is to be found today.

In its long and rich history, First Christian Church has at times been at the forefront of ministry to those in greatest need in St. Joseph. Some of the programs and ministries now in place had their start among our church’s members. As the current pastor of First Christian, it is my intention to lead this church back to the front lines of working with the poor, the hungry and the homeless of our town. For any such move to have a lasting effect, however, the people we are commanded to care for cannot be treated as mere causes or charity cases. They must be treated as people worthy of having a relationship with. I’ll let you know when I hear about the next time the “Keep It Clean” army is on the move.

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Is the Bible a good read?

Some time last year, I came across the blog by David Plotz, one of the editors of Slate.com, called Blogging the Bible. Plotz, a Jew, decided to read straight through the Hebrew Bible (what Christians often call The Old Testament) and offer his take on it from a literary critic and professional pundit's perspective. His whimsical and often hilarious thoughts are a lot of fun--not to mention that he points out so many things that happen to be in the Bible that nobody ever talks about.

He was interviewed today on the Bryant Park Project--a really great NPR show that is only available on the web to people in the Kansas City area--and it's a nice introduction to his blog.

He pointed out something that I had never thought about before--when Noah makes land after the flood and has saved two of every animal, what's the first thing he does? He sacrifices animals to God. There goes a species! How sadly ironic that the animals in question survived the deluge only to be sacrificed when they make land!

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A Poem That Reminds Me of Church (Dialogue Column 4.8.08)

The Dialogue is the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter. I mention it just so that folks who read the snail-mail version can skip this post if they've already read it.

I was going about my normal morning routine when I realized Garrison Keillor was preaching the Gospel. The brief daily radio program, The Writer’s Almanac, was on in the background, and I was only vaguely aware of his words about today being the anniversary of the WPA Writer’s Project’s beginning, the birthday of Seymour Hirsh and other stuff I should probably know more about. Then for some reason my ears perked up for the poem of the day, and that was when I heard the Gospel.

He read a poem by Matt Cook entitled The Waitresses, from his book Eavesdrop Soup.

The waitresses

At the restaurant
Have to keep reminding
The schizophrenic man
That if he keeps acting
Like a schizophrenic man
They'll have to ask him to leave the restaurant.
But he keeps forgetting that he's a schizophrenic man,
So they have to keep reminding him.

I don’t know a lot about poetry, and I have never heard of Matt Cook before, but his poem seems like a parable that the church needs to hear—the church in a universal sense and our church in a particular sense.

In the poem, the waitresses expect their customer, who has a mental illness, to act like a good customer—or at least what they understand a good customer to be. Yet, the man in question cannot help but be anything other than a man with a mental illness. Those whose job it is to serve have decided that only certain people—people that meet their expectations—are worthy of service. Do you see where I am going here?

How often do churches, including our own, preach and teach the hospitality and grace of Jesus while they practice a form of warped Christianity that only welcomes people like themselves? Our culture is filled with people who are not welcome at church; the list includes people like the man in the poem who suffer from mental illness, people who struggle with addictions, people who have made past mistakes, people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered, people who hold unpopular political views, people who ask too many questions, people who are poor, people who are homeless, people who speak a different language—the list goes on and on and on.

I believe that First Christian does a better job than most churches of welcoming new people of all different kinds, yet our standard cannot be what other churches are or are not doing. Our standard must always be Christ who welcomed all to his table even though his fellow diners were far from perfect. We must continue to struggle with our own prejudices if we seek to be the community of faith that Christ intended us to be. Such a struggle involves change—which is often frightening—but oftentimes the most difficult changes we make are the best ones.

I am proud of the welcome that First Christian offers to those who enter our doors, but I also believe that God is far from finished when it comes to stretching us and making us into a community that offers the grace and acceptance of Christ.

Grace and Peace,


R.E.M. finds their religion--sort of

I listened to the great Athens, GA rock band R.E.M. back in the day--well sort of, back in the day--I barely escaped being a total poser. I caught on to R.E.M. just before they hit the mainstream with their 1987 album Document. I soon caught up with their earlier work and fell in love with their sound. In my opinion, the band both peaked and started downhill with their 1991 album Out of Time, which had the truly great song "Losing My Religion" on it. Despite some notable exceptions, their next few albums lacked the unpolished mystery of their earlier work, sounding more like an established and over-produced pop band. Once their original drummer Bill Berry left the band in 1997 and they signed a huge multi-million/multi-album deal with their record company, I got the feeling that they really were just phoning it in and collecting their royalties.

I may have to give their new album Accelerate a listen, however, given a recent interview they gave NPR. In it, they commented on the religious themes of the new album, along with political thoughts about war and hurricane Katrina. Although none of the remaining three original members are particularly religious, they are from the south where religion is ubiquitous. So, I'm interested to see if the band that famously lost its religion (actually "losing my religion" is a southern colloquialism for being at your wit's end) may have decided to explore the topic. The interview is worth a listen.

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, April 2, 2008

CHRIST AT THE POST OFFICE (Dialogue Column 4.1.08)

The Dialogue is the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter. I mention it just so that folks who read the snail-mail version can skip this post if they've already read it.

This morning I witnessed a dispute at the post office. A frustrated man was not getting the answers he sought at the counter, but in the clerk’s defense, it was far from clear what exactly he wanted, much less what he expected the post office to do about it. As he stormed away from the counter, he yelled an obscenity at the clerk. When the door shut behind him, I made awkward eye contact with the clerk, since I was next in line.

I assured her that I wasn’t going to call her any names, and I was gratified to see a small smile come out on her face. She explained to a coworker what had happened while she helped me, and I chimed in that from my perspective, she seemed more than patient with the man. As I turned to leave, I complimented her on handling a difficult situation in a calm and pleasant way. My prayer as I left was that my words helped to encourage her a bit and that one upset customer would not ruin her day.

I also offered a quick prayer for the man who had been upset. He didn’t appear to be deranged, but rather he seemed upset, as if he was already at the boiling point before he made it to the post office. I wondered what experiences he had this morning that got him to the point of boiling over. I wondered if he had known any kindness at all in recent days.

My mother-in-law has a quotation at the bottom of her e-mails that I try to remember. It reads, “Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.” This quotation is a reminder to herself and a confession of her own daily stress that comes from caring for her disabled father. You never know what battles a person is fighting or what kind of pressure he or she is under. It may or may not be visible when you encounter them at the post office, a restaurant or even at church. I don’t know what, if any, battles the clerk at the post office is fighting anymore than I know why the customer before me was so disgruntled, but I figure both could do with a little kindness.

In this Easter season, we read the stories of Christ’s appearances after his resurrection. He pops up everywhere—behind locked doors, on the beach, on the road, etc. You never know where the resurrected Christ is going to appear next. When Paul reflected upon the power of Christ’s resurrection, he wrote that we who claim the name of Christ become Christ’s presence for one another and for those we meet as we go about our daily lives. When we meet a stranger along the way, there may very well be the opportunity for us to smile, offer encouraging words and to exhibit the grace of kindness to them. God may use us to offer a bit of healing to someone fighting a battle which leaves them depleted, angry and hurt.

The power of the resurrection means that if we are open to God’s healing work then anywhere and at any time Christ may appear to others through the small kindnesses we offer to them.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Interviews on Black Theology

I listen regularly to the NPR program Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and although I really like the program and its host, I have to admit that I feel a real weakness of both is its treatment of religion. Usually there's an interview with whoever has the latest book out, and there is little if any understanding on the part of the show or Gross about whether this person is really a credible scholar or even really is qualified to present the usually controversial viewpoints being offered. Yeterday's show was an excaption.

Yesterday, Gross interviewed two scholars of Black Liberation Theology, and she did exactly what the show does at its best, namely bringing to light the real background information that is driving current events--events only covered in a shallow way by the media. The first interview is with James Cone, who originated Black Liberation Theology, a professor at Union Seminary in New York City. The second one is with Dwight Hopkins, a professor at Chicago Theological Seminary, and a member of Trinity United Church of Christ, where Jeremiah Wright was minister. Both give a detailed understanding of this theological viewpoint and provide a context for the words of Jeremiah Wright--words that have been lifted out of their context within individual sermons and within their cultural context.

It's well worth a listen.

Grace and Peace,