Tuesday, April 15, 2008

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,


No comments: