I just call them my friends
We, The Exalted Son of the Resurrection and I (The ESOTR – that’s my husband, seriously, that is what his name really means) had a great time visiting The Refuge a few nights ago. They are a close knit community (aka a “church”) that practices shared leadership and shared lots of things. Their description of themselves is: an eclectic faith community, all equal, love jesus, pretty messed up, lead, follow, laugh, cry, serve, co-pastors, stories of brokenness and healing, and smoker friendly. They are delightful.
We were invited to come on a night when two pastors from Portland, Oregon (and who happen to be married to each other) were visiting and sharing their stories. Four churches (including ours) were represented that night. That seemed significant to me, especially in line with what Ken, pastor of HomePDX, related to us during the evening. (You can read some of their stories at this blog. And you can check out the ministry of his awesome wife Deborah, who is a pastor at The Bridge.)
He pastors “those who live outside” in the city of Portland. An insightful person asked about the appropriate word to use to describe the homeless, without being dehumanizing. Ken says, “I just call them my friends.”
Ken friend’s are always kept off guard, always knocked off center by the Portland police. Ken makes no judgment of the police and their duties. To allow this group to coalesce could foster gang mentalities, perhaps posing a threat to everyone else. So, they are often woken in the middle of the night and forced to move along, and when that happens they have only a few minutes to gather their belongings. What they can’t gather up is shredded and tossed away, so often what few things they are able to accumulate (like warm sleeping bags) are lost. They are continually pushed out to the boundaries of the city and back again. There is no place to settle.
Yet, they come to “church”. Ken told us that they used to bring a couple hundred bottles of water for their gathering and the first 50 people would take them all. They were used to hoarding and just trying to survive. This story reminded me of the haunted eyes of a formerly homeless friend of mine who once told me, “You couldn’t make it out there.” “I think you’re right, Joseph,” I replied. I find their way of life frightening. So did Joseph. But something is happening as this group becomes a church- now they may have 150 people and 200 bottles of water, but there will be some left over. They no longer compete and grasp out of fear. Despite the constant grind of survival, they consider one another first. Despite the ongoing chaos of their lives, they are bonding.
Ken described one young man who was only known as “Whisper” because he spoke so softly. Life had already stolen from this young man the power of voice -and perhaps the belief that he can make any impact on his world at all. Ken would sit with him, most often in silence, and sometimes Whisper would just walk away without explanation.
Then one day, a hug and a new whisper: “My name is Chris”. A connection made in a stark, back alley of the city. A young man coming back to himself. A group of people who expect to be treated as throwaways are learning to trust. Community.
This church of ragamuffins has not been created by the strength of a personality, preaching, or a program. Pastor Ken himself will confess how brief is his own success with sobriety. He is no superhero, though he has a heart like one. Do we scoff at how simple is sounds to say that this church has truly been forged by love?
There’s a few things to ponder here as the global economy continues to screech to a halt and fear rises, and racial threats increase against our new President, and churches continue to compete and judge and batten down the hatches amidst all the chaos of this world. People are seeking an anchor in the storm. We all desperately need a way to drop our defenses and unify. We would do well to allow ourselves to be tutored by Ken’s friends – the least of these.
Copyright © 2005 Deb Hoeffner
Used by permission of the artist.