It is very hard for human beings to move out of our comfort zones of people we know and trust.  A group of psychologists conducted an experiment with 150 people on a weekend retreat.  They told everyone to move into 8 breakout rooms with no more than 20 people in each group.  Those were the only directions given.  Even though there was clearly enough room for everyone to be in a group, everyone reacted with great anxiety to the directions.  In each room people quickly moved to a room, elected or appointed a leader, counted out 20 people and then shut the door to close anyone else out.  They did this even though no one told them to elect leaders or shut the doors.  As much as we think we are free individuals, we come pre-programmed to have a herd mentality where we are quick to define who is part of our group and who is not welcome.  Human being will act with great compassion to those who are defined as “in the group” and yet we will often be irrationally spiteful and destructive to people we define as “outsiders.”

Religion and theology is a major way we define insiders and outsiders.  We will fight and divide over almost anything.  Christians can create schism over one word in a creed, the type of communion wafer, and the songs in the hymnal or even over shoes.  In the 16th century St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, two of the greatest spiritual writers I have ever read, began to reform their Carmelite Order.  They didn’t believe the order took a vow of poverty seriously enough, so they decided to go without shoes to strengthen their vow.  This quickly created a split between the Decalced (shoeless) and the Calced (shoe-wearing) Carmelites.  The Calced Carmelites actually arrested and imprisoned St. John of the Cross for not wearing shoes and scourged him to get him to recant and wear shoes.  During this time he wrote poems that became the basis of his wonderful mystical theology.  Finally five years later the Holy See created a second order of Decalced Carmelites.

Jesus pushes us towards a different pole, towards crossing the boundaries we have made between one and another, and having compassion.  He does this even when invited into a banquet of the supposed most pious people of his day, the Pharisees.  As I listen to Jesus’ words, I hear not just a criticism of the Pharisees, but of the tendency we all feel to cling to who and what we know and marginalize those whom we don’t know and understand.

First, Jesus gives his version of Emily Post’s rules of etiquette.  Don’t clamor for the best seats and risk humiliation when you get moved down the table, but much better to aim lower and be brought up to the front.  Be humble. Don’t be so status and image conscious.  Jesus could have stopped there, with sound advice, but he did not.  Instead, he delivers a far more radical teaching.  If you really want to level the playing field, invite the poor to your own table.

For decades Christian Churches have practiced this open invitation to anyone who is hungry through soup kitchens, food pantries and other feeding programs.  Food programs are one of the few mission programs that conservative and liberal Christians agree upon.  When I ran a shelter in Poughkeepsie we had 30 different groups covering a night of the month, and 90 percent were houses of worship, Catholic Churches, Korean Churches, Holy Light Four Square Gospel Church and justice-conscious liberal churches, along with a couple of bowling teams and a weight watchers group all took a night to make it work.  Just like Cathedral in the Night, every Sunday night here, where churches even come from Pittsfield to serve.  I just got the newsletter article on our last involvement with Cathedral in the Night and I think more people cooked and served than have been coming to church all summer.  Why? Because it is a simple and straightforward way to help.  People are hungry, and we can give food, and Jesus calls Christians to do this.

But here is an ugly shift against the poor in our cities today, just as we have more people in need.  Recently a situation in Raleigh, NC has received great attention through ABC News coverage last week on Good Morning America.  Love Wins Ministries has been serving food for six years in downtown Raleigh, but one morning Rev. Hollowel showed with 100 sausage biscuits and police met him and said a new city ordinance prohibited distributing food in the park.  He would be arrested if he did not cease and desist.

It is heartening to see a great outpouring of support for Love Wins, and I imagine this injustice will get resolved soon, but this is just one case that should not be seen in isolation.
This one incident is symptomatic of a much larger issue. See, across the country, cities and lawmakers are targeting people who are homeless (and those who help them) for arrest and for removal, as the experiences of Food Not Bombs demonstrates as well as this comprehensive report from the National Coalition for the Homeless about food-sharing restrictions.

The list of cities targeting the homeless is long, and it’s not just a symptom of conservatism or of the Deep South. This targeting crosses all political lines. The list of 10 Meanest Cities toward the homeless includes conservative bulwarks like Atlanta as well as liberal ones like Berkeley and San Francisco. Their list of ordinances and tactics targeting and criminalizing homelessness is long, creative, and diabolical.

Cities have made it illegal to lie down. They have made it illegal to share a meal with people who are homeless. They have made it illegal to sit in parks or on benches for long periods of time. They have made it illegal to eat in public spaces. They change their parks’ watering schedules to douse anyone staying there after hours. They have removed completely and banned park benches. They have banned panhandling.

Columbia, S.C., marks the most recent example. The inhumane law essentially criminalizes all people who are homeless and implements what amounts to a systemic forced migration of the homeless. Now, it would be easy to blame police officers, who are carrying out these tasks. The culprits in these situations are rarely the police officers. In fact, the police chief in Columbia refuses to implement that city’s atrocious new law, saying, “Homelessness is not a crime … We can’t just take people to somewhere they don’t want to go. I can’t do that. I won’t do that.”

The people pushing these laws, typically, are city planners, administrators, and elected officials who in their attempts to revitalize and redevelop urban centers with high-end developments, shopping districts and other businesses simultaneously seek ways to get rid of homeless people living in their cities.

So my hope is not only that we will continue to support ministries like Cathedral in the Night and Love Wins, but also that we have a broad understanding of inviting poor people, and all people to the table.  The table is not just a place to eat, a seat at the table also signifies justice in decision-making.  The March on Washington 50 years ago was about getting a seat at the table.  It marks a time when the Civil Rights Movement working to end segregation in the South, joined forces with the labor movement seeking decent paying jobs in the north.  Getting a seat at the table is what immigration reform is about.  Immigrants who have lived here, worked here and paid taxes for years deserve a path to citizenship.  I can add to the list preserving public spaces, open meeting laws, Freedom of Information Act, access to reproductive health, all things that make for a free and open society.  This is the contemporary version of Jesus challenging the Pharisees to invite the poor, the blind and the lame to their banquets.

When we come together at the communion table, we affirm that we are welcomed to God’s banquet.  We receive the gifts of grace for where we fall short, we are fed the wisdom we desire for life’s challenge, and we drink in courage for the struggles we face.  Most importantly we affirm that we are in this together, we will take on life as a community, and we will continue to welcome everyone to all of our tables – our banquet tables, our decision-making tables and our communion table.

 

FOLLOW UP AFTER SUNDAY:  LOVE WINS SERVES AGAIN AS CITY COUNCIL RELENTS ON ORDINANCE

Today Love Wins Ministries shared breakfast with approximately 100 people, many of whom are experiencing homelessness or food insecurity. This is a continuation of a promise we have kept to our community for the last six years.

We and the people we minister among are pleased that the Mayor and City Council have chosen to not enforce the ordinance that prohibits the sharing of food with people, thus ensuring that people of good will can make up for the gap in social services that exists on the weekends. We recognize that this is not a permanent solution, but merely the first step toward making Raleigh a truly hospitable city.

Love Wins would also like to recognize the swift and attentive manner in which the City Council responded to last weekend’s incident in Moore Square, and we look forward to working together on the long, hard road to reconciliation that is before us as Raleigh learns to embrace all of its citizens.

In the the photos below, breakfast guests and volunteers thank the Mayor and City Council for temporarily not enforcing the ordinance. Thank you for bringing back our breakfast.