"War is the greatest threat to public health." - Gino Strada, Italian war surgeon and founder of the UN-recognized Italian NGO Emergency

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Convergence of Mercy and Justice


Tent City 4, a mobile encampment of homeless people on the east side of the Seattle area, is about to move again. The encampment, started in 2004 by Seattle Housing and Resources Effort (SHARE) and Women's Housing Equality and Enhancement League (WHEEL), provides shelter for up to 100 people, and is hosted solely by various faith communities in east King County, Washington.

As Tent City 4 is a "temporary encampment", it moves approximately every 90 days to a new location. Its next location will be Bellevue First United Methodist Church (BFUMC). Joe Matsen, who co-chairs the church's tent-city committee, spoke of his church's desire to host the encampment saying that, "we are admonished to look out for less fortunate people - that's part of the Biblical background. And we think this is a crying need, particularly now" (Seattle Times, October 4, 2009, Page B5).

Joe is absolutely right that there is "a crying need" to house the homeless, and he is also correct in saying that looking out for the less fortunate is only "part of the Biblical background." And there is where things often get messy. Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara, a Roman Catholic Archbishop in Latin America, once said, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist." The situation with homelessness is much the same. Feed them, temporarily shelter them, but God forbid we should ask why they are homeless and try to change the conditions that put them out on the street.

The faith communities that host Tent City 4 create a convergence of charity and justice. Justice - that other "part of the Biblical background." Tent City is a very visible - although actually very low key in its physical presence in the community - symbol of homelessness, and forces people to face and think about the issue. The thinking and subsequent dialogue are needed to change attitudes, and ultimately bring about an end to homelessness.

Everywhere Tent City 4 goes at least some people voice concerns that crime will increase and that their children will be in danger. In some cases there has been vocal dissent in surrounding neighborhoods, and various cities as well as King County have established land use codes specific to Tent City 4 in order to balance the desire of faith communities to host the camp with the concerns of some of its neighbors. With the upcoming move to BFUMC, there has been "considerable dissent" in the quiet neighborhood surrounding the church. If you ask the police in communities that have hosted Tent City 4, you will hear that crime did not increase, and in fact, "crime usually goes down during a tent-city encampment." I have been to Tent City 4 (when bringing supplies for its residents), and can attest to how well its residents take care of their camp and each other, and respect their neighbors.

Any preconceptions I may have had about homelessness were washed away on a visit to Tent City 4 on a very cold December day in 2005. Some residents invited me for coffee, and through the conversations I got to see them as much more than the homeless statistics we always see in the news. It was almost dinnertime, and many residents were arriving back at camp from their day's work or looking for work, but what struck me was the resident returning wearing a United Parcel Service uniform. He was a seasonal employee helping during the holiday rush; another version of the working poor.

It doesn't surprise me that BFUMC will be hosting Tent City 4. With the wise leadership of Reverend, Dr. Beryl Ingram and a receptive congregation, BFUMC is creating a convergence of mercy and justice that is the essence of Christianity. And that is no small thing in a world where most of us (Christians) think we are doing great things when we engage in charity (to the exclusion of justice). The prophet Micah reminds us that we are "to do justice, and love kindness" (Micah 6:8 paraphrased).

Watch the video to get a more personal look at Tent City 4. You can learn more about homelessness and what we can all do about it at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. And support your local tent city. We can (and must) do better!



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