I have always been one that when I find a good thing, I dive into it no matter what extremes it brings us to. Looking back, it seems as if we had become saints of compassion. Certainly people looking at us from the outside thought that we were insane in our desire to help people in need, ignoring the faults of those we helped.
Trust me, we were well aware of the faults.
There was the time that we had accidentally left our checkbook on our counter one night when we had five folks come over to dinner that night. One of that group stole our checkbook and we were unaware of it until they had cost us over a thousand dollars of checks and overdraft fees. But we realized that it was our fault for leaving such a great temptation out before the poor, so we refused to give the bank permission to press charges against them.
Another time we allowed a girl with her infant to stay in the living room of our apartment. She didn’t stay very long, as she was uncomfortable with the conjunction of her tweeker4 lifestyle up against our fanatical Christian one. At one point, she left her child with us, without us knowing when she would return. Diane took the opportunity to clean the baby to a sparkling polish and to give him some regular food. When she still didn’t return after a couple days, we considered the options of trying to raise the infant ourselves, or of calling foster care. Eventually, when she was done partying, she returned to pick up her child, leaving again immediately. Our closet was filled with her possessions for almost a year before she picked it up. The baby was eventually picked up by
’s child services. Oregon
On the other hand, we became more involved in a small Mennonite church. What is a Mennonite? I didn’t know at the time, myself. I was an avid reader of history and theology and I finally read a biography of Martin Luther. At one point, there was the description of a group whom Luther opposed in his later years, whom the author (anachronistically) called “Mennonite”.5 His one line depiction of them was that “they believed in living out the Sermon on the Mount literally.” I thought, “Huh, that’s what I believe. I should check these guys out.” I looked up “Mennonite church” in the yellow pages and discovered one in the
|Happy Peace Mennonites!|
The next Sunday I visited them with my son. (Diane was busy having her all-day morning sickness.) I wanted to hand out tracts, as was my wont, but they had no public sidewalk near the door. So I just attended the service. It was wonderful. It was small, but had a mix of ages, social levels and all kinds of people in need. And they were truly a community, seeking to confess and to assist each other as much as they are able. When I spoke to them about our ministry to the homeless, they sounded genuinely interested, not—as our evangelical friends—avoiding the subject. Most of all, the teacher, William Higgins, was a man of intellect and of true service to Jesus. That didn’t mean (as my arrogance determined) that he couldn’t use a good dose of radicalism, but I’m always good for that. I went home and told Diane, “I think this is the church we’re looking for.”
We joined Peace Mennonite, which only increased our opportunities to assist others. We not only were continuing to assist those in need at our home, we were participating in a community of people in need, challenging and assisting as we were able.
A woman and her son arrived, having just moved from out of state. She told us, in confidence, that she had taken her son from his father who had been given custody, because her ex-husband was an abuser. Then she traveled across the country. This was, according to the law, kidnapping, but we decided to help her out. Diane and I had her stay in our living room for a while, but found that she had some cracks around the edges of her mind. Like when I walked into my living room late at night to find the heat up to eighty degrees and she and her son were walking around in the nude. “What do you think you’re doing?” I yelled at her as she hid behind our kitchen counter from my adult male eyes.
When she was moved to another church member’s house, another family called the police on her because, it seems, they didn’t like her. She took her son and ran, and the
state authorities wanted to speak to us. We explained to the district attorney that we were trying to offer sanctuary for her, hoping we wouldn’t be persecuted for harboring a fugitive. “Don’t worry,” she told us. “You are a church. You need to do what you are supposed to do. We do what we are supposed to do.” At least we weren’t in trouble. This time.6 New York
Because of an interest in Peace to help the needy, a group of us got together and decided to hold a regular meal for the needy in Rockwood, our suburb of the
metropolitan area.7 Our first Wednesday meal, advertised on telephone poles throughout the Rockwood area, brought in four guests. Soon, however, we were feeding thirty to forty people a week. Diane, myself and others in the church took this opportunity to meet more folks, to listen to their stories and to share our stories as well. Portland
Story is important. Many people feel that the gospel is to be shared through a clear presentation of propositions, a quick, life changing proposal of one’s need and the opportunity in Jesus to live a new life. There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but that’s not the way the gospel or the message of God had been presented in the past. It is important to note that we are called by Jesus not to necessarily be preachers, but witnesses. A preacher summarizes truth. A witness relates a personal experience. It is story that truly changes lives. If we have a story of how following Jesus changed our lives, when people adopt that story on their own, that is how their lives are changed. If they have a story of how Jesus led them to a new existence, that is what will change our lives. If there is something we have done in our spiritual life that we think applies to others and share it, that is giving the gospel. But if we stand apart from people, not sharing our lives nor allowing them to share theirs, then the gospel will never be lived, only talked about.
So the time of “Table of Peace” as we called it was a time of story sharing. We listened and sometimes, if it was appropriate, we shared. We also helped as we could. Soon, the homeless came in large numbers, as well as others in more temporary need.
We moved to Rockwood (Portland's up-and-coming ghetto) to be closer to the work we were doing at Peace Mennonite. One day, driving home from work, I was pulled over by an officer for a light out, who pulled behind me in our apartment parking lot. As the officer was looking at my license, I noted that he was taking an awful long time. Eventually, he came back and asked me to pull up my sleeves, slowly. I thought he wanted to check my arms for track marks. After he was satisfied with my arms, he wanted me to recite my Social Security number without looking at the card, which I did. He told me that someone with a felony had a copy of my driver’s license and that he was using my name and was a felon. He released me because I had no tattoos on my arms. The next morning, I left our apartment early for work, only to be stopped by a police officer, with flashing lights all thoughout the street in front of our building. I thought, “Oh, no! They must have changed their minds and decided I was the felon after all!” The officer that approached me simply told me to return to the apartment until they told me to leave. I asked what was happening. A man across the street from apartment had pulled out a shotgun early that morning and started shooting up the neighborhood. Eventually we discovered that Rockwood had the highest crime rate and the most dangerous gangs in the broader
area. By the time we found that out, we weren’t surprised. Portland
All this time, I was working in a bindery.8 I would fill machines full of paper which would eventually come out as stapled books. Eventually I became the shipping and receiving guy. The owner of the bindery respected my religious fanaticism, as he was a lapsed Catholic. I was doing well, but it didn’t mean that it was without conflict. I took a Nazirite vow, which meant I would not cut my hair, to remind myself that I am not meant to work in secular industry. This gained complaints about my hair from a supervisor in the plant, who called me in to rebuke me for my appearance. I told them, “I have made a vow before God. You can fire me, but I won’t break my promise to Him.” They decided to ignore it. Another time I heard a client and my boss laughing at how the client had chased a begging homeless person down the street with a weapon. I was so furious, I wrote a scathing note to both of them warning them of God’s judgment for such hatred. The client demanded that I be fired for morally chastising him for his action. He yelled at me, threatened to get me fired and I responded, “You have no right to harm the weak.” Again, I kept my job.
It seemed that the longer I worked in a secular occupation, the more driven I was toward my spiritual fanaticism. In the morning on the bus I would write essays or dialogues about New Testament issues. In the midst of my work day, I would be meditating on theological or Scriptural ideas and continually be jotting down little notes to myself on whatever spare pieces of paper I could find. In the evening, I would take an hour or two before going home to work on my Jesus Project. This was to write down every saying of Jesus in all four gospels onto note cards, to reorganize them according to subject, and then create a subject index of all the sayings. This project was the source of all my writing. I kept reducing my hours at work so I could spend more time in the afternoon working on my projects.
And once a week I would go to the Grotto to do some intense praying. The Grotto was a Catholic church as tourist trap filled with gardens and mediocre art suitable for mediocre worship. I would go to the bookshop, plunk down my two dollars, and receive a token to take the elevator up to the second level. Once there, I was transported to another place. Superficially, there was a rose garden and a “peace garden” and a garden in dedication to St. Francis of
. But for me, the statue of St. Francis was the saint himself reminded me to sacrifice for the poor. The rose garden was the Church—not a building, but the universal community— filled with both living and dead flowers, with Jesus tending it in a surreally. Assisi
And the path within the peace garden was a symbol of my life, the Christian life. I walked from the rose garden along a curved path, which like in a Narnia book would transport me to a magical place, hidden by trees and bushes, crossing a small stream. Then I reached the birth of Jesus, reminding me that even as Jesus had to sacrifice all of his glory to become human, so I must sacrifice myself and my life to be like Jesus. I walk a little ways further, across the stream again, and I reached the death of Jesus, reminding me that even as Jesus sacrificed his honor and very life for the needy, so must I. Then I walk a longer path to the station of glorification, which tells me that resurrection is to be found, but only if I pass through the first two stages of sacrifice.9
It is in the
that I received God’s call. I would walk back and forth among these stations, talking and listening. Amidst this place, God’s voice told me, “I want you to quit your job and work full time for the homeless.” This call wasn’t really shocking to me. After all, I knew that I was not to spend my life putting together insurance manuals and transporting them to print shops. But there were certainly problems, here. Quitting my job meant, of course, no income. No money for insignificant things like rent or utilities or groceries. It meant working full time in an occupation that no one really accepted or liked. I offered these complaints to God, who didn’t bother to answer my concerns. Peace Garden
In an age-old spiritual tradition, I began arguing with God. Not so much about the calling itself, but with the lack of resources for the task. After about a month of arguing… well, one couldn’t call it arguing, really. After all, one can only argue if the other responds. This was more about complaining. In any case, after about a month of complaining weekly about God’s call, I narrowed it down to one problem—I needed a guarantee that my family would be provided for. They cannot be living on the street or without food. I am responsible for them and I won’t take on even a call from God, unless they are cared for in that way. God responded, again, with silence. A lot of writers are like that, I found. They seem to have so much to say in their book, but get close to them, and they say very little that you couldn’t have thought of yourself.
In a one sided manner I discussed this over with God, every week, for months, planning myself as much as I could, but needing a promise that my family would be cared for. Finally, I received the promise I was waiting for, “I will care for your family, you need not worry about them. You quit your job and do the work I called you to.” But then He added one more bit: “Everyone will reject you.”
Now I had work to do. I got home and began to write out the plan that had been given to me and how I figured we could do it. I would quit my job, get some plane tickets for Diane and Ian and Nikki to go to
Northeastern Pennsylvania to stay with my wife’s family for four months. I, on the other hand, would begin to establish a ministry to the homeless out of Peace Mennonite. Then, if need be, after that we could live with a Vietnamese family who lived with us for some months years ago. I wrote it all up on the Macintosh, using different fonts to make it look cheery and interesting.
|Full disclosure: Not Diane.|
I printed it up and handed it to Diane. She read it over quickly (it always bugged me that she could take something I spent hours on and read it in a few minutes!) then turned to me and said, “Okay.” I was stunned. This was an explosive document for my family, giving up everything to explore a new life that has no clear path, no income, no way of making a living. She registered my non-verbal complaint and replied, “Well, I don’t like it. I don’t want to do this. But if this is what God wants, then it’s fine. I can accept it.” (See how radically awesome she is? Or insane. Whatever.)
I didn’t leave it there. I handed it to the church leaders and had them pray over it, to see if this is really an idea from God or just my own active imagination. They affirmed that they felt it was from God as well.
A few months later, for forty days I did a twelve hour daily fast to dedicate myself to the Lord.10 On the last day of that fast, Good Friday, I left my job at noon. The next day, I shaved all my hair off.11 My two year old daughter, Nikki, cried because some stranger had stolen her daddy’s voice. A week and a half after that, I kissed my wife and two children goodbye as they flew to live with her mom for four months in a crowded, stressful house. I lived on the living room couch of some friends of ours. A new life had truly begun.
5. Mennonites are the title given to a radical branch of the Protestant Reformation. Their earliest beliefs were simply that Luther and Zwingli didn’t take the Reformation far enough and it needed to be more biblical. The early issues had to do with infant baptism, the Lord’s supper and purity of the church. Because of the first issue, the early groups were called “ana-baptist” by their enemies. The name intended to condemn them for “re-baptizing” people, while the early “anabapitsts” actually saw themselves as giving the first baptism for believers. This group was terribly persecuted in Europe, many of them travelled to the New World, where they were given the name “Mennonites” because so many of them carried works of Menno Simons, a Dutch Anabaptist pastor.
6. She was eventually caught by the authorities in Arizona and she and her son were transported back to New York.
7. Rockwood is an odd suburb. It is officially in the city limits of Gresham, Portland’s largest suburb. However, it retains a Portland zip code. So, although it is serviced by the Gresham police department, fire department and is under the oversight of the Gresham city council, every Rockwood address is “Portland”. Rockwood also used to be a quiet suburban neighborhood. Now, because of gangs and low-income housing, it is the slum of the Portland metroplex, having the highest crime rate in Portland. Large grocery stores closed up shop in this neighborhood because they couldn’t afford the crime.
8. I started working as a temp for The Trade Bindery and then I was hired by Associated Bindery. Interestingly enough, although I haven’t been there for years, I am writing, right now, in a fast food restaurant across the street from that bindery. I can see the van I drove for years in the corner of my eye.
9. The Birth, Death and Glorification were actually beautiful woodcuts, placed dramatically throughout the Peace Garden path. As of this writing, they are still there. Check it out: Go to 84th and NE Sandy in Portland where the Grotto is. Go to the book store and ask for a token (it costs a few dollars per person, sorry). Then walk past all the seats before the grotto proper to the elevator shaft. Go up the elevator to the second level. The Francis statue is one of the first things you see. Walk past that to the Peace Pole. One one side of the pole is the rose garden, and on the other is the Peace Garden path. Enjoy.
10. There are a lot of different kind of fasts. There’s the no-food-water-only fast that many people are familiar with. Also there is the cutting off the fat fast that some associate with Lent—that would be ceasing with something unnecessary for forty days, such as chocolate or television (as if chocolate were unnecessary!). The kind of fast I was participating in is a food fast, but for only a partial day. This is an ancient practice, which Muslims practice every year for a month—from the break of day to the dark of night they eat no food. This is a better kind of fast for someone who works full time.
11. The cutting off of one’s hair is how one ends a vow in the Bible, specifically the Nassarite vow. For more information about the Nazirite vow, look at Numbers 6:1-21. I didn’t sacrifice doves. But I did burn my hair. It stank to high heaven. And I didn’t drink wine afterwards, because I think wine tastes awful. I did have me some grape juice, though.