Sunday, April 12, 2015

Putting It Together, Bit by Bit

When the Anawim ministry began at Peace Mennonite church, I created a couple of flyers to explain our purpose to other churches.  One was speaking of a resource that Anawim could be for the church community.  That if anyone needed to know what resources are available for the poor in the homeless area, I’d be glad to help.  Now in Portland we have an excellent published guide for free so people know what meals, food boxes, shelters, counseling and other resources there are for the needy.  At the same time, I created a flyer for what I called “Bet’ Anawim”, or “House of the Poor”.  It was to be a community house where the homeless could live together in a discipleship environment.  It was complete pie-in-the-sky dreaming, but, I figured, if someone saw the vision and wanted to give us a house for this, then I wouldn’t complain.

Instead of obtaining a house, we were looking at losing what little housing we had.

For some reason, after receiving notice of “your family is now on the street” it didn’t plunge me or my wife into despair.  No, we had no place to go.  We had no money to move into a new place.  With three children.  And a couple extra people who were dependent on us.  Not to mention a ministry in a run-down building.  But, honestly, we’ve been in this place before.  Twice before have my wife and I been in a situation where we didn’t know where we were going to live in a few days.  And God has never failed us.  He has never allowed my children to live on the street.  And this situation is less severe.  After all, God has thirty days to work!  Plenty of time to come up with a couple thousand dollars and an increase in our income to help us find a bigger apartment!  No problem!

            At this point, most of the people we knew would pursue a direct option to solve their problem.  It’s the American way, after all, to raise a ruckus until the problem is solved.  We could have sent out emails and letters to everyone we knew, to the whole Mennonite church, and asked for financial assistance.  We could have, as it was suggested, taken the new owner of the apartment building for discrimination based on religious grounds. Although I think that it wouldn’t have held up, actually.  The owner didn’t have problem with me being Mennonite, but with the friends I had coming over to my house.  And most other Mennonites didn’t have this problem we had of welcoming “undesirables” to their houses.  Shame, really. 

            But Diane wouldn’t allow such desperate options.  Honestly, I am not altogether certain that my wife is fully American.  She was born American and grew up on military bases, but there is some foundational American gene that she seems to be lacking.  She is insistent that if we pray to God, without telling anyone about our troubles that God would work it out.  For most American Christians, this is insanity.  I’ve had people tell me, “It says in Scripture ‘Ask and you will receive.’”  I have been forced to point out, careful Bible reader that I am, that it the principle is not speaking about asking other people, but God alone.  Others have pointed out the passage that says, “Be as innocent as doves, but as wise as serpents.”  I point out that Jesus was making no excuse for people not to trust in God.  Others have.

            So, in this case, as in so many other cases, we did not sound out a cry of alarm, but we prayed.  I did send an email out to two people: Duncan, the Conference Minister who licensed me as a pastor and my mother.  I asked them to pray for us, because we didn’t know what to do and God had to help us out of this situation.

            It was only two days later that we received deliverance.  That’s pretty quick for God, because He usually likes to leave his answers right at the last minute.  Or just after the last minute.

            It was simple enough.  My father called me from his home in Southern California and said, “We’d like to buy you a house.”

            “Sorry, dad, couldn’t hear you very well.  I think the line broke up.  Dang satellites.  What did you say?”

            “You’ve been really consistent in your ministry to folks on the street and we want to support you in that.”

            After I picked my jaw (and the rest of my body) up off the floor, then I thanked him and he explained to me that we would have to find a real estate agent and begin looking at houses.  It would probably take a few months, he explained.  “But,” I said, “we don’t have a few months, so we’ll find a place faster than that.”  I could hear my father smiling on the other side of the line, but all the said was, “We’ll see.”

            We got a wonderful real estate agent (whose name is Diana Jones—I remember that because one of my family’s favorite novelists had the same name) and whatever house on the market we wanted to look at, she helped us do so.  Since I first came up with the idea of Bet’ Anawim, I secretly—covetously?—passed by houses, looking at their size or their location or their general structure, and thought “that would be great”.  “Think of the people we could put in that house.”  “We could really offer a lot of people showers there.”  Now, my secret longing could be openly discussed.  But we had limitations.  In prayer, I was led to find a house as close to downtown Portland as possible.  And Diane and I discussed a general guideline of two hundred thousand dollars for getting a house.  Honestly, if any of you are shocked at that figure, $200,000 didn’t get a lot of house in Portland in 2003.  It was a reasonable figure, but it wouldn’t purchase you the kind of house we were thinking of—something huge that could house a lot of people and store clothes and have a place where people could come in to take showers. 

There are a lot of houses in Portland.  Even with our limited guidelines, there were a number of places to look at and none of them were quite… right.  Honestly, most of what we viewed were great one-family dwellings, even for an extended family, but they weren’t so great for a family who welcomed strangers into their home and invited them to take a shower and have a meal.  They just weren’t… arranged properly.  The bathroom wasn’t convenient.  There was a lot of space, but not separate living quarters.  The houses just seemed so suburban, so tame, so… not what we were looking for.

Because I felt that we needed to find a house near downtown, Diane and I took a few drives, just wandering around the outskirts of downtown, seeing if any house met our qualifications.  On a main thoroughfare, travelling from one neighborhood to another, I noted a few houses, hidden behind huge trees, and one of them had a “For Sale” sign in front of it.  I pulled over and we looked at it quickly.  “It’s too big,” Diane said immediately.  “No way we could afford it.”  I agreed that was probably true, but I said, “It can’t hurt to look at it, right?”  It was big.  And pretty old.  But it had a lot of character to it.  Of course, I see character and Diane sees hard work, but that’s all good. 

So we arrange a look at the house with our kids, and, conveniently, the owners were there.  They introduced themselves as John and Jean Keller, a friendly African-American couple.  John took us through the house, explaining thing as we went along.  “This house was built in 1897 and my family bought it in 1933 when I was three years old.  I’ve lived here ever since.”  The house was being used both for their aging family and as a foster-care home.  “We take in the folks that other homes wouldn’t take.  If there was someone that was a little bit more trouble we would say, ‘Sure, send them over.’”

We walked to the backyard, which was a combination of wild growth and dead plants.  There was a small group of men sitting halfway in a tuff-shed watching a small television.  As he gave us the tour, every room had a story.  He led us to one bedroom which was full of shelves filled with canned food.  “We hand out food to folks in the neighborhood as they need help.” 

We waked down to the finished basement which had two rooms and a large area that was almost like a living room, a tiny bathroom and a shower, separated from the rest.  There was also a door that opened to the ground level.  “We leave this door open at night and homeless men come in and use the ground level here.  We put in a shower over there, so people could get clean when they needed to.  People would come in and sleep on these couches here.”  He sat on the couch and explained that they were Seventh-day Adventists and that they had always felt that they should help the community in every way they could.  “We once owned houses all throughout this neighborhood, but this is our last one.  We’ve sold them all.  Now we’ve bought a house in Eastern Oregon and we’re going to retire.”

            John’s eyes were bright as he told us the story of the house and how he had attempted to help the neighborhood, which was now considered simply ‘hood.  I was so excited at his story and the spirit in the house, that I told him of our plans and how the house was perfect for what we wanted to do as well.  Have church services, house the homeless, offer showers.  He smiled and we looked at each other.  Yes, the real estate agents would have to work out the price, and the timing would all have to be worked out, but the deal was set.  This was going to be the Anawim house.

* * *

Of course, that’s when the work started.  The house, structurally, was sound and perfect for our needs, but there was seventy years of accumulated stuff and changes that needed… adjustments before the house could be up to its full potential.  More than once did we need to fill dumpsters to be rid of the old food, papers and vinyl records from the seventies.  Some of the items we kept, if it was useful for the upkeep of the house but so much of it had to be tossed.   But there was much that was useful, as well.  Three refrigerators in fair condition, living room furniture, huge beds and a television.

            But the garage—that was amazing.  The large door was nailed shut and the garage was filled almost to the ceiling with stuff—wood, dirt, various kinds of metal, old papers, and more and more.  A couple of our homeless friends took one look and said, “Can I go in?  I’d really like to criddle!”  (“Criddle” means to rummage through junk to find useful items.)  We did.  A machete was found, as well as a lot of firewood.  It took a lot of work to empty that out.

            But empty it we did.  A youth group came over and painted the interior.  We took out the garage door to eventually replace it with a wall and a nice French door. And I spent a weekend laying tile over the cement floor.  Although the outside was overlaid with tin painted blue.  Then we had an open house and my ordination as a pastor.  Fifty people showed up, along with my parents in their first look at the house they purchased.  It was exciting.  The folks from the State Hospital was there, and were behaving… normally for them.  One gal accused Duncan, who was ordaining me, of being Satan and another guest kept Diane busy asking why she couldn’t take whatever she wanted.  Duncan discovered that he had forgotten his notes, and so we had to make up the ceremony on the spot.  Diane was very ill and it was windy and cold without a door on the back of the garage, but it was all gloriously Anawim.

            Our house was already full.  Diane, myself and our two girls lived in the two bedrooms on the upper level.  Our son Ian and our friend Bryan who had lived with us for years stayed in the two bedrooms in the center of the house.  We also, almost immediately after getting the house invited two others to stay with us.  Pam, who was struggling with recovery with Peace Mennonite and needed another place to live.  And Byron, who was a strong believer on the street, who deserved more than most a regular place inside to live.  Over time, we also invited Ron, a gentle older man who was sleeping underneath picnic tables in Gresham and Vickie, whose mental illness made her vulnerable wherever she lived.  

            It was about the time of my ordination that we discovered that the place where the ministry was meeting in was being taken away from us.  The man who was leasing it, David, was given notice to leave.  He was looking for another place, he said, but he didn’t know when he’d find one.  At this point, I was tired of having to move the ministry every few years, scrambling to see if we could find another place to be.  I had made a few contacts over the years and decided that instead of finding another place to be, I would move the ministry to four other places.  This way, if one shut down, then there would be three others that would continue.  We would have one meeting in Gresham, one meeting in our new house, one Bible study in downtown Portland and one Bible study at a meal in SE Portland.  Four opportunities to connect with Jesus, four meals, four neighborhoods and four, smaller, more intimate groups.  Because altogether we had about fifty or sixty people, I figured that we would have about 15 people in each meeting, which would be manageable.  It was only a few years before a couple of the groups grew to fifty, and a couple years after that that I was running all the meals myself.

            Finances were also tricky.  Some might look at our situation and say, “The reason you always had trouble paying bills is because you never asked for help.”  The fact of the matter is, Americans, whether Christian or whatever other stripe, are always more ready to give to art or the latest newspaper headlines rather than ongoing work for the homeless.  (Look at the money given in grants over the last year, if you doubt me!)  And when people do give, they much prefer to give to the “established” ministries, rather than to a small, family-run operation.  We have always been barely hanging on financially, and I think that it wouldn’t matter if we posted ads in the New York Times, we would still be struggling.  So we did what we always have, and our main newsletters were sent to God, and He brought in the money as He saw fit.

            At one point, I noticed that our shelves were empty.  That we really had little food for those in the house, including my children, and there was no money to buy any.  I wanted to call my friends, send out an email, but I spoke with Diane and she said, “Let’s just pray over the weekend.  If we still don’t have it, then you can send out an email.”  So we prayed. 

           One of our housemates is a man, famously known on the streets as Diver.  He is called that because if you have a need, you can tell him and he’ll find it in a dumpster in due time.  I didn’t tell him that we were short on food and he didn’t notice it, but went out early in the morning, as was his wont, to ride around the neighborhood.  He was heading East, but he felt a stirring to go North.  After travelling the backroads a few miles, he reached a local grocery store.  He glanced in the dumpster and his eyes got wide.  They had taken a lot of their frozen food and thrown it away, being on the edge of the expiration date.  He piled up as much as he could, and headed back

            That same morning, I got a call from a middle-class friend named Richard.  He ran a meal once a week for the poor out of his church, and is a lover of God’s word, but I hadn’t seen him in about a year.  He called me and said, “I need to see you today.”  Okay, I said.  I’m running a meal and service in Gresham today, why not meet me there, as it’s in your neighborhood.  “Perfect,” he said.  When he met me, he handed me two hundred dollars in cash.  “God told me to give this to you.”  I thanked him for listening to God and that afternoon I was able to get groceries for my household that our freezers full of frozen food didn’t supply.

            I wouldn’t necessarily call our community house idyllic, however.  One person was always blaming another for being insulting.  Another person would go out on a regular basis to drink, and come back repenting.  Another person would accuse a house member of unacceptable behavior.  The most difficult one for me, however, was the mentally ill person we had in the house for years that would preach in the center of the house, so no one could escape it.

            We knew this was all part of the task.  We would pray, cajole, confront, do spiritual warfare, mediate, ignore, and do whatever else was necessary to keep the house intact.  It was difficult work, and it was constant, but it was good, solid work.

            However, to the seeing eye, it was beginning to wear on Diane and I.  Chronic stress disorder, some call it.  Popularly known as burnout.  I noticed it especially when I started having trouble driving within a single lane of the freeway.  If I concentrated on one thing, then my memory of others would fade.  I got clearly angry when asked simple questions.  I used to be this amazing writer—no one could stop me—but now I had trouble writing anything.  Eventually, I had trouble reading books, any books. It was getting more and more difficult for me to lift the tubs I used to carry with ease.  My wife, on the other hand, was simply fading.  She was finding it difficult to accomplish any task.  She would have days of energy, in which she would go through the house like a whirlwind, leaving clean counters in her wake, but these days were getting fewer.  Yes, these are signs of age, but we were only 40.

            The stress was effecting our health as well.  It was discovered that I had a blood sugar problem, pre-diabetes, which I would almost faint from.  Diane’s breathing problems became worse.  Eventually, after blood tests and whatever else, it was discovered that my body had pretty much stopped producing testosterone, which was the cause of the diabetic condition and the anger and the muscle loss.  The ministry was thriving—we had a full house, full meetings, full meals.  But our bodies had faded.  In my most unworthy moments, I said to myself that Jesus had a much worse day, but it was only one day, not thirteen years.

            It took a while, but eventually I broached the subject to Diane.  “So, do you think that it’s time for us to shut down the ministry?”

            She looked doubtful for a moment.  “What else could we do?”

            “Well, I am a pastor.  I could apply for a position in a middle class church in another town and we could have a regular salary and not have anyone living with us.  For a pastor, I’m still young.”

            “Young in age, not in body.”  Diane reminded me that a doctor told me that hormonally I was in my eighties.

            “Whatever.  We could just start over and do something that didn’t require as much of us.”

            “Couldn’t we just get some help.”

            “I’ve been praying for an assistant for years, but every time someone comes along, it just doesn’t work out.”

            “So you think we should just shut down?”

            “We can’t keep going like this.”

            Diane and I sat in silence for a while.  We both hated to stop the work we were doing.  In so many ways, it seemed as if we had just got started.  Disciples were living for Jesus on their own without needing to be hand-held all the way.  As a church, Anawim was small but thriving, and it really was made up of the homeless and the mentally ill.  We didn’t pad the membership with the middle class.  Heck, the middle class didn’t want to come.  The house had really offered an opportunity for people’s lives to be changed.  And the people in the church were taking up some of the physical work, especially when it was clear that I wasn’t physically able to help as much as I used to.  Everyone was working together.  Community was forming.  But if we couldn’t deal with it, what could we do?  It is true, there is no other leadership that has stepped up to take over the church.  But if we can’t do it any more, what can we do?

            Diane spoke: “Let’s just suppose that we did move to another town.  And you got another job, whether it be a pastorate or something else.  We got connected to another community and you were providing leadership.  We could have a house or a parsonage for our family.  How long would that last?  How long would it be before we met someone who was homeless and needed a place to stay for a short time?  And then what would we do?  Of course we would take them in.  That’s what we do.  And when we took one person in, how long would it be before we took in another.  And another.  How long would it be before we had a meal for the poor?  How long would it be before you began another meeting for the homeless, beside the middle class service?  This work we do, it isn’t just what we do.  It’s who we are.  And no matter where we went, the work would follow us.

            “Since we are going to do the work anyway, we might as well do it here.  Continue what we started.  We’ll make it through.”

            I nodded.  I couldn’t argue with that logic.  We never seriously thought about shutting down again.

            Time fails me to speak of how we were able to tone down what we did.  Of how we were able to find assistants.  Of the various medical problems and solutions God gave us.  Of how, right now, I am in the midst of a three-month sabbatical in order to write this book.  Of Daniel Markoya, Hammer, Linda, Jeff and Yvan Strong, Styxx, Ankles, and so many others that gave us help in our time of need.  But they are there.  All of them.  

            The most important thing is that Anawim is now no longer just our ministry.  God transformed it into community, where we are all helping each other.  Of which I am only one part, and not a strictly necessary one at that.  Well, necessary, but no more necessary than any other part.  To borrow a phrase, we are all together now.  

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