Changing Lives I: Old First E-pistle 04.24.15

Changing Lives I: Old First E-pistle 04.24.15

Church is often about changing lives. Sometimes in ways that are so dramatic no one can miss them. But other times, lives may be changed subtley and slowly. Even changing ways that are not so apparent or “turn on a dime” are important because everyone matters, no matter what their need or how much their lives can improve).

In this first of two E-pistles on this subject, I want you to think about changing lives of the people we serve through outreach. Next week I’m going to address the question of how church changes the lives of us who count ourselves members of this faith community. There are more similarities between the two groups and the progress and difficulties of change than you might expect.

Sometimes I hear a concern that the direct services of our outreach ministry are a bandaid more than a cure. I worry about that sometimes too.

The question is whether or not we are addressing directly or effectively enough the causes and the deficits of urban poverty and homelessness? And are we helping individuals enough that they might overcome whatever might be holding them back from more stable and settled, easier and fuller lives?

Focusing this concern more clearly, perhaps we need to consider and know the population of people we serve better in order to set the right goals and expectations, and to evaluate the effectiveness of our ministry… And perhaps our jugement of the ministry — that it is not doing enough to change lives — is unfair.

Much of this occurred to me in a conversation with Kathy S. as we were headed up to Warminster for our Sacred Conversation on Race at the Steiner’s.

Kathy was talking about her work: she retired last year after 19 years as the Director of the City’s Intellectual disAbility Services (IDS), the agency that oversees programming for people with developmental challenges. Kathy spoke with great care about the people they served and the differences IDS’ work made in the lives of individuals and families.

As I listened, it occurred to me: unthinkingly, do we have unrealistic — almost romanticized — goals for our shelter ministry and the difference we expect it to make?

We’d like to end homelessness. And place all our guests in permanent housing. And see them find a supportive community and work that is commensurate with their capacities and income needs (unless they are retirement age).

But we cannot control the continued deindustrialization of our region, the scarcity of blue collar jobs, the defunding of our schools. And though we can advocate for better benefits and assistance for our low income neighbors, often government bureaucracies and political realities confound our hopes. (That said, 30 men on our floor for 30 years: one might expect us to be experts in advocacy for affordable and subsidized housing!)

Kathy’s agency recognized that it could rarely expect to help one of their clients to independent living or work that was not subsidized and supported. The vast majority of the clients were going to need special services for the rest of their lives. But that didn’t mean the agency’s effort was ineffective, or a waste of time.

The challenges and needs of our shelter guests are much more varied than the population Kathy worked with. Some of our guests ended up homeless after a bump in the road — lost employment or suffering some family crisis. Others are dealing with longer term problems, struggling with significant mental health issues or substance abuse. Some never got their feet back under them after military service or a period of incarceration.

Some, with some assistance or not, might find work or a place to live. Others probably will continue to need housing and other services. For the former, perhaps we can do a better job of providing the help they need on the way to independent living. For the latter, the continued provision of shelter will be necessary. It also dramatically improves the quality of their lives.

Which is simply to say that success stories in shelter work are not always about dramatic turnarounds — where a formerly homeless person is suddenly an urban professional. Or where the need for more affordable and subsidized housing is eclipsed.

Because the basic goal of the shelter ministry is to offer a warm, safe space to those who otherwise might have only a doorway or steam vent as protection from the elements. Twelve hours a winter day where you are safe and warm is pretty transformative for an individual for that 24 hours and season!

I do wonder, however, about the advantages of the “housing first” movement — getting people off the floor of a church building and into permanent housing where they might find enough stability to tackle their other issues?

In any event, I’m not so quick to discount the changed lives we help with for people who are homeless after talking to Kathy. I’m more likely to ask the homeless residents of our shelter to tell me about the change our ministry with Bethesda has made in their lives…

See you in church,

Michael