Jesus’ Rowdy Friends
By Deb Richardson-Moore, Pastor of Triune Mercy Center
I speak quite often at churches in Greenville and elsewhere who want to know how to deal with homeless people asking for help. I pose a question to them: Do you want a strategy for dealing with people who come to your door for help? Or do you want to invite those people into your congregation?
Those are two very different things.
At Triune Mercy Center, an inner-city church next to Tommy’s Country Ham House in Greenville, we have chosen the latter. And so people who come to our door for help are invited to become part of our church. That means they give out bulletins, take up the offering, lead the responsive reading, usher, serve communion, serve dinner, wash laundry, empty trash, mop floors. All of us work together; we serve Jesus by serving each other.
But when a congregation includes people who are experiencing homelessness, it cannot operate as a traditional church: The majority of our budget goes to social workers, case managers, addiction recovery counselors and other program leaders who attempt to steer people out of bad situations and into stable housing.
I joke that we follow the “gospel of James.” This New Testament letter writer speaks my language: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?” (James 2:14)
And “so faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:17)
You cannot read the epistle of James and come away thinking that we have no responsibility to our neighbors.
It is much as South African Bishop Peter Storey once said: “You cannot ask Jesus into your heart alone. He will ask, ‘Can I bring my friends?’ You will look at his friends, the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed, and you will hesitate. But Jesus is clear: ‘Only if I can bring my friends.’ ”
I have found some of Jesus’ friends to be as rowdy as Hank Williams Jr.’s, so it’s not always pleasant to heed Bishop Storey. But it is necessary. Welcoming Jesus’ rowdy friends requires more of us than handing goods out the church door. It includes welcoming them into our lives.
That’s the message I preach most Sundays in our beautiful red brick building on Rutherford Street. That, and the need for our community to address our systemic shortcomings, including a lack of affordable housing.
And so I was thrilled when one of our parishioners, a retiree from Boston with the same name as my beloved epistle writer, took up the challenge. Jim Carroll went to his fellow retirees in Furman University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), and corralled 20 of them to become The SEARCHlight Initiative. That group of senior volunteers set a goal to raise $3.4 million to build 36 units of permanent supportive housing off Rutherford Street. Church Street Place at Poe Mill, a project of United Housing Connections, will house the physically and mentally disabled, the mentally ill and other difficult-to-house people who currently live on the streets of Greenville.
Our communities of faith should be in the forefront of relieving human suffering in all its forms. And living outside in the rain, the mud, the heat and the cold, often in the throes of mental illness and disability, is suffering. Alleviating homelessness through decent housing is paramount. But it’s not the only thing.
A homeless man once said to me, “Pastor, do you know the worst thing about being homeless? It’s not being cold or wet or hungry. The worst thing about being homeless is being looked right through.”
In looking and seeing and acknowledging, we make Jesus’ friends our friends.