Uncomfortable Ironies: MLK Day and homelessness in Madison

I wrote last week about the scramble to provide day shelter for homeless people today, MLK Day because many of the facilities that typically provide shelter for homeless people were closed in observance of the holiday.

At Grace, today was a wonderful day. More than 120 people came to us for shelter, food, and fellowship, staying for a few minutes, a few hours or all day. In addition, twenty volunteers pitched in to make coffee, provide lunch, and clean up afterwards. It was a community effort and I was excited to work with and deepen relationships with staff from First United Methodist and Bethel Lutheran Church. I was also excited to see volunteers and agency reps working with individuals in writing resumes and filling out housing applications. One volunteer drove someone to the emergency room.

My joy and gratitude at what we accomplished was tinged with grief and anger. As I looked around the room and thought about the holiday that was being celebrated, I couldn’t help but think about the irony of it all. At noon in the State Capitol, there was a celebration of MLK Day at which Governor Walker spoke. I’m sure it was a rousing event. At 5:00 pm, there was another celebration two blocks away in the other direction at the Overture Center. Andrew Young, former Atlanta mayor and close confident of Dr. King spoke. I’m sure it was quite inspirational. In between these two celebrations of the life and legacy of MLK, at Grace, 120 homeless people and twenty volunteers came together to create community on a cold day. It was forced community–forced by the reality of a city and county that can’t find it in their collective will to provide adequate shelter for the neediest among us.

The greater irony was probably that of those three gatherings together, the one at Grace was the most integrated. Forty-five years after Dr. King’s assassination, Madison is a city that is deeply divided racially, a city in which the level of achievement among African-Americans lags far behind that of whites, a city in which there is enormous economic and social disparity between whites and blacks, a city where there is a far higher percentage of African-Americans among the homeless than in the general population.

On a day when the political, economic, and cultural elites of Madison and Wisconsin were celebrating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., at Grace we were witnesses of his shattered dream and hollow legacy. As we celebrate Martin Luther King, and celebrate as well our community coming together to help the homeless, we should also bear witness to the continued brokenness, racism, and economic injustice of our society.

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