Reflections on a decade of shared ministry 5: The growing importance of anti-racism work

As with any vocational transition, beginning a new call as rector brings with it all sorts of expectations and assumptions. There is the usual round of pastoral responsibilities, sacraments, preaching, pastoral care. There are the countless administrative tasks, and there are the unique emphases that are connected to the particular life and charisma of a congregation as well to its geographical location. I expected to be deeply involved in ministry and advocacy around homelessness when I was imagining what my ministry would be like at Grace. I should have expected that there would be a significant civic role as well, although as I point out in my previous post, how that role emerged and evolved over the decade of my ministry at Grace was surprising.

Even more surprising is the emergence of another significant aspect of my and Grace’s ministry: racism and racial inequity. It’s not that racism hadn’t been a concern of mine earlier in life. I had taken courses in African-American history, read James Cone and Katie Cannon, learned from African-American classmates in Divinity School. I had seen racism in Boston, moving there just a few years after the anti-bussing protests when passions still ran high and the effects of racism were obvious to anyone with eyes to see.

When we moved South in 1994, I encountered new forms of racism. At Sewanee, I taught at one of the bastions of the Lost Cause, where the Yankees’ dynamiting of the university’s cornerstone was recorded in the stained glass windows of the narthex of All Saints’ Chapel and a full-length portrait of Leonidas Polk, the “Battling Bishop” in his confederate gray uniform, prayer book in one hand and sword in the other, hung in Convocation Hall, where faculty meetings and important receptions took place. It was also a place where faculty had taken stands for racial justice during the Civil Rights Era, and the entire seminary faculty had walked out when the Board of Trustees refused to desegregate the Episcopal seminary in the fifties.

In Tennessee and South Carolina where I lived for a combined 15 years, II had seen first-hand the deep inequities between black and white, the chasm between the economic achievement, educational achievement, health and mortality. I also saw the segregation of churches, St. Philip’s was the largely African-American, small Episcopal Church that had been founded by the good people of Christ Church who didn’t want to worship with their African-American servants. In Greenville, I saw the sharp dividing line between rich white, and desperately poor African-American neighborhoods, the literal wall dividing them dividing two worlds as completely as the Berlin Wall used to divide that city.

I also dealt with the Episcopal Church’s uncomfortable and inadequate reckoning with its past. Many of those who worshiped at our churches owned the sub-standard properties that were rented to low-income people. Earlier generations had been plantation and slave owners, and their descendants continued to be members of our congregations and generous in their financial support.

I thought I had left all that behind when I moved to Madison. I quickly realized that Madison was deeply divided on racial lines, that African-Americans constituted a much higher percentage of people experiencing homelessness than they did in the overall population. I soon discerned how few African-Americans, other than homeless people were on the streets and sidewalks of downtown Madison. I understood racism was an important issue for the nation, for the church, for our society but there seemed to be other matters of greater urgency.

That all changed in 2013. In that year, the Wisconsin Council on Families and Children (now Kids Forward) issued its Race to Equity report that detailed the huge disparities in academic and economic achievement, incarceration rates, health outcomes and mortality rates between the white and African-American populations of Wisconsin and especially Dane County. Also that year, the Rev. Alex Gee, jr., wrote an article in the Wisconsin State Journal entitled “Justified Anger” in which he shared some of his experiences being an African-American man in Madison. Suddenly, the urgency and importance of addressing racism at Grace Church seemed paramount.

Over the next few years, a task force calling itself “Creating More Just Community” brought together Grace members who have a passion for working on issues related to racism. We brought in speakers; we explored making connections with our close neighbors at the Dane County Jail. We joined MOSES, a coalition of churches and religious communities, black and white, from across Dane County that works on issues of criminal justice. With them we hosted press conferences, even a forum for governor’s candidates during the most recent campaign. We have had a months-long parish-wide dialogue on racism that recently concluded; a program that we are now offering to other congregations.

We have done a great deal over the last six years, but looking back it seems like we haven’t done nearly enough, nor have we accomplished much. The racial inequities in our community are as profound as ever. As a congregation, we are as predominantly white as we have ever been. On top of all that, our nation is more divided than ever.

Still, I don’t regret any of what we’ve done. If I do have regrets, it’s that we haven’t done enough. It is work that must continue on the parish level, in the community, and in our hearts. It’s necessary work that is rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We cannot be faithful followers of him unless we engage with the racism in our nation’s past, our community’s present, and its lingering presence in American Christianity as it expressed and experienced at Grace and throughout the church. What form that work will take will be dependent on the people who lead it, the changing context in which we live, and historical developments that we can’t predict and for which we cannot plan.

Reflections on a decade of shared ministry 4: The Church in the midst of political conflict

I don’t recall any conversations about politics as we were discerning my call to Grace Church in 2009. We were in the throes of the Great Recession, Obama had just become president, but Grace had other, more urgent issues that focused the attention of its lay leadership. As a newcomer to Madison, I recall paying very little attention to either local or state politics in 2009 and 2010. While I voted in the 2010 election, I don’t remember the campaigns even though that was the year that saw Scott Walker elected Governor.

All that changed in February 2011. On February 15, 2011, protesters from UW Madison walked down State St. to the Capitol and begin their sit-in. I could hear the sounds of the marchers as the neared the top of State Street. I didn’t really know what was happening although I knew about Governor’s plans to break the unions and transform the political culture of our state. For the next three weeks as protests grew and subsided and the Democratic senators fled the state to prevent a vote on the “Budget Repair” bill,  Grace Church found itself in the middle of the political conflict and division in our state. In many ways, it was the beginning of the deep division and conflict that has rent our nation over the last years.

I made a decision during the first few days of the protests that would change my ministry and completely transform the ministry and mission of Grace Church. With hundreds, then thousands, even tens of thousands of people protesting at the Capitol in the middle of February, I decided to open the doors of our church, inviting the protesters to come in for respite, warmth, and prayer. Within a few days, Grace became the staging ground for the religious community. We hosted press conferences and served as a gathering space for religious leaders and members of religious communities as they sought to make a public witness.

Ironically, after the Democratic senators finally returned, the Budget Repair bill was passed on Ash Wednesday. Our prayers to God during the Litany of Penitence at our 6 pm service that night were accompanied by the sounds of new protests gathering.

In the years that followed, beginning with Madison’s version of Occupy and “Walkerville,” continuing through the protests around police violence and the Trump presidency, Grace has continued to be a gathering place for religious voices calling for justice and an end to inequality and oppression. Now, when a rally or protest is planned, members come to me to ask if they can help make sure our doors are open and that we offer rest for tired feet and space for reflection and prayer.

Looking back from this vantage point, I’m surprised by the prominent role political witness has come to play in my ministry. I’m sure I’ve attended more protests in the last 10 years of my life than I did in my first fifty, probably ten times more. I’m also somewhat surprised by the ease with which the community at Grace has come to embrace this role. There were some nay-sayers at first, people worried about vandalism or theft, or the sheer toll of hundreds of people coming through our building on a wintry day. But as I point out whenever someone expresses concern, especially over the possibility that we are being partisan, we don’t have a choice in the matter. Whether or not we open our doors, we are making a political statement, or it will be interpreted as such. To offer hospitality to protesters, to offer our restrooms to the attendees at the first Latinx protest against was as necessary as it was the right thing to do.

I’m not particularly comfortable in the role of “activist” priest, if that’s the reputation I’ve developed. I’ve written and preached often about my conviction that our witness as individual Christians and as a church should be rooted in the gospel and communicated with religious language, that we should clearly articulate the theological basis of our position. As a congregation, we have done that in a number of documents, and I hope I have been clear about that in my sermons and posts here. I do believe that the church should be a place where people of different political views can come together to worship, that we ought to be a place where we can give voice to our different opinions and prayerfully discern what God is calling us to do. I also believe that following Jesus means speaking clearly on matters of justice and responding to the deep needs of our fellow human beings. But I worry that too often we lose focus on the centrality of Jesus Christ in our effort to build coalitions and participate in the political process. I also think that too often our political opinions are more important and more deeply-held than our religious commitments, that we don’t allow the Word of God to stand in judgment on us.

I hope, though it seems quite unlikely, that some day soon Grace will no longer need to serve as a gathering place for religious people who are challenging the powers and principalities, that we can return to a quieter time when it didn’t seem that the very Gospel of Jesus Christ was hanging in the balance every day. But such a development seems quite unlikely in our present moment. Instead, it’s much more likely that the cries of injustice will continue to be heard, and that they will come from more people who feel threatened. And as long as the cries rise up, Grace will provide a place of gathering, hope, and respite for people who are suffering and protesting injustice.

 

Reflections on a decade of shared ministry, 3: Homelessness, part 2

The long quest for a day resource center for people experiencing homelessness could serve as a case study of how Madison’s political system, social service providers, and activists have failed the most vulnerable people in our community. It also provides lessons to anyone interested in developing new institutions or services in our city.

Back in 2011, I attended the first of a series of meetings of local political and civic leaders, service providers, and advocates that were convened to seek solutions to the lack of daytime resources for people experiencing homelessness. The problem became apparent because that the two places where many homeless people spent the days while the overnight shelters were closed were no longer available. The Capitol basement had been declared off-limits to homeless people during the protests in February and March, 2011, and the Central Library was about to close for two years of renovations. I was astounded when the meeting began with many of those present complaining about the then governor’s decision to close the Capitol—seemingly oblivious to the fact that the Capitol was a wholly inadequate space for a vulnerable population in need of many services. In other words, the urgency and extent of the need had gone unaddressed for decades. The stop-gap solutions that were in place were judged by many in the community to be perfectly adequate.

I’ve chronicled much of the story and my involvement in the efforts on this blog. Click on the Homelessness link and scroll down. Temporary shelters were funded for the winters of 2011-2012 and 2012-2013. The County put money its operating budget to fund operations of a shelter and secured capital funds to purchase and build out a property. There were a number of locations proposed over the years but all of them fell through because of various reasons, including poor planning and community engagement by county staff and elected officials, neighborhood opposition, and simply unsuitable locations. Many of us who were most actively involved in these efforts over the years grew angry, frustrated, and finally abandoned the quest. Fortunately others persisted and other agencies stepped, most notably Catholic Charities, who received the contract to operate the Day Resource Center. Finally, the Beacon opened in 2018 and is currently welcoming as many as 250 people daily for meals, showers, laundry, and to help them connect with services.

I say this is a case study in how Madison has thought about and responded to homelessness over the decades because there was no effort to examine the adequacy of our response to the community’s needs and no effort to seek better solutions. And there’s also the blame game, seeking to deflect responsibility for the problems we face from ourselves to others—whether it be the former governor, Chicago, or some other entity or individual. It was only when the stop-gap solution collapsed that we admitted the problem and began to seek new solutions and better alternatives.

In some respects, we are at the very same place with regard to the overnight shelters. The Salvation Army is developing plans for new facilities at their E. Washington Ave. property that would more adequately address the needs of the groups they serve there: single women and families. It is also becoming more clear by the day that the current Drop-In Shelter housed at Grace with additional space at St. John’s Lutheran Church and First United Methodist Church is inadequate to serve the number of homeless men in our community and to address their needs, providing assistance to help them find housing and connect them with services they need. For example, we lack the facilities to offer comfortable space for the one-on-one conversations with outreach workers and the building is only minimally accessible to people who lack mobility. It lacks air conditioning.

As we think about next steps in our response to the needs of our community, it is clear that the experience with the Day Resource Center will offer us important lessons as we seek to build community-wide support for significant changes in our system of emergency shelter. I, for one, look forward to this process.

Reflections on a decade of shared ministry 2: Homelessness, Part 1

Among the things that attracted me to Grace Church was the presence of the men’s shelter and the possibility of re-engaging with ministry and advocacy around homelessness. Back in the 1980s when I was studying for the MDiv, I did my field education at First Baptist Church of Boston (this was long before I became Episcopalian). Part of my work there was to help the congregation think about how it might engage the growing homeless population in Boston’s Back Bay and to make connections with other churches and social service agencies who were responding to people experiencing homelessness. As my journey took me away from ministry and toward academics, and as we moved away from urban Boston, those experiences faded into the background and I was interested in seeing how things had changed in the 25 years that had passed since my time at First Baptist.

A couple of months after arriving at Grace and after learning about policies and procedures at the shelter and beginning to explore the larger context of homelessness, service providers, and advocacy in Madison, I made a phone call to an old friend back in Boston. Jim had been a classmate of mine at Harvard Divinity School and with another classmate had founded a shelter in the basement of a Harvard Square church while students. 25 years later, he was still running a shelter, this one in another church on the other side of Cambridge Common. I described to him what I had learned and said that it seemed like Madison was in a time-warp, that service providers, government, and advocates were doing and saying the sorts of things that we saw in Boston in the early 80s. Jim confirmed my suspicions and shared with me what he was doing in the shelter he operated and what a more humane system, focused on the dignity and improving the lives of the guests might look like.

In February 2010, 6 months after I arrived at Grace, an article describing conditions in the shelter at Grace was published in Isthmus.It unleashed a storm of controversy at Grace and among supporters and staff of Porchlight and homeless advocates. It caught the eye of people at Epic Software and eventually Epic funded a long-overdue and much-needed renovation of the facility.  They upgraded the kitchen, showers, repainted, replaced the flooring, provided new bunks and storage lockers. It was an transformation.

What it couldn’t was solve the underlying problems of the shelter space. It was and remains a church basement. It is minimally accessible for disabled people (a jerry-rigged system allows access via wheelchair). It isn’t large enough to accommodate the number of men seeking shelter there, so every night, a group walk from there several blocks to St. John’s Lutheran Church on E. Washington Ave., where they sleep on mats on the floor. In the winter, First Methodist Church also serves as an overflow shelter on weeknights. All guests pass through Grace for intake and the evening meal, returning for breakfast as well. When the doors of the shelter open in the evening, the men line up in Grace’s courtyard, where they wait unprotected from the weather.

The shelter came to Grace in the early 1980s on a one-year, temporary basis and has remained there because of complacency and the difficulty of developing alternative solutions. Over the years of my ministry, I have struggled with my own and Grace’s role in all of this. I have made mistakes as I seek to advocate for improved facilities while supporting the important work that takes place here. I have been the target of neighbors’ and community members’ ire because of the presence of the shelter at Grace and also the target of advocates’ anger and criticism because of the conditions in the shelter and the treatment of its guests by Porchlight staff.

But what has been most heartbreaking for me are the memories of the tragedies. One Christmas Eve early on in my ministry, I came out of the early service to find churchgoers standing around a homeless man who had been dropped off from a hospital stay. He was immobile, having seizures on the sidewalk. Shelter staff refused to help because he wasn’t ambulatory. We called 911 and when the ambulance and police came, they told us that while they would take him to the ER, it was very likely he would be brought back here that night.

Then there was the Polar Vortex of 2014, when a man died on the steps of Grace’s tower entry. He had come in to the shelter in -20 temperatures, and with a companion was walking over to one of the overflow shelters. He collapsed and died of heart failure. His death was a tragedy, but it also should have demonstrated to everyone the inadequacy of a system in which necessary and permanent shelters were labeled “overflow.”

You can read all of my blog posts on homelessness by clicking here. They are in reverse chronological order. If you’re interested in how my views have changed (if they have changed, you should start at the very beginning). I will continue my reflections on the last ten years in later posts, including the long struggle for a day resource center and what the future may hold.

Reflecting on a decade of shared ministry 1

As I approach the tenth anniversary of my shared ministry with and at Grace Episcopal Church, I am amazed by what we have accomplished and by how much I have changed and learned over the years. I remember the fear and excitement I felt when I walked through the doors of Grace for the first time as its rector. I remember the challenges we faced, all of the uncertainty, all of the rebuilding of trust that needed to take place in the wake of the previous years’ trauma and conflict. I remember also those leaders who are no longer there, who have moved or passed on to the larger life, such as Sally Phelps who was Senior Warden for the first months of my tenure.

I like to tell people this. When I was working through the ordination process in the Diocese of Upper South Carolina from 2002-2005, if someone had asked me about my dream job, I would have replied, “a downtown historic church with an active homeless ministry in a city with a major university.” On August 1, 2009 I began working in my dream job. Ten years later, it still is. There are constantly new challenges, new people to meet, new opportunities for learning, new opportunities to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Days like today remind me of that.

It began with a meeting of the Community Advisory Team of the Beacon, the Day Resource Center operated by Catholic Charities. The effort to site and operate such a facility was a focus of my work for a couple of years as the lack of such a facility put enormous stress on downtown churches and put the lives of people experiencing homelessness at risk. At some point, I finally gave up as it seemed such a facility would never materialize, and then out of the blue, the miracle happened. A site was located, Catholic Charities received the contract to operate it, and now, nearly two years after it opened, it is seeing an average of over 200 guests a day. Supporting it, even if only by attending quarterly meetings of this group, is a blessing. Hearing about its successes and helping in some small to address challenges is incredibly rewarding.

In the office later, as I was working through the email accumulated over the weekend, I received a phone call from my friend and colleague, the chaplain at Capitol Lakes, who requested I come to administer last rites to an Episcopal resident. I walked the two blocks, administered the rite, and returned to the office and to that email inbox that had continued to grow.

Lunch was a lovely conversation with my downtown (Protestant) clergy colleagues. When I arrived in 2009, while I was warmly welcomed by my Episcopal colleagues, I had no contact with my neighbor clergy, except that I initiated. I resolved that I would reach out when new clergy came. Now, I’m the veteran. Of the other three at the table, one is in his fourth year; one started just a few weeks ago. In addition to the simple joy of getting to know each and spending some time together, we talked about the issues that we all share, most significantly, the challenges of ministry with and among people experiencing homelessness.

I’m writing this from a coffee shop on Monroe St., where I am holding open office hours on Tuesday afternoons throughout the summer. One of the emails I sent earlier in the day was to the chair of the Personnel Committee to let her know that I would be working on staff ministry reviews if I was undisturbed by visitors. Fortunately, for that task, I was able to finish the ones I was working on. By the way, the office hours experiment has been a success. Not only have I had visitors and conversations I would not otherwise have had, last week the presence of two newcomers to Madison and Grace, both recently retired, was an opportunity for them to connect with each other as well as with me. And in between visits, I’ve been able to get a lot of work done without the distractions of the office.

One of the things I did before beginning this post was to go back to my blog archives from 2009. I was curious whether I wrote much about the beginning of my ministry. The answer is no, except for in my sermons. The transition to full-time parish ministry wasn’t particularly difficult. What was challenging and unexpected was simply the level of administrative detail, the constant new challenges of ministry in an urban environment. Nothing could have prepared me for that or for the ways in which those challenges, and the changing city itself would affect my ministry.

In some essays over the next few weeks, I hope to reflect on some of the themes I detect in my and Grace’s shared ministry over the last decade: homelessness, our relationship with the political life of city, state, and nation, racism, and the transformation of American Christianity. All of these are themes I’ve preached and written about over the years, but I think it would be helpful for myself and others to reflect on them in light of our past experience as we think about the future.

The last ten years have been exciting and challenging. They have been difficult at times, and there were periods where we weren’t certain that Grace and I were a good fit. I have caused pain to others and have suffered some pain as well. But through it all I have sensed God’s presence in my life and in our common life, ministries, and outreach. We have sought to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ, to be his body in this place, and to be a place of healing, hope and witness to Christ’s redemptive love. I pray that we continue to do all of this in the years to come, with God’s help.

The Future of the Men’s Drop-In Shelter at Grace, updated

Yesterday I wrote:

In an important article examining the mayoral candidates’ position on housing issues, there   was a line that threw me for a loop:

Porchlight’s men’s shelter at Grace Episcopal Church on Capitol Square will need to be moved due to redevelopment on the block…

After expressing my dismay to the author of the article, he added this sentence:

The current shelter is inadequate, and should be replaced, but won’t be displaced unless a replacement facility is created, said Rev. D. Jonathan Grieser, rector at Grace Episcopal.

I’m grateful for the conversation and for the clarification. A new shelter is needed, not to ease the way for another downtown development but because the current shelter is not adequate to serve the needs of our community.

The Future of the Men’s Drop-In Shelter at Grace Church

In an important article examining the mayoral candidates’ position on housing issues, there   was a line that threw me for a loop:

Porchlight’s men’s shelter at Grace Episcopal Church on Capitol Square will need to be moved due to redevelopment on the block…

This is not now true and will never be true. The Men’s Drop-In Shelter will move from Grace only when our community comes together to create a new purpose-built shelter designed according to best practices, and adequate to the needs of the guest who seek shelter there.

The Drop-In Shelter came to Grace on a one-year trial basis in 1984-1985. That it remains here 35 years later reflects Grace’s commitment to the most vulnerable members of our society, and that our community has lacked the political will to develop an alternative, more adequate, and permanent solution.

In fact, Grace’s leadership has begun a conversation on creating a new men’s shelter. We have met with homeless providers, city and county elected officials, and other community leaders. The counsel we have consistently received is that unless we set a deadline, we will never build enough momentum and urgency to create change. And that has been our dilemma. Our commitment to the men who sleep at Grace each night (and at the overflow shelters at St. John’s Lutheran and First United Methodist) is such that we could never issue an ultimatum. So we have slowly begun building support for our ultimate goal of a shelter that our city and county can be proud of.

Just last Sunday, we offered an update to our congregation on where we are with these efforts. In the coming weeks, we hope to contract with a consultant who will help us gauge community and governmental interest in such a project and solicit leadership from a broad representation of the community in our effort. If the climate seems favorable, we will move forward with the next steps: finding a location and beginning to seek funding. It’s a long-term project. Given my experience with Day Resource Center (the Beacon), I anticipate it taking anywhere from five to ten years.

A possible shelter move, while complicated by the development proposal for the new Wisconsin History Museum, is independent of any redevelopment plans. While Grace Church has been informed as the development proposal has moved forward, we are not currently involved in the project.

Ultimately, there are questions about the future use of our property, especially the west wing which houses the men’s shelter and our food pantry. Both of those entities provide essential services and are central to Grace’s response to the proclamation of Jesus Christ to feed the hungry and provide shelter for the homeless. Similarly, any development that  Grace undertakes on our property will have to support our mission and ministry and be consistent with the gospel mandate to preach good news to the poor and to proclaim justice in the heart of the city.

My hope is that our community comes together in support of our effort. I also hope that this issue will become a central element of the mayoral campaign. Whatever vision for Madison that the candidates have, a great city is great only to the extent that all of its residents are able to flourish.