The End of an Era: The departure of the men’s shelter from Grace

The End of an Era. What is God’s call for Grace Church now?

The news reports this week made public what had been clear to many of us since the beginning of the pandemic. The men’s homeless shelter that has been at Grace since 1984-5 will have a new permanent home funded by the City of Madison and Dane County. While the announced location fell through today, the City and County remain committed to finding a new, permanent location.

When the lockdown began in mid-March, Porchlight the agency operating the shelter, the city, and the county scrambled to find a suitable alternative. On March 30, shelter operations were moved to the Warner Park Community Center on the north side. The close quarters of Grace and the overflow shelters at St. John’s Lutheran and First Methodist simply couldn’t provide adequate space for social distancing and for the health and sanitation protocols that were necessary to prevent widespread infection. Within a few weeks, it became clear that the space at Warner Park was much better suited for shelter operations and in spite of the transportation challenges, both staff and guests preferred the new facility.

As time went on and the pandemic continued, the possibility that shelter operations could return to the downtown churches became more and more unlikely. The city began seeking alternative locations for a permanent shelter and we at Grace began thinking about a future without the shelter. The announcement this week brought this period of uncertainty to an end.

There’s an enormous irony here. I have been at Grace since 2009 and for much of that time, my ministry has involved work with homeless people and around advocacy. Some years before I arrived, efforts to find a new location foundered on neighborhood opposition and political apathy. In the early 2010s, it took several years and several failed attempts to find a suitable location for a day resource center; a process that culminated with the opening of the Beacon in October, 2018.

At Grace, we had begun talking about the need for a new shelter. After extensive renovations funded by Epic in 2010, the shelter again was beginning to show signs of wear and tear. Beyond that, the small size of the facility, its minimal accessibility to people with mobility issues, the fact that guests were forced to wait in the elements before entry, were ongoing problems that no amount of money could solve. For several years, we had conversations internally and approached downtown partners, city and county staff, and elected officials about the inadequacy of the current facility and the need for others to step up and take responsibility for solving the problem.

Our conversations were always cordial and supportive but they were also inconclusive. The former mayor asked us when we entered his office, “What’s your deadline?” Everyone agreed that a new shelter was desperately needed; but no one seemed willing to expend the political capital, or the time and energy to see it through. Finally, we began to work on our own. With the help of an outside consultant, we gathered a group of advocates, elected officials, and downtown stakeholders to begin the process of working toward a new shelter. The group had its first meeting in November 2019. In March 2020, the pandemic arrived in Madison.

The pandemic accomplished what we couldn’t. It demonstrated the inadequacy of the facility and raised to the level of emergency the urgency of developing an alternative. I’m enormously grateful to local governments, to the mayor and County Executive, to alders and supervisors, to county, and especially to city staff who have been working on this. A process I anticipated would take at least five years has reached a first, important milestone in a little over six months.

This does mark the end of an era. We received notice a few weeks ago that Porchlight would be terminating its lease as of the end of 2020. A relationship that has continued for thirty-five years with Porchlight and its predecessor agencies is coming to an end. Our identity as the church with the shelter is also coming to an end. Even as we celebrate the new beginning and look forward to a new purpose-built facility, we also take great pride in those people whose vision first welcomed the shelter to Grace, and the volunteers who supported it over the decades—the thousands who prepared and served meals over the years. For us at Grace, homeless ministry became part of our core identity; it attracted members and it shaped us as a congregation. We did more than welcome homeless people to the shelter; we welcomed them to our services and to our fellowship activities.

The shelter’s departure comes at a time of crisis in Madison’s downtown. The pandemic and protests have transformed our neighborhood. The downtown with its many restaurants, shops, the vibrant arts community, all have been devastated over the last six months. Despair and fear are palpable as one walks the empty sidewalks. 

Grace Church has been a presence on Capitol Square for over 175 years; our building dates from 1858. We have seen a lot over that time and the square has seen enormous change. This is a time of great uncertainty as we don’t know what life will look life after the pandemic. We don’t know whether many of the changes we have seen will be permanent. But as we look into that uncertain future and ponder what Grace’s identity and mission might be in the years to come, we must respond faithfully and creatively to the opportunities that present themselves. The departure of the shelter frees us to imagine new possibilities for our spaces and to explore new ways of connecting with our neighbors, including homeless people who will continue to live among us downtown.

Coincidentally, I had organized a meeting for tonight of our mission/outreach committee and our newly re-formed Master Plan Steering Committee, to begin a conversation about future ministry and mission at Grace and how our space might contribute that work. The public announcement of a new location underscores the importance of these conversations.

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.

Walking the Stations of the Cross in Downtown Madison, April 7, 2017

At the entrance of the Dane County Jail

This is the fourth (I think) year we’ve walked the Stations of the Cross in Downtown Madison. It’s a strange, uncomfortable experience in that for me, I’m walking streets I walk nearly every day as I go to and from work or grab lunch or run errands. This year, as in past years, I encountered familiar faces as I walked, among them two elected officials of county and city government.

This year, in addition to the usual distractions of city traffic and people going about their business, we had to compete with construction on Capitol Square and with the Solidarity Singers, who seemed to be a larger group than they had been in recent weeks.

To be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to today’s event. For whatever reason, my spiritual focus has been elsewhere, and my energy diverted to other matters. If it hadn’t concluded at Grace, I doubt whether I would have participated.

I was surprised how quickly I was caught up in the experience. It wasn’t just the familiar stations, and the meditations that connected Jesus’ suffering with the suffering on the streets of Madison. It was also about making Christ’s suffering present on these streets, at the door of the Dane County Jail, opposite the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum, and at the steps of Grace where a homeless person died in the winter of 2014, and where so many homeless people have sought refuge over the last thirty years, and hungry people have been fed.

We do so much to protect ourselves from the knowledge and experience of human suffering on the streets of our city. The homeless and panhandlers are harassed and shoved out of sight. The inhumanity of the Dane County Jail is at its worst several stories above the room in the City County building where Madison’s Common Council and the Dane County Board of Supervisors deliberate.

To walk the way of the cross in Downtown Madison is to bear witness to the blood on our streets and in our city. It is also to see in that suffering and pain, the suffering and pain of Jesus Christ.

Today I realized that our little Stations of the Cross, walked as we’ve done it every year on the Friday before Palm Sunday, has become an essential part of my preparation for the drama of Holy Week.

 

For background on the devotion of the Stations of the Cross and how we do it here in Madison, follow this link.

Movement on the homeless shelter?

The long-awaited and overdue feasibility study commissioned by the City of Madison has finally been completed. Architects are proposing several alternatives for using a city-owned property on S. Fairchild St. for a permanent men’s homeless shelter. You can read about their ideas here.

We’ve been waiting for this report for months and its completion is another step in what might be an exciting and very different future both for homeless men in Madison and for Grace Church. The Men’s Drop-In Shelter came to Grace in 1984 on a one-year trial basis and we’ve hosted ever since. Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to find alternative locations and better solutions, but nothing ever came of them.

A recent series of articles in the Madison State Journal have provided a comprehensive and troubling overview of Madison’s homeless problems and the inadequacies of our shelter system. Those articles are available here.

This is truly a wonderful opportunity but there are significant challenges still to come. The neighborhood meeting on Monday night will be an opportunity to hear about the possibilities and to provide feedback to the architects, city staff, and elected leaders. Perhaps the greatest challenge will be financial. While the city is willing to provide the property, there are no public funds available for renovation of the space. At this point, we don’t have any idea of what those costs might be, and whether the private sector can produce the funds necessary.

Nonetheless, I am optimistic about the future. We have found a location that could work which is an important step forward and in conversations and meetings I’ve been with other stakeholders, there seems to be a great deal of excitement about the possibility of a new shelter designed for our current needs.

But that leaves a final question. What does all this mean for Grace Church. We have hosted the shelter for over thirty years, and over that time, ministry to and with the homeless has become part of our identity. We have created enormous good will throughout the community because of the shelter’s presence here, and when there is negative publicity, we suffer as well.

If and when the shelter moves, the effects of that move on Grace will be significant. We will have to think about how we might continue to engage in ministry with the homeless; how we might continue to support the work of the shelter and its current operator Porchlight. Beyond that, Grace will have to discern anew what the best uses of our space might be and how best we might share Christ’s love with our neighbors. Those conversations will be exciting as well and I look forward to them.

 

Proclaiming the Year of the Lord’s Favor: A Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, 2016

 

 

As I’ve walked around our building the past few weeks, trying to negotiate my way around painters, tilers, electricians, and carpenters, I’ve noticed that my own feelings of anticipation and excitement are growing. I’ve heard others express similar feelings. Everything we’ve worked so hard for over the last years, all of the meetings, the conversations, the fund raising, the visioning, all of it has brought us to this point. It seems like the closer we get to completion—2 or 3 weeks away, the more our excitement is spiking as we look forward to taking ownership of and living into our newly-renovated and expanded spaces. We’re almost there.

At the same time, as I walk around Grace, I notice all the things we didn’t do, the product of decisions we made to limit the scope of our project to keep within our financial resources. In a way, I think that’s a positive thing, because even as we celebrate and enjoy all that we’ve done, we will have some very visible reminders of the work that remains ahead, the work we have to do in the years to come. We won’t be able to sit back and relax. Continue reading

Abiding in the presence of Christ: A Sermon for Proper 16, Year B

Today is a historic day for Grace Church. As we break ground officially on our renovation project, it’s important to acknowledge all of the hard work and vision that have brought us to this moment. We’ve been working on this for three years. As I’ve said before, there have been countless meetings, hours and hours of conversation and debate. Almost everyone involved at Grace has participated in some way in the work as we’ve developed, revised, revised, and revised again the Master Plan, saw our Giving Light, Giving Hope capital campaign to its successful conclusion, and helped us prepare our facilities for construction and the move. Continue reading

A Holy Place for Compassion and Rest: A Sermon for Proper 11, Year B

 

After hearing today’s readings, you might suspect that I selected them for the occasion, as we make last minute preparations for the beginning of construction today and over the next few days. But that’s not the case. As you know, we follow the lectionary and so the fact that we heard the story of David’s desire to build a temple, and the famous image of Christ the cornerstone from Ephesians, are only coincidental. Continue reading

Torn-Apart Heavens: A Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord, 2015

Today is an exciting day in the one hundred and seventy five year history of Grace Church. It is also a day tinged with just a little bit of sadness and regret. We are celebrating the success of our Giving Light Giving Hope capital campaign that has raised nearly a million dollars and laid the foundation for renovations to our spaces that will equip us to engage in mission and ministry in the coming decades of our rapidly changing world. Continue reading

The Burning Bush and Grace Church: A Sermon for Proper 17, Year A

Most of you know that we are embarking on a capital campaign in a few weeks in order to renovate and upgrade our facilities. We’ve been talking about this for several years now, gone through several iterations of plans, but now we’re on the brink of the campaign itself. Excitement is building and over the next few weeks you will hear more about the campaign itself, how you can be involved, and more about what precisely we hope to do as we renovate our historic facilities. Continue reading

The first Episcopal worship in Madison, WI (July 29, 1838)

and the third sermon ever in Dane County!

Two accounts have been widely disseminated. One is of an eyewitness, Simeon Mills, who also was co-owner of the store in which the service took place. His wife took over leadership of the music after the “reverend gentlemen” failed to pitch a tune, and also hosted Bishop Kemper and other guests at dinner between the services.

In the summer of 1838, Mr. John Catlin and myself, having rather outgrown our little log store, 14 x 16 feet on the ground, undertook the erection of a metropolitan building eighteen feet front, thirty-two feet deep and one and a half stories high, in which to open out our general assortment. We had so far progressed with the work as to have the building inclosed and the lower floor laid, but without doors and windows, when one Saturday was made notable by the arrival of the Rt. Rev. Bishop Kemper, the Rev. Mr. Cadle, later of Green Bay, and the Rev. Mr. Grier, of Galena, Ill.

It must not for one moment be imagined that such an arrival in our little community was not the event of the season, that must be duly noticed and improved. It could not be truthfully said that Mr. Catlin and myself opened our new store for religious services, for the front was already open, and, by the introduction of a few boards and blocks of wood for seats, and an empty flour barrel turned bottom end up and covered with a table spread for a desk, the First Episcopal Church of Madison, of sufficient capacity to accommodate the entire population, was complete and ready for dedication on the morrow by the Bishop of the Northwest.

The morning of the second Sunday of July 1838, was bright and warm, and the condition of our improvised church was no uncomfortable feature of the morning service. The people assembled, and the service was commenced at the appropriate time, but “as it was in the beginning,” when no man was found to till the ground, so it was now; when the hymn was given out, no man was found to “pitch the tune” and lead in singing. One of the reverend gentlemen and some others tried their hands and throats, and piped away awhile, but finally gave up in despair, when Mrs. Mills volunteered to lead the choir, and helped out that part of the service, as the Bishop was afterward pleased to express it, “with marked ability.” The discourse was given by the Bishop, and was the third sermon ever preached in Dane County.

Service being over, under the direction of Mrs. Mills, who always took the lead in the family in all religious matters, the reverend gentleman, Mr. Catlin and a few other friends were escorted to our house and a banquet spread of everything choice that the market and the house could afford, the Bishop meanwhile making himself and the little circle merry at the expense of a reverend brother by imitating his style and effort to pitch a tune and lead in singing, and advised the employment of the hostess to give him a few lessons in music.

It is just possible that at our little dinner the courses were not as numerous or the viands as costly or abundant as may have been set before the Bishop in after years, but it was our best, and at all events they were not sent away empty. It was an occasion never forgotten, and was the subject of a pleasant remark as we sometimes met in the downward journey of life. Simeon Mills, recorded in A History of Dane County, Wisconsin, 1880

And from Bishop Kemper:

“A store partly built was comfortably prepared for us, and we had two services at nine and two; in the morning a full attendance and a goodly number all day united in the service.” From the Diaries of Bishop Jackson Kemper, date July 29, 1838

Mills recollection that it occurred “on the second Sunday in July” was written long after the event and is contradicted by Bishop Kemper’s diary.

Another historical tidbit that I came across this afternoon. According to a Milwaukee newspaper article from 1898, Grace Church (completed in 1858) was reputed to be the first stone Episcopal Church west of the Allegheny Mountains.