What salsa dancing has taught me about church in the 21st Century: Annual Report 2019

Another year of growth, with exciting new developments in our common life and ministry as we were reminded by the lovely slide show prepared by Arianna. Before going further, I would like to thank the staff—Christina, Ari, Pat, the folks in the kitchen, Berkley and Mark, Vikki, and especially Deacon Carol. And the outgoing wardens John and Greg, and vestry members Paula, Kabura, and John, who agreed to fill out the balance of Jarrod Irwin’s term.

It’s great that we are growing, especially because we are going against the trend of decline in the diocese, the Episcopal Church, and Christianity in the US. Growth brings challenges. As new members join us, and as visitors continue to explore connecting with us, we are reaching the limits of what we can do with our current staff and volunteer base. We began talking about the possibility of calling an Associate Rector, the budget that is being presented to the congregation today includes funding for such a position beginning on July 1, but our conversation should be driven not by financial worry but by our desires to deepen our relationships with each other, to reach out more effectively and creatively into our city and to respond faithfully and courageously to God’s call.

Bishop Search.

In the coming year, we will say good bye to Bishop Miller as he retires after 17 years as the Bishop of the Diocese of Milwaukee. We will also begin to make plans for our next bishop. Even now, that search process is taking shape. The Standing Committee of the Diocese, the entity with the responsibility for overseeing episcopal transitions, is in the process of selecting a search committee. It’s likely that the members of that body will be made public before the end of the year.

The search consultant, the Rev’d Dr. Anne Hallisey, will be in the Diocese in January, leading the clergy retreat from January 20-22, and then holding a retreat with the Search Committee January 24-25. It’s been a long time since we’ve had an episcopal search, so it’s worth reminding you of the process. There will be intensive study of the current state of the diocese. Members of the search committee will visit parishes, interview clergy and lay people. There will be a survey distributed that will solicit opinions about the state of the diocese, perceived needs, and what we might like to see in the next bishop. Eventually, a diocesan profile will be prepared, and the names of nominees solicited. The search committee will hold a retreat with select candidates, visit them in their contexts, do the necessary vetting process, and eventually publish the list of nominees. But even after that, there will be the possibility of additional nominees being brought forward. An election date will be set; the candidates will tour the diocese giving us the opportunity for us to get to know them. Finally, there will be an electing convention. The candidate who receives a majority of votes from both the clergy and the delegates elected by parishes, will be elected bishop; but their ordination will not take place until they receive a majority of consents from bishops and standing committees of the dioceses of the Episcopal Church. We don’t know the timeline for any of this, but it’s likely that the process of election will take most of the next year, and we won’t have a new bishop until some time in 2021.

Many of you may wonder what any of this has to Grace Church. We see the bishop only rarely; few of us are involved in any diocesan ministries or commissions, beyond the Haiti Project, Deacon Carol’s work with the Commission on Global Reconciliation, and our delegates’ attendance at diocesan convention. Still, we are not a stand-alone congregation. The search for a new bishop provides us an opportunity to intensify our engagement with the diocese, help shape its future, and allow other congregations and clergy learn from our experience in downtown Madison over the last decade.

I am completing my second term as a member of Diocesan Executive Council. In the last year, I was asked by the Bishop to participate in a subcommittee of that body whose task was to look at the relationship of the Diocesan Haiti Project with the diocese as a whole. As we worked, it became clear that the future viability of the Haiti Project would depend on a period of intense diocesan engagement with the Project, helping to develop new leadership, bring transparency and stability to its finances, and raise its visibility in the diocese. I volunteered to co-chair the Haiti Project Steering Committee for at least a year as we sought to build on its strengths and address some of its vulnerabilities. Our work is made more challenging by the difficult situation on the ground in Haiti. I expect to continue involvement in that work for the immediate future but hope that by the end of 2020, new leadership will be in place to work with a new bishop to shape the future relationship between the diocese and this crucial outreach ministry.

New Homeless Shelter.

As most of you know, for a number of years a group from Grace Church have been exploring a bundle of issues around the possible redevelopment of the West Wing and the future of the Men’s Drop-In Shelter that Grace has hosted since 1984. In addition, there have been questions about the impact of the proposed new historical museum on our property. Over the last year, we have taken a number of significant steps. As we continue to research future possibilities for the West Wing, we worked with a developer on the economic feasibility of a limited project that would add a floor and create a roofline that would match the nave. Unfortunately, that possibility while aesthetically pleasing is not feasible economically. We have not had significant conversations with the Museum project developers in the last year.

Much of our work has focused on exploring whether there is interest and energy in the wider community for a new, purpose-built shelter adequate to the needs of our unhoused neighbors. We contracted with Ms. Susan Schmitz, retired president of Downtown Madison, Inc, to help us discern whether a new shelter project might be welcomed by both the private and public sectors. Her initial contract is concluding and with her help we have decided to move forward with the formation of a steering committee that will continue our work and build coalitions with the ultimate goal of a purpose-built shelter. Along with her, we have met with city and county elected officials and staff, service providers, and other stakeholders. There seems to be significant interest and momentum building that over time could result in a new facility for people experiencing homelessness.

As that work proceeds, Grace Church will continue to be involved with representation on the steering committee and shepherding the process. It will undoubtedly take several years to reach completion and as we have watched the progress of the proposed Salvation Army redevelopment, we know that it will take a great deal of effort, political will, and careful listening.

With the new museum project and the potential shelter move, we will have to engage in simultaneous conversations about the future of our physical plant, especially the west wing, and how our ministry and mission might adapt to the changing needs of our neighborhood, and the changing built environment. As I have said many times over the years, the questions driving our conversations should begin with our careful attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit, and our faithfulness to Jesus’ call to us to share the good news. How can we be a blessing to our neighborhood, and how can our buildings be an agent of the church’s mission to reconcile humans with God?

I want to close with a story; it’s one I told the vestry a couple of months ago but I hope it will get you thinking as well. Corrie and I are ballroom dancers, and the demographics of ballroom dancing are pretty much like the demographics of the Episcopal Church; the vast majority of people at ballroom dances are over 50; except that is, for the young couples learning their wedding dance (sound familiar?). This summer, we decided to try something new—salsa and we went to a venue downtown that has an hour-long bachata or salsa lesson followed by live music. The demographics there were quite different—of the 100 or so who usually attend, no more than a handful were over 50, and in the group classes the same teacher offers at a studio, the difference is even more stark. We were usually more than 20 years older than anyone else in the room. But it’s not just about learning moves; the teacher has created community, making use of social media. They have regular social gatherings, they become friends and hang out together. My point is not that we need to start salsa classes or a jazz mass; my point is that community is being created in completely new ways now and often outside of traditional institutions like the church.

We have to take risks; we have to experiment; we have to continue to ask new questions and explore new approaches as we seek to deepen our relationships with each other and make connections with our neighbors who work and live in downtown Madison. In the last ten years, we have done that time and again, and while sometimes our efforts have faltered, we have also seen new life. My prayer for us as a congregation is that as we continue to discern God’s call, we have the courage to experiment, to take risks and to follow Jesus into the heart of the city, and into the heart of his love.

 

 

All the Lazaruses in our doorways: A Sermon for Proper 21C, 2019

You’ve all seen the sight as you come to church on Sunday mornings or if you’re downtown at the Overture Center for a concert, or out at dinner at a nice restaurant. As you walk down the sidewalk, you are confronted by panhandlers or see homeless people sitting on the benches. If it’s night, there are people sleeping in doorways or alleys. Whether there are more people experiencing homelessness now than in previous years, the perception that it is a growing problem certainly is real. In a meeting on Friday, Alder Mike Verveer, the alder for this district, said that he has fielded more phone calls and emails, had more conversations with constituents about homelessness this summer than at any previous time in his 24-year tenure on the City Council. Continue reading

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.

Touring Higher Ground St. Paul

On Monday, April 8, a group from Madison drove up to St. Paul to visit Catholic Charities’ Higher Ground shelterwhich opened in January 2017. Our group consisted of city and county staff as well as representatives from service providers and other interested parties like myself. It was an opportunity to visit a facility that had been designed for the purpose of providing overnight emergency shelter as we dream of a new shelter in Madison.

The scale of the project is breathtaking. The shelter itself provides 172 beds for men, sixty for women. In addition, on the second floor there are 48 pay-to-stay beds and ten medical respite beds. The upper floors provide193 additional SRO (single-room occupancy) beds. Opposite the shelter, another facility that will house daytime services as well as additional housing is under construction with completion scheduled for fall 2019. Overall the campus is the result of a public-private partnership and a successful $100 million capital campaign.

As we approached the shelter, we were greeted by homeless people who were hanging out on the broad plaza in front of the building. One shared a little bit about his life, another gathered us and offered a prayer. Inside, our formal greeting took place in the spacious intake area which is used for both the men’s and women’s sections of the shelter. We were given a brief history of the efforts to provide emergency shelter and then taken on a tour of part of the facility.

The stark difference between the Drop-In Men’s Shelter in Madison and Higher Ground was obvious at first glance. A spacious lobby accommodates guests at intake unlike the cramped hallway where intake occurs at Grace, requiring that men wait outside during cold and inclement weather. Inside the shelter is ample room for guests to sit. There are mats available for overflow. The bunks are efficiently and thoughtfully designed, offering electric outlets, USB ports, and storage lockers. Guests can reserve their bunk for the next night which gives them the opportunity to leave their belongings in the small lockable storage locker. The reservation policy means that there is relatively little turnover because the shelter operates at capacity year-round.

Preston Patterson, manager of the shelter at Grace, in the Higher Ground lobby

A shot of the men’s shelter area

The outdoor smoking area

a bunk showing storage locker and bedding

Our tour guides

The facility was light and airy. One of the features is an outdoor smoking area that is always accessible from the shelter. Benches and tables allow smoking guests to sit comfortably and engage in conversation.

The pay-to-stay area offers more seclusion and more storage space than the first-floor shelter. Guests pay a fee for each night, payable in advance. The money is held in escrow and as it accumulates up to $500 can be used toward permanent housing (first-month’s rent or security deposit).

a peek into the pay-to-stay area. The bunks are the same as below but there’s more storage and privacy

Because Higher Ground is not the only emergency shelter in St. Paul and there are facilities in nearby Minneapolis as well, policies and procedures can be both stricter as regards behavior and more flexible around limits on stay and the like. Some of them might not work in Madison.

One of the most difficult issues facing any discussion of building a new shelter in Madison is location. There is widespread consensus among government, service providers, and homeless advocates that any homeless shelter needs to be located downtown near transportation and other services. Higher Ground was built on property that was already owned by Catholic Charities. Initial attempts to locate it elsewhere faltered on neighborhood opposition.

I came away from the tour deeply impressed by facility’s design, by its operation, and by the commitment of the staff who led the tour. St. Paul can be proud of the facility that offers shelter and services to people experiencing homelessness, ensuring their dignity and offering them opportunities to move temporary to permanent housing as they seek to build lives of meaning and contribute to the greater good of the community.

It also reaffirmed my commitment to working with others in our city and county to create a purpose-built shelter adequate to the needs of our community and dedicated to helping those who seek shelter there to find permanent housing and to lead productive, meaningful lives.

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.