The Edgewater

This post is directed primarily to residents of Madison, but it might have some wider interest. For over a year, there has been enormous controversy in the city over the redevelopment of the Edgewater hotel. Madison’s city council had an all-night session last night, debating the merits of the proposal and tax-payer financing. There’s more info here.

I’ve not been following the debate in much detail; there seems to have been rather more heat than light in the whole process. But I will make several comments. We live downtown, only a few blocks away from the site in question. There are things about downtown life I love–being able to walk to work, to concerts, and to restaurants. But there are also things I dislike intensely. For example, sleepless nights every weekend because of the drunks who whoop it up after closing time. The city seems not to take any interest in the quality of life in this neighborhood. We are surrounded by students who live in substandard housing, and treat their residences and their neighbors accordingly.

Quite apart from the merits of the proposal, and I’m not at all certain that the Edgewater is situated to attract any guests except those interested in enjoying the delights of UW’s fraternity row, what bothers me is the use of taxpayer money, $16 million, to support a small project with limited impact.

At the same time, I think about this. While the city spends $16 million to support this boutique project, Grace Church hosts a homeless shelter that in the winter serves upwards of 150 guests each night. In 2008, according to Porchlight, Inc’s annual report, the city provided $0 toward supporting the shelter. It’s clear where the city’s values are, and where the city council and the mayor stand on quality of life in Madison.

Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany


Grace Church

Last Epiphany, 2010

February 14, 2010

I’m sure that by now most of you have seen or heard about the article from this week’s Isthmus about the homeless shelter. If not, it’s posted in the back and is available online. I urge all of you to read it. I knew it was coming out; I wasn’t quite sure when it would appear, and I certainly had no idea of the content. But Thursday morning I got up around early and was working on a couple of projects. I kept checking their website to see if anything was on line. Then I saw the cover and the headline: “Bleak House: Grace Episcopal’s homeless shelter is a dispiriting place.” And my heart sank. I still had no idea what was in the article, so when I came to the church, I stopped by Barrique’s to see if they had copies of this week’s issue yet. I went to the office and read the article.

I’ve preached about the shelter a good bit already in the months I’ve been here and if you visit my blog, you’ll read more of my ruminations. Seven months is not a long time to develop a perspective on one’s ministry in a new place, but it has become clear to me that right now, a good bit of my job is going to be involved in the issue of homelessness. I didn’t expect that, and I’ve had more than one parishioner say to me that they wished I hadn’t already gotten so involved in it.

I wished I hadn’t as well. I certainly didn’t expect it. Coming in, I suppose I thought that having a homeless shelter, run by an outside organization, would give me a little cache, my ministry a little edginess, without actually having to be very involved.

But I quickly learned that wouldn’t be enough. As winter came on, and as I walked past the line-up night after night, I began to be more and more troubled by what I saw, more concerned about what I heard, more passionate about what was going on. And I learned that there were others who were also becoming more involved and more passionate. Perhaps we are close to achieving critical mass. I don’t know.

The headline on the article was troubling. I immediately shot an email off to the author to complain about it, and he assured me that there would be a clarification in the next issue. For better or worse, it’s not “our” shelter. We rent space to Porchlight, but of course we bear responsibility as Christians for the treatment of the guests and for the kind of hospitality that is shared there.

The shelter is a reflection on us as a church. The conditions in it, the treatment of the guests by Porchlight, all say something about how we understand and live out our call to be Christ’s body here. That’s why that headline should bother us. My first reaction was quite natural, to get defensive, to attack the messenger. Perhaps yours was as well. Unfortunately, there’s a great deal of truth in that headline: the shelter is a dispiriting place. I hear it almost every day from the men who stay there and we at Grace share in the responsibility for what it has become over the years.

Again, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not placing blame or criticizing the past clerical or lay leadership of Grace, nor Grace’s membership. I’m not interested in exploring or analyzing the history of the relationship between Grace and Porchlight. I learned quickly that Grace is a complex institution that requires a great deal of energy, time, and commitment to keep going. We can’t do everything that needs to be done. We don’t have the resources: financial, human, spiritual, to do everything. So people have to make difficult choices about where to spend money, where to invest time and talent. You might have called a rector whose passion for the gospel and ministry lay elsewhere and would have focused her energies and your attention on different projects. Instead, you called me.

The story broke as I was thinking about my sermon for today and beginning to look ahead to Lent. As I pondered Luke’s gospel for today and thought about the situation of the shelter guests I remembered the quotation from Matthew’s gospel that I was quoted as referring to in the article: The church’s job, I said, is to clothe the naked and feed the hungry. I was alluding to Matthew 25 to the parable of the sheep and goats, and Jesus words’ “inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” I’m perfectly comfortable thinking about encountering the face of Christ in the homeless, the hungry, in victims of violence and oppression, even in the faces of those suffering in Haiti. Yet I wonder whether my comfort is too comfortable, whether I fully understand what it means to encounter Christ in those faces.

I’ve said repeatedly these past weeks that Epiphany is a season during which we celebrate God’s glory and presence in the world, and above all the incarnation of Jesus Christ, who makes God’s glory and presence manifest in himself. The season of Epiphany always ends with a reading of the gospel story of the transfiguration, that eerie, otherworldly encounter of Jesus with Elijah and Moses on top of a mountain.

I’ve never found this story particularly compelling, probably because I’m not generally fond of those stories that emphasize Jesus’ divine nature or his miraculous powers and this one has nothing to redeem itself like the healing of someone who is blind or deaf or possessed. Instead, it seems to be all about the divine and kind of gratuitous at that, with the appearance of Elijah and Moses.

That might seem to contradict much of what I said last week about experiencing God, as Isaiah did in his vision, as Paul did on the road to Damascus, and as Peter did in the miraculous catch of fish. Each of them was transformed by the experience, each was humbled, each was called. They were other-wordly experiences. The difference, it seems to me, is that in the transfiguration we have two odd and unbelievable events—the first is the transformation of Jesus. Luke doesn’t call it transfiguration, saying only that the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white. The second event was the sudden appearance of Moses and Elijah.

The Transfiguration confronts us directly with the problem and the mystery of Jesus Christ’s divinity. But it does so in a curious way. On other occasions, with the miracles, for example, the demonstration of Jesus’ power is on behalf of someone else, to heal them, to restore them. In this case, the demonstration of Jesus’ divinity is for no reason, or perhaps only to show forth Jesus’ divinity.

But to focus only on what happens to Jesus is to miss some of the significance of the story. Luke’s version is unique in several respects. First, only Luke mentions what the three talked about—“Jesus’ departure.” Literally, the Greek reads “exodus.” So not only are we put in mind of the children of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness by the presence of Moses and the mountaintop setting; there is a connection here as well. And of course it is important that even in the context of a transcendent event like this, we are reminded of what is to come, of the cross and Jesus’ suffering. Another important point made by Luke is in the description of the disciples. It’s not at all clear what is meant here. The NRSV reads “they were weighed down with sleep, but since they were awake they saw his glory. Again, one is put in mind of Gethsemane, and of the same three disciples in Luke, sleeping, because of grief. In the midst of this glory, we have a foreshadowing of the cross.

Indeed, just a few verses along in the gospel, Luke will write: “And Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  It’s a journey we will be walking with him in the coming weeks—the journey to Jerusalem. Lent is a time of reflection, penitence, and preparation for Easter. The glory of Christ that we experience in the resurrection, the glory of Christ of which we have a foretaste today in the story of the Transfiguration, is also the glory of the cross.

Lent has been most often seen as a time for individual focus and reflection, an opportunity for each of us to deepen our relationship with Jesus Christ. It is appropriate, however, that we thank of it as a communal experience as well, that our journey is not one we make alone, but with our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is fitting, then, that as part of our Lenten devotion in the coming weeks, we reflect together on our shared responsibility for Madison’s homeless. I would like to begin that process of reflection by inviting you to join me next Sunday at 8:45 in the library for an initial conversation. I don’t know where that conversation will lead us but I pray that together we will discern where God is leading us.

Peter wanted to build booths on the mountain so that he and the other disciples could continue to bask in the glory of the presence of Moses, Elijah, and the transfigured Christ. He wanted to linger there, as we want to linger in the joy and glory of Epiphany. But the memory of this event will have to suffice for a time, as we make our way through Lent toward Easter and the greater glory of the sorrow and suffering of the Cross transformed into Easter.

Bleak House: Grace Episcopal’s Homeless Shelter a dispiriting place

That’s the headline I woke up to this morning. Here’s a link to the front page. Rather dispiriting, don’t you think? I shot an email off to the author of the article before reading it; it wasn’t yet on the website. By the time I got to the office, copies of The Isthmus were available. The article by Joe Tarr was well-researched, well-written, and balanced. He spent a night in the shelter to get some first-hand experience of what goes on there.

In a return email, Joe assured me they would make a clarification in next week’s issue, but anyone reading the article would quickly realize that the shelte is run by Porchlight, not us; and that it is ours only because we rent the space.

Still, part of the headline is true. The shelter is a dispiriting place, and we need to shoulder some of the responsibility for that.

There is a great deal of energy bubbling up in the downtown area around the issue of homelessness and the shelter and I am very hopeful that there will be some substantive changes. Several innovative ministries and outreach programs have developed recently and the growing concern over conditions in the drop-in shelter may lead to some change there too.

Can we talk?

I’ve been in Madison for over six months now, and one of the things I’ve learned is that agencies, organizations, even communities of faith don’t talk together. For example, there is apparently no structure for clergy to meet regularly and share information and support one another. Presumably, this is done on the denominational level. Certainly we Episcopalians meet regularly. But even though Grace is within three or four blocks of two Lutheran churches, a United Methodist church, and a Catholic church, I have met only one other member of the downtown clergy.

What that means is that it is difficult to find out what other churches are doing, especially in terms of social services. Are we duplicating one another’s efforts? Are there ways we might cooperate on larger projects? Such questions can’t be asked because there is no one to whom one might ask them.

Take homelessness for example. It turns out there are conversations going around all over the downtown area, that involve homeless men and women, clergy, social service providers, and advocates. At these conversations many of the same topics come up: conditions in the drop-in shelter, the availability of social services, etc. People want to mobilize to do something, but the first thing they think of is to develop a new program or organization. It might be better to broaden the conversations and above all, gather the data about programs and problems.

To that end, we at Grace have done something fairly simple–compile a list of meal programs in the downtown area. Sure, such lists exist, but when we began to compare the list with the programs that homeless men and women actually know about, the list suddenly became much longer. So here’s what we’ve come up with: Free Services.

What surprises me most is that more than 25 years ago, when I was doing Field Education at a downtown church in Boston, one of my jobs was to create a roster of services provided by downtown churches, and to develop a way for those churches to communicate what they were doing with one another. Perhaps such efforts took place in Madison’s past, but today, we churches are the proverbial “left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.”

To be honest, I have reached out to other clergy and most of those whom I have contacted have been welcoming and gracious in their response. So perhaps we have the opportunity of turning things around.

In the bleak midwinter

A juxtaposition of two very different experiences with the guests waiting in line for the Drop-In shelter. On Sunday afternoon at 4:00, a small group of people from Grace gathered to sing Christmas carols in the courtyard. Organized by Jon Augspurger, we had a roaring fire and hot cider.

They had tried this last year but couldn’t convince the guys that it was OK to break the rules and come into the courtyard early. This was one of those times where having a collar changes things. The fire and the cider were much appreciated, and  several joined us in singing.

Monday night, a vigil in memorial of those homeless men and women who died in the past year was organized by Madison-Area Urban Ministries. I didn’t participate, except to ring one of our bells for the occasion. One of those who did commented on the fact that most of those who came for the vigil remained quite apart from the shelter guests. Another participant commented on the same thing. The commentary is available here.

I suppose it’s because I encounter shelter guests daily and because it’s a rare Sunday service that doesn’t have at least one or two homeless men in attendance, I’m quick to engage them in conversation. Sometimes, it’s nothing more than a good morning, hope you had a good night, or wishing them well. But I’ll also stop and ask them how they’re doing, if they’ve got any complaints about the shelter.

Of course there are potential problems in such encounters. I’ve had some, but usually it’s with guys who are hanging out away from the shelter. My sense is that there’s safety in numbers–the presence of fifty men waiting in line makes it less likely that one or two will act out.

An interesting week

I saw a side, or sides, of Madison that I hadn’t yet encountered. Wednesday night was the Porchlight Inc annual dinner and awards presentation. Grace Church was very well represented to support our own Russ Boushele who received one of the achievement awards. We met some people, who were often introduced to us, or introduced themselves to us, as former members of Grace. It was a wonderful opportunity to make some connections with people, from across the spectrum. There were people who volunteer at the shelter who made a point of introducing themselves to us.

Thursday night was another banquet, this time Downtown Madison, Incs, annual affair. I went as a guest of Home Savings Bank, our neighbor across W. Washington, and where we do our banking, both as a church and personally. I had a great time getting to know some people and the presentation by the head of Portland, OR’s metro council was very interesting. He focused on the relationship between transportation and urban planning. It reminded me of how very different life is for us here than it was in Greenville. We only have one car, and there are usually several days in the week when it doesn’t leave the garage. Living and working downtown has made an enormous difference in our lives. We have gotten to know other downtown residents as well as people who work and own businesses on Capitol Square. It’s a neighborhood in ways the subdivision we lived in was not.

Friday night, we went to the Symphony concert, thanks to tickets passed on to us by friends. It was great fun, and something of a surprise. We had heard the Nashville Symphony, Spartanburg, and never made it to Greenville’s because, well, we didn’t think it would be worth the trouble. But Madison’s orchestra is quite good and they played a couple of interesting pieces (on the other hand, the concert opened with “The Fountains of Rome”). Afterwards, we went to the cafe on the top floor of the Art Museum for snacks and drinks, and again were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food.

We recognized a few people at all three events, and again, had interesting conversations with random people we met. A vibrant downtown is a wonderful thing, and I keep wondering how we might make Grace an integral part of that vibrant scene, not just scenery that people walk past.

Celebrating success, remembering failure

As I left the church at the end of the day today, I passed the guys as they waited in the misty evening for the shelter doors to open. I caught sight of Russ’s head, and asked what he was doing hanging around with them. Tonight was the big annual awards dinner that Porchlight puts on, and Russ was one of the honorees. He claimed to be waiting for his ride, but he was an hour early.

As I watched him, and later at the dinner as I continued watching him, it was clear that he was more comfortable with the homeless guys than at the dinner. But when he received the award and spoke, he was himself and beautifully eloquent.

As we ate, I couldn’t help but think of the men I passed on my way home, waiting to get into the shelter out of the cold, damp night, and what they would be eating tonight. Porchlight does some wonderful things and we heard some great success stories. We also got to meet or listen to some of their dedicated staff. It was a moving evening, but even as we ate, and listened, I remembered those men, waiting in line for shelter.

Hospitality, Dignity, and the Work of the Church

I’ve been at Grace for a little over three months. I’ve repeatedly said, during my interview with the Vestry, and when people have asked me about my attraction to this church, that chief among the things that appealed to me were the presence of the homeless shelter and the food pantry.

Like so many people, though, it’s easy for me to pay lip service to those important ministries, without actually taking the time to get to know them, or to get involved with them. OK, yes, Corrie and I did volunteer at the shelter meal soon after we arrived in Madison, and in the last few weeks, Corrie has become volunteered at the food pantry as well. And yes, I did meet with staff from Porchlight, who actually run the shelter. But the fact of the matter is, I have allowed other things to take precedence over these outreach efforts.

That’s about to change. It may be because of the change in seasons. As of November 1, the shelter observes winter hours, which means that if I leave the office around 5:00 pm, I will encounter guys standing in line, waiting to be let into the shelter. I’ve seen the line before, in the alley, on Fairchild St., but encountering them as I leave is a very different thing.

A couple of days ago, Russ came up to the office and mentioned that the previous night, there were three calls to 911 from the shelter between 8 and 9 pm. That’s outrageous, but a little reflection provides some perspective. They start queuing up around 4:00 pm. They are allowed in the shelter at 5:00; dinner is at 8:00 pm. That means that they are standing around waiting for about 4 hours. Plus, while there is room for around 50 guys at Grace, in fact most nights more than 100 men are housed, including at the two overflow shelters. That means there are roughly 100-150 men waiting for dinner for three hours in a space that can comfortably accommodate 1/3 of that number. It’s a recipe for disaster, which is why disasters occur so often.

As a church, we have a responsibility to see to it that programs we support treat human beings with dignity, and if that doesn’t happen, that we do everything in our power to see that it does. Matthew 25 includes Jesus’ famous words about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc. “Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” We are not treating the homeless, or indeed those who visit our pantry, as if they were Jesus Christ. We should.

I have already said a great deal about hospitality in the time I’ve been at Grace. I am going to have to say more.

Radical Hospitality

Grace Church has opened its doors over the years to the Madison community. The Drop-In Shelter and the Food Pantry are the most obvious examples of our hospitality, but we also host meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and other community groups. But there is much more we can do.

While our courtyard is often bustling with activity, some of it occasionally unwelcomed, during the week our greatest resource, the sanctuary, remains closed to the public except for the Wednesday Eucharist. On Saturday mornings when Capitol Square is full of people, the corner of Carroll and West Washington is quiet. In general our space is underutilized and unwelcoming. Visitors have a hard time negotiating the labyrinth that is our building complex, and many of our spaces are dark and dingy.

In the coming months, I will be working with Grace’s members and lay leadership to think about how we might make our church a more welcoming place and how we might enhance the quality of life in Capitol Square.  There are large problems with high price tags, but there are also small things, relatively inexpensive that we can do. For example, could we open the doors of the sanctuary on Saturday mornings to people who might want to come in and look around or enjoy the silence and beauty of our church?

One change in our liturgy to increase accessibility and demonstrate our hospitality is that we will soon offer gluten-free wafers for those worshipers who cannot eat wafers made of wheat.