Homelessness, Prison, and Probation

I’ve blogged a lot about the relationship between our medical system and homelessness. Another societal institution with deep and perverse ties to homelessness is our criminal justice system.  Chris Hedges writes about his experience working with a prison support group in New Jersey:

Big Frankie, Little Frankie and Al, three black men who spent a lot of time in prison and have put their lives back together in the face of joblessness, crushing poverty and the violence of city streets, abruptly stopped appearing at the prison support group I help run at the Second Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth, N.J. This happens in poor neighborhoods. You see people. You make plans to see them again. And then without explanation they vanish. They get arrested for something, often trivial, after the police randomly stop them, run a check and find they owe fines, missed a court date or a meeting with a probation officer, owe child support, violated probation or have a couple of ounces of pot. The big mechanical jaw of the legal system gulps them down. And since they are poor and cannot afford bail they stay locked up. And that appears to be what happened to Big Frankie, Little Frankie and Al.

In fact, just that happened this morning on Capitol Square. We had asked a couple of guys to help us with some work at Grace. Overnight, after someone else on the square was picked up for marijuana possession, the police ran the ids of everyone else in the area, and the guy who was going to help us got picked up for a probation violation.

Noah Phillips wrote a wonderful, and heartbreaking story about the criminal justice system and homelessness from in Madison just last week. It points out some of the struggles people have in negotiating the system after they’ve done their time:

But in this shelter system, Brooks ultimately ran afoul of his probation conditions — twice. The first time was for using his truck, without his parole officer’s permission, to ferry people and food back and forth to the night and day shelters. For that, he ended up in jail for another 66 days. When he got out, he was placed in a halfway house and found a full-time job at Home Depot.

But he lost that job when he got sent back to jail after clashing with his case manager. Miller is not surprised that Brooks has had a tough time meeting the conditions of his probation in the shelter system. Those being paroled simply need more help readjusting and getting their lives back together.

Richard Beck puts some additional background behind these stories. The US incarcerates a higher percentage of its citizens than any other country on earth (including Cuba, North Korea, China, and Russia).

Madison Area Urban Ministry does remarkable work in this area.

Are millennials really all that different from the rest of us (at least when it comes to church)?

In part 2 of her blog posts at CNN, Rachel Held Evans tells us (and millennials) why they still need the church. Guess what! It’s all about community and the sacraments! She links to some other responses to her earlier piece here.

Yesterday, Richard Beck asked, “What does Rachel Held Evans want?” His answer:

So what does she want? Let me try to put it this way, and I’m just guessing with this. I think what Rachel wants is what a lot of us want. We want a mainline theological and social sensibility combined with an evangelical church expression.

In short, a progressive vision of the evangelical church.

That got me thinking back to my own experience as a baby boomer (and a Mennonite, which did not quite fit the Evangelical camp back in those days). My disaffection with the church began when I was a teenager. In college, there was a term I took a shift in the dining hall on Sunday mornings so I wouldn’t submit to the temptation of going to church (where I would inevitably be disappointed by everything except the hymns).

In Divinity School, my friends and I joked that the Mennonite congregation in town was more like Mennonites Anonymous than the Body of Christ (but we still sang with gusto and emotion). Reading Beck reminded me of why I left the Mennonite Church, and why it took so long for me to make the final break. I was formed by that community, its worship, theology, and ethics, but there came a point where I could no longer find a home in it. I had changed theologically, having discovered the great treasure of Christian theology and spirituality from across the whole of the Christian tradition.

I recently was asked by an old Mennonite friend as we were talking about the decline of Christianity in the US and the struggles in the Episcopal Church, if I regretted having become Episcopalian and become a priest. I’m not sure what precisely I said in response, perhaps that I had no choice in the matter. I should have said that I find God’s grace in the sacraments, that the Book of Common Prayer has shaped my experience of Jesus Christ, and that in the local parish, and in the institutional church, I can still discern God’s grace at work.

Still, I hold my commitment to the institution of the Episcopal Church very lightly. I’m not interested in its long-term survival (except for the Church Pension Fund, of course). What I am committed to is the vision of Christianity expressed by Anglicanism. I believe that vision will survive and can thrive in other institutional forms than those that currently exist. I also believe that we can provide a place where people encounter the love of Jesus Christ and the grace of God in life-changing ways. That’s why I’m a priest.

We have certainly seen a transformation in the way individuals relate to institutions in the last fifty years. It began with baby boomers but has accelerated in subsequent generations. Still, most humans will always seek community of some sort as well as a deeper purpose or meaning in life. What’s changed is that churches are no longer assumed to be the primary places where individuals might seek or find those things. There are other places to go, other ways of connecting with people. As an essay I pointed to earlier this week argues, with more and more people raised as non-religious by religiously unaffiliated parents, many might not imagine that the church, any church, is relevant to their lives and their journeys.

It’s likely that young adults today in and the immediate future will be as lightly committed to local congregations or religious communities as I am to the institutional church beyond my parish. I’m already seeing that to some degree at Grace with many young adults attending regularly or semi-regularly but developing no relationships with others in the congregation. That’s not always the case, not even the majority. And I don’t mean this by way of criticism. Young adults may connect with the sacred and with God at Grace. Some of them may be searching for community elsewhere; perhaps they’ll be surprised by God’s grace and find it among us.

Sometimes the rest of us do too; and sometimes we’re as surprised to find God’s grace here as we are to find connection with other humans.

Open Communion, Closed Communion–the debate rages

There’s a lively debate among Episcopal clergy in the Madison area about the words we use in our service bulletins to invite people to communion. I won’t share the particulars of the debate nor why we are currently engaged in it. Here’s what we say at Grace:

We welcome all baptized Christians to take part in the Communion: coming forward to kneel or stand at the altar rail, receiving the bread in an open palm or guiding the chalice to receive the wine. If you would prefer not to receive, you may come forward to the altar rail, crossing your arms on your chest to indicate your desire for a blessing.

We’re not the only ones engaged in this debate. Today appeared two essays that address the issue. One is by Richard Beck, from the Churches of Christ tradition. Beck has written extensively about open communion:

Is communion dangerous?  Should people be warned about their participation?

Yes and yes. But those answers, in light of what we’ve just discussed, do not mitigate against the practice of open communion. In fact, I’d argue that open communion is better positioned here relative to closed communion given the particular warnings we need. More, I’d argue that the fact that communion requires a warning presupposes its openness. Why warn if communion is closed and safe?

So, yes, open communion is dangerous. People do need to be warned, as Paul warned the Corinthians, that if you take this meal of inclusion while shaming, humiliating and excluding others then you’ve brought judgment upon yourself. You’re being a hypocrite as your ritual actions in the Supper are not being supported by your lifestyle. In taking the Lord’s Supper you are professing that you have “equal concern” for others, that you give “greater honor” to the least of these. Thus you bring judgment upon yourself when you shame and humiliate others, when you fail to discern and care for the many parts of body of Christ. Especially the most shameful parts.

The other is by a Lutheran, Russell Saltzman, who wonders why Lutherans can’t take Catholic communion and posits that the reason is women’s ordination.