Musing 4.24.20

Dear King Avenue Friend,

Soon after the governor’s stay-in-place order in March, a homeless couple, John and Kelly, began sleeping on the church’s porch entrance off the south parking lot.  It is somewhat private and protected from the rain and wind.  It is hard to stay-in-place when you have no place to stay. They were probably in place before I became aware of their presence.  I did not ask them to leave.  I asked them to be respectful of the property, dispose of their trash, and not have guests.  By all appearances that has happened.  Since our building was not in use, they did not interfere with anyone’s coming and going.  During the Covid-19 crisis our awareness of the marginalized, including the homeless, has been heightened.  We hear and read about it.  I thought showing hospitality to Kelly and John was a tangible witness to that awareness.

They have kept to themselves.  Sometimes early in the morning I have seen them taking sponge baths at the west water spigot.  They leave in the morning and return after dark.  On occasion John and I talk of their homeless life.  There are no jobs, begging has dried up, shelter for a couple in social distancing is difficult.  Public places are closed.  John sees staying on the porch as a form of social distancing.  

Late this past Tuesday night there was a disturbance in the parking lot.  On Wednesday I received two communications from neighbors concerning the presence of John and Kelly.  The first was from a couple worried about their warmth; I have never met them.  The temperature had been close to freezing; did they have blankets?  We talked; they asked if it was okay to give the homeless couple a blanket.  Sure.  They brought a comforter and homemade bread. They also offered to give the church some money to help them.  I gave these neighbors my phone number.

The second communication that day was an email which I felt took me and the church to task for letting the homeless couple shelter on the porch.  In short, we were putting the neighborhood at risk both physically and materially. I also gave this neighbor my phone number and gave her permission to call me if there was another disturbance.

First thing Thursday morning I visited John and Kelly and asked them about Tuesday night.  He said that someone had driven through the church parking lot, shined a light, and yelled at them.  I told him that I had received a complaint and would have to ask them to leave if it happened again.  We talked, I gave them some sack lunches we had made for the Open Shelter, and he told me to thank the couple for the comforter and bread.  I reminded John that their staying on the porch was not a permanent solution to their problem.  He said he hoped to find a tent.  Did I know of anyone who had one?

I made some calls to church members.  No luck on a used tent.  Then I decided to call the neighborhood couple who had offered to make a monetary donation through the church.  Within two hours they had slipped a check through the church mail slot.  It more than covered the price of a new tent.  A tent has been ordered.  It should come within a week, and John and Kelly will leave the porch for what they see as a more permanent solution. 

Through the rest of the day Thursday, I exchanged voicemails and increasingly tense emails with the second neighbor.  My defensive attitude contributed in part to the tension.  On Friday we finally connected; I braced.  She began by saying that she wanted to clear the air. Then she asked how she could help.  WE TALKED as neighbors should.  She expressed her concerns; I explained my motives.  I learned that the language of Tuesday night’s disturbance was loud and sexually explicit; it was not as John initially described.  I talked to John about his foul language which justifiably scares our neighbors.  He promised to work on it. 

I go through all of this to share a snap shot of a memorable week in the midst of shutdown. During the crisis we talk about isolation and distancing.  We talk about fear and anxiety.   We don’t physically see our neighbors. Yet I feel like I gained three set of neighbors this week.   Clearly mere proximity doesn’t define neighbors.  I didn’t know any of them before the shutdown.  We’ve become neighbors because we were honest with each other.  We saw need.   We treated each other as people, not stereotypes. Our awareness and sensitivity toward each other has heightened.  We were willing to adjust for the other.  While we have not been able to see each other, we have seen each other better.  In the end what I think each of us saw was our dignity and that of the other person. We have the power to give that.  I hope seeing dignity is part of the new normal.   We all need it.

Stay safe and well.

In Christ,

John Keeny, Senior Pastor