Well We’re Making Do in Allentown

I had trouble sleeping last night. Below freezing temperatures arrived early, about 10° below average for this time of year. I couldn’t help but think of those who didn’t have a warm place to stay. Unfortunately the city of Allentown’s Warming Station isn’t ready to open, and won’t be ready to open as planned on November 1. Again. Wouldn’t it be great if the Warming Station (WS) were so well-funded, so well-planned, and so well-prepared that it could have opened early in response to this cold snap?

Why isn’t it…
          …well-funded? Actually, I’d say none of the agencies, organizations or churches that work with those who are homeless and poor has enough money to do what they need to do, much less to take on another project. The Lehigh Conference of Churches’ Board decided they could not manage the WS this year because of a significant funding shortfall. No one else came forward to manage it, probably because they don’t have enough funding for their current needs either. Everybody is scrambling for funding these days. Still they make do as best as they can.

Why isn’t it…
          …. well-planned? The Conference of Churches’ decision came late in August, so the City had to scramble to find a manager for the WS. Kudos to Mayor Pawlowski who recruited someone with considerable experience and expertise to manage the facility. But between the lengthy contracting process (which necessitates waiting to reveal the new manager’s name) and the inexplicable delay in maintenance and repairs to the WS itself, the current estimate is they’ll open by November 8 – an improvement over the initial projected date of November 14.

However, with the frigid weather upon us, Zion’s Church elders and deacons once again decided to provide a “stopgap” warming station beginning November 1. So now we’re scrambling to find funds to pay for additional staff, at the same time as we’re scrambling for funds to get our breakfast ministry to the homeless up and running. But of course, somehow we also will make do.

Why isn’t it…
          …. well-prepared? In some significant ways we are better prepared than last year. Some of last year’s problems, like storage for personal belongings at the WS, and plans for sheltering during a snow emergency, have been addressed. Also, this year the Coordinating Committee has an active role in providing support, sharing ideas and wisdom, and pooling resources to strengthen our work with those who are homeless as we enter the warming shelter season.

But everyone on the Committee has added these bi-monthly meetings to their already too-full schedules and have gone “above and beyond the call of duty” as caseworkers, nurses, program administrators, clergy, etc. Somehow it will come together, but Corinne Feldman’s question to the community last winter still hangs in the air: “Who’s responsible?”

Maybe I’m idealistic to believe we shouldn’t have to scramble at so many levels to provide these basic human services to people in need. But then I realize: we have become like those we serve, who also have to scramble every day to survive and make do with so much less than they need.

So we’ll keep scrambling, and we’ll make do. I just hope that is enough in this coming winter season.

UCC Clergy Applaud Supreme Court Decision

Witness for Justice

Witness for Justice

As United Church of Christ clergy we applaud the landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of marriage equality. The UCC has a long history of social justice advocacy as well as pastoral support for victims of injustice, including those in the LGBT community.

In 1972 the UCC ordained the first openly gay person in a mainline denomination: the Rev. William Johnson. In the following four decades, our General Synod repeatedly supported equal rights for homosexual citizens in pronouncements to local churches and actions directed to legislatures.

Last year the UCC and its partners filed suit against North Carolina’s ban on same-gender marriage as a violation of religious liberty. In October, District Court Judge Max Cogburn agreed, striking down those laws as unconstitutional.

The UCC stance on this and other social justice issues is based on our core values, the first of which is our belief in the “extravagant welcome” of God. Because Jesus himself calls all who are weary and heavy-laden to come to the God of grace and love, we also are called to provide extravagant hospitality. This especially is important to anyone who has been shunned and shamed, made to feel unwelcome and unwanted. So when anyone walks in our door, we proclaim: “whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

The second core value is our belief in the “continuing testament” of God. The Old and New Testaments provide the foundation for our faith, but we believe God’s Spirit inspires a continuing testament today. As our Pilgrim ancestor, Rev. John Robinson, preached to the colonists, “God hath more light and truth yet to break forth from his holy word.”

Although some cite biblical texts to oppose marriage equality, we think these are taken out of cultural context and misapplied today. We remember in our all-too-recent history biblical texts were used to perpetuate systemic injustice toward women and people of color. While continuing to discern guidance from the Bible, we proclaim: “God is still speaking,” in new ways to address new realities.

Our third core value is our belief that God is changing lives today. The gospels begin with a call to change and they end with the promise of transformation. The apostle Paul calls us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

We hear testimony of such renewal every day, first from those who changed their minds because their hearts were changed. As more people brave the action of “coming out,” the rest of us realize we have congregants, co-workers, friends, and family members in the LGBT community. It is amazing how opinions can change as a result of personal relationships.

A well-known evangelical leader, sociologist Tony Campolo, recently testified to his change of mind and heart, noting that it was not only the result of “hours of prayer, study, conversation and emotional turmoil” but also his friendship with gay Christian couples that facilitated his transformation.

Perhaps more importantly, testimony of transformative change is given by those from the LGBT community who had given up on the Church, but who found stronger faith in Christ when they found a home in an open Christian community.

Of course we acknowledge those among our congregants as well as colleagues who don’t agree with the decision of the Supreme Court nor understand why we, as clergy, so strongly support marriage equality. Indeed, we know some Christians who feel so negatively about this issue that they regard the movement toward marriage equality as a sign of the end times!

Instead, we believe it is a sign of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom among us, that realm of love, justice and peace which Christians pray will come in our Lord’s Prayer.

We reject the judgmental and at times hateful attitudes we have seen exhibited by others in the name of Christ, but we welcome and invite dialogue with those who disagree with us.

This is not the first time people of faith have disagreed on important issues. And this is not the last word on this or any issue the Church is facing. So the UCC also proclaims: never place a period where God has placed a comma!

~ Written by the Rev. Bob Stevens and signed by the Rev. Alan Miller, Conference Minister, Penn Northeast Conference, U.C.C. and 36 other Lehigh Valley UCC clergy:

Rev. Nancy Adams
Rev. Wilbur Albright
Rev. Al Bastin
Rev. Carol H. Bastin
Rev. Katherine E. Brearley
Rev. Jeff Brinks
Rev. Dr. Scott Brooks-Cope
Rev. Candi Cain-Borgman
Pastor Chris Cocca
Rev. Dr. David H. DeRemer
Rev. Barry K. Durie
Rev. Mike Eckroth
Rev. Emmajane S. Finney
Rev. Emily Jean Gilbert
Rev. Rick Guhl
Rev. Bob Gutekunst
Rev. Sharon Solt Hartman
Rev. Cliff Herring
Rev. Tom Hershberger
Rev. Steven C. Hummel
Rev. Curtis Kemmerer
Rev. Robert A. Lewis
Rev. Dr. Joanne P. Marchetto
Rev. Karen Moeschberger
Rev. Dr. Allan Kramer-Moyer
Rev. Ed Roosa
Rev. Alice Roth
Rev. Scott Sanders
Rev. Matthew Seeds
Rev. Dale L. Sattizahn
Rev. Lee Schleicher
Rev. Dr. Scott Brooks-Cope
Rev. Bill Seaman
Rev. Dr. Lloyd H. Steffen
Rev. Stephanie Anne Thompson
Rev. Jeffrey A. Wargo


Homelessness reveals the lump in our cultural carpet

As a downtown Allentown church, we at Zion’s thought we knew something about ministry to the homeless. But there’s nothing like running an overnight shelter and soup kitchen for a month to teach us a few new lessons.

Thanks to some forty volunteers, like Rochell Figueroa, from a dozen different churches, Zion’s “Liberty Bell” Church  opened our Fellowship Hall to the homeless on Easter weekend, one day after the Lehigh Conference of Churches abruptly closed its shelter.

The Conference of Churches, along with the Allentown Rescue Mission, the Salvation Army, and the Sixth Street Shelter, helps people who live at the edges of our community. Our recent experience with this “stopgap” shelter reveals the importance of their support for the homeless. It also showed what happens when the charitable safety net is withdrawn, even for a short period of time.

One case in point: when the Conference shelter closed, one man who was staying there wandered the streets when he left work that Friday evening. With light rain falling, the temperature in the upper 50s seemed especially cold, so José looked for a warm, dry place. He walked the streets until he passed an empty laundromat. Going inside, he curled up and fell asleep, until awakened by police. They told him only that he couldn’t sleep there and sent him on his way.

He finally wandered into a hospital ER where staff agreed he could sit in the waiting room till morning. It was warm, dry and safe, and he dozed off. When he suddenly awakened, realizing the hour, he hurried to the restaurant where he recently had gotten a job, arriving just in time to be fired for being late.

Progress for the homeless is just that tenuous; their achievements are just that precarious. For him, simply not having a place to sleep was enough to cost him his job.

Homelessness is the lump in our cultural carpet. For years we have been sweeping problems under the rug. We closed state mental institutions, then underfunded or de-funded hospitals, counselors and other service providers that might have given care to more of the mentally ill and addicted.

We over-incarcerate. We promise to rehabilitate. But the penitentiary is just the beginning of the penalty. Those with criminal records are continually penalized when seeking jobs or housing.

Our economic system expands wealth at the top and squeezes those at the bottom. Finding a full-time job often is not enough to liberate people from the ranks of the working poor. When living from paycheck to paycheck, homelessness results from unexpected, sometimes catastrophic bills. (Read this Profile of the Working Poor: http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpswp2012.pdf

Rising rental costs and a shortage of affordable housing means even those who find a decent job have difficulty finding a decent place to live.

In our short, stopgap stint helping 64 homeless individuals, we encountered people who struggled with each of those systemic problems; many struggled with multiple systems. And I haven’t even mentioned the way racial issues affect the homeless. Minorities are significantly over-represented. Read more here: Minorities and Homelessness

Homelessness is the lump in our cultural carpet that should remind us we can’t keep sweeping these systemic problems under the rug.

The good news from the gentleman mentioned above is that he found a new job in another restaurant. He wants to work. Although the new job pays 50¢ less per hour than the previous one, he resumed saving toward a security deposit so at last he’ll be off the streets. Let’s hope there isn’t another bump in the road. Or a bigger lump in the carpet.

That’s really the point in this “case in point.” The National Alliance to End Homelessness advocates a “Housing First” approach : provide housing first to create stability so people can address the root causes of their situation.

At Zion’s church the homeless slept just a few feet from where the Liberty Bell once was hidden. Inscribed on that bell is the jubilee text (Leviticus 25) proclaiming economic freedom as well as liberty to those who lived at the edges of the community in ancient Israel.

It is fair and just; it also should be our patriotic duty to provide better care for those who live at the edges in a nation as prosperous as ours.

# # # an edited version of this blog article appeared on the opinion page of the Allentown Morning Call

Among the Homeless a Community of Grace

Homeless w-BibleA community of grace appears, Brigadoon-like, at Zion’s church each evening.

Since April 4 we have opened our Fellowship Hall every night to provide a safe, warm, dry place to sleep for the men and women who found themselves on the street again after the Alliance Hall Shelter (6CWS) abruptly closed on April 3.

As you might imagine, I’ve had a conversation with the fire marshal and another with the director of the health bureau. Of course we are following their recommendations, but our Fellowship Hall was not made for this kind of sheltering. Grace begins with an understanding that it is okay for us to provide this stopgap, but only until April 30, the date originally promised to the homeless.

The response from the Christian community has been heartening and heartwarming as volunteers shared whatever talents they had with our guests: an MD who gave several hours of her time to consult with anyone who had health concerns; a professional singer who sang an operatic happy birthday to a woman who celebrated her 79th birthday in our shelter, and the local educator who brought her a cake, flowers and a Happy Birthday balloon; the homeless advocate who spent hours and hours on the phone, finally getting a man admitted to the hospital for mental health concerns; a member of Zion’s staff who knows someone who knows someone who offered a landscaping job to one of the men here, and who then found a pair of size 11 work boots to replace the man’s tattered sneakers. Grace abounds, often in small ways.

Our guests also help one another: wisdom, such as it is, about how to live on the street is passed along; a blanket is given by one who has two to another who has none because we ran out. Several people brought canned goods that they had received elsewhere during the day, giving them to kitchen volunteers in a stone-soup-like ritual. There are shared cigarettes, shared tips about who may be hiring, plenty of shared humor. Grace upon grace.

Many of our guests surprise me with their desire to help in whatever way they can, with their polite demeanor and frequent thank yous. One night, when one of the men didn’t think enough people had appropriately expressed their gratitude to the church for its hospitality, he shouted for attention. Everyone got quiet and he reminded them to be sure to render thanks to the pastor. So I collect gratitude like pennies in an offering plate, so many “mites” that I pass along to the people who made this stopgap ministry possible.

Yes, there have been a few problems, and the APD responds quickly and resolves those issues effectively. One man who we had to ask to leave (complicated story) apologized to the APD officers for the trouble, and then asked me for a prayer and a blessing before he left.

Yes, there are a few people who are taking advantage of the kindness offered here. But perhaps they didn’t find such kindness in many other places in their lives, so they suck it up wherever they find it. Even so, they are the exception, and as long as they follow the rules, we forbear them because we know we don’t always have the wisdom to separate the wheat and weeds (Matthew 13:29).

And even now as I am typing this, 5:15 p.m. on Wednesday evening, our door buzzer sounds. It is a 45 year-old woman discharged today from a detox facility, formerly living in Allentown but now with nowhere to go. She says they told her to come to Zion’s church, that we have a shelter where she can spend the night. I ask, who sent you here? A social worker at The Horsham Clinic, some fifty miles away.

We have been a stopgap shelter for less than three weeks, and we’re getting referrals! As the days have passed, more and more people with nowhere to go found their way to our doors. I have received phone calls from other shelters as well as from pastors and ministries in the Allentown area, and sadly we are at capacity; we have to turn them all away.

But the woman from the clinic still sits in our Fellowship Hall, warming herself after a trek to the church from the bus station in windy, 54 degree weather. It’s supposed to drop to 36 degrees in Allentown tonight. She contents herself with a warm place to sit and only a promise that she will be on a wait-list in case one of our regulars found somewhere else to go. Then she can take that one’s place for the night.

A community of grace appears, Brigadoon-like, at Zion’s church each evening. What will become of them on May 1?



Ashes to go? Oh no! Stop. Think. Pray.

Sackcloth and ashesIt was inevitable that the ‘Ashes to Go’ movement would develop in this digital age. At best, its proponents say, ‘ashes to go’ provides an opportunity for Christians to participate in this symbolic ritual who otherwise couldn’t or wouldn’t attend a service of worship. Further, taking ashes into the streets gives those in the liturgical tradition an opportunity to use a familiar symbolic ritual to do something not quite as familiar to us: to witness and evangelize. Their web site helpfully suggests giving people a takeaway after administering ashes, perhaps a pamphlet with prayers for later reflection, or an invitation to a worshiping community. I understand that’s what ‘ashes to go’ can be at its best.

But at worst, it encourages a kind of “drive-by” spirituality, reinforcing a heresy that is rampant in the U.S. People are busy, busier, busiest. The hallmark of the information age is the increasing speed of the digital world, which keeps increasing the pace, and the stress, of daily life. So it’s no wonder that there are people who are delighted that they can receive their dose of ashes in just a few seconds as they drive through or walk by an ‘ash station.’

According to a story in USAToday  this trend began “in St. Louis in 2007 when the Rev. Teresa K.M. Danieley decided that if people can grab breakfast on the go, why shouldn’t they be able to get their ashes in a flash?”

The problem with McWorship is that fast-spirituality is probably as deficient of the sacred as fast-food is deficient in nutritional value.

Ironically, the traditional saying on Ash Wednesday is “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The Ash Wednesday liturgy invites reflection about mortality and the meaning of your life. Yet by giving in to the cultural demand for fast, faster, fastest, ‘ashes to go’ helps people avoid reflection about life and death; after a brief pause they just continue on with the hustle and bustle of their life.

“There is more to life than increasing its speed.” Surely Ash Wednesday is one day when we can ask Christians to. Stop. Think. Pray.

Why not sackcloth as well as ashes on Ash Wednesday?

Ash_Wednesday edtSackcloth was a coarsely woven fabric, usually made of goat’s hair, with a texture similar to common burlap today. People wore sackcloth as a sign of mourning, as when David mourned the death of Abner (2 Samuel 3:31).

Ashes were a symbol of destruction and desolation, so in many biblical texts sackcloth is paired with ashes as signs that you are in mourning for your sin and repent its destructive power in your life. The practice of wearing sackcloth and ashes sometimes also included a call to fast (as in Jonah 3:5–7).

Christians adopted the symbol of ashes to begin Lent, which is a season of mourning about the sacrifice and death of Jesus; a season of repenting of your sin; a season of self-discipline and commitment to follow the way of Christ.

Since we use ashes, why not bring back the symbol of sackcloth?

This year on Ash Wednesday at our 12:10 p.m. service at Zion’s church, we will distribute ‘sackcloth’ to those who receive ashes. (Ashes also will be available to be administered on the first Sunday in Lent at our 10.30 a.m. service.)

Those who participate will be instructed to use the sackcloth to wipe the ashes from  their forehead at the end of the day. Then make that their prayer cloth during the 40 days of Lent, a special memento for those who fast, a reminder to  all to offer sacrificial prayers.

Then bring it to worship at Zion’s church on Easter, to wash it in the waters of the baptismal font in gratitude for the gift of God’s grace and love.

What if you preached heresy on Easter Sunday ….

Jonah and Sea Beast-Whale icon detail… and nobody noticed? Here’s how I did it: first, I “discovered” a new parable of Jesus. Based on five verses in which Jesus sets up an analogy between Jonah and the Son of Man (Matthew 12:38-42), and based on a broad definition of the subject, I declared these words of Jesus to be a parable. Second, I rejected the literalist interpretation of the biblical story of Jonah and the whale. (Jonah is one of the minor prophetic books in the Old Testament/Hebrew scriptures.) And third, interpreting the words of Jesus, I encouraged the seekers among us to consider that the resurrection itself may be a parable from God.

Okay, this doesn’t quite rank up there with ancient heresies like Arianism or Docetism. But it wasn’t exactly a standard, orthodox, Substitutionary Atonement Easter sermon either.
Nobody threw a hymnal at me. Nobody questioned me while shaking hands at the door. And as far as I know, no one is organizing a committee to call me up on charges! Not in the United Church of Christ, where we do not have “tests” of faith, and where we say every Sunday: whoever you are, wherever you are in life’s journey, you are welcome here!

The fact that no one was shocked at what I said also is due to the spiritual maturity of our members. I’ve been teaching for years that St. Peter does not administer a test on doctrine before passing you through the pearly gates!

I also should say that in the Easter Sunday service there certainly were plenty of joyful expressions that “Christ the Lord is risen today!” So when I stepped up to deliver my message, I wasn’t aiming at shock and awe.

I was aiming my sermon, No Sign Will Be Given: A Parable to Provoke , at the minds and hearts of those oh-so-many Christians who are believers in God and followers of Jesus, but find a bodily resurrection difficult to understand and accept.

Of course this is nothing new. The Apostle Paul spent a long time trying to explain the bodily resurrection to Christians in Corinth (1 Corinthians 15). And I have spoken about that in the past.

But I was aiming at people like a business owner in Allentown who excitedly told me about hearing a radio interview with Dr. Bart Ehrman. His most recent book, “How Jesus Became God,” posed questions and suggested answers that excited her. She is fascinated by the notion that there are ways to think about the bible other than literally!

One visitor on Sunday morning commented after the service that he is both “scoffer and seeker” (a reference to my Easter sermon), and he was interested to hear more.

That’s what a preacher hopes for, especially when skating the edges of heresy!