Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Making Waves

Apparently I'm making waves. Or maybe it's just the things I "allow" to happen that are making waves. Either way--I'm hearing about it.

A few months ago, I wrote about the struggles our church was having with dealing with the local homeless population. I also wrote about trials we were having with some youth. Well, things have been going along all right for about a month or two but now the murmuring has started again.

A is back. He's still kind, humble, and compliant. He cleans up his space and even other areas of the church without being asked. He's independent and proud and what you might label "cronically homeless." He's been on the streets for over a decade and loves the open air and freedom and has no intention of changing his circumstances. He won't take handouts and never asks for a thing. The "imposition" is that he stores his carts under our gazebo (on the main road) and sleeps outside the church away from the elements.

This time (as opposed to when I first got here) people have been fairly calm and quiet about the issue. It has seemed to be a "non-issue." Church council knows we are discerning what to do, and I don't know why, but others have not said much--maybe because A is attending worship weekly? Maybe because they didn't see me take action the first time and think their comments will fall on deaf ears? I don't know. They have been quiet, at least they were quiet, until Sunday. Sunday seemed to open the flood gates and I heard from multiple people. I will be honest and share it's not my favorite discussion to have again. I am particularly put off by comments like, "Well, are you going to tell them to leave?" Nope. I'm not the one who objects. I won't be telling them to leave. We are talking about this with church council and it's not going to be a snap decision.

It also hit the fan when a couple of youth (*those youth*) tried to come to worship. I had talked to the boys before worship and they asked if they could come. I said yes and sent them into the sanctuary. I asked that they 1) leave their skateboards outside, 2) were quiet, 3) were respectful. I suppose I should have figured they'd need supervision, but I just didn't. About 10-15 minutes later a different youth came to me and said they were getting out of hand and could I come take care of it. So, I left the conversation I was having and went to deal with it. They had their boards under the pew and I asked them to put them in a backroom, which they did. We then went and sat on the pew together. The children's pageant was Sunday, so I figured I could sit with the boys for the entirety of the service to keep them calm. Well, once they calmed down I started greeting other parishioners. At some point they grabbed their boards and went back outside. I went to speak with them (they were skating on the stairs where people enter) but had to go do the opening prayer. As I was praying an argument broke out, and then another. Apparently when the boys tried to come back into the sanctuary, they were barricaded and told they couldn't come in, so they ran to the other door (they had mouthed off to a couple of folks and apparently feigned masturbation and were caught by two of the women). After I prayed I left the praise band to sing and called the boys to me and took them outside. We had a come-to-Jesus about their behavior and how it was out of line and inappropriate and that they had showed me they weren't ready to be in worship and I sent them home.

Now, I will be the first to admit they were inappropriate and rude and it was unacceptable. They are no little gems. And I heard about it. And, I should have. People were offended, scared, and frustrated. Their reactions were healthy and normal.

I also know the boys are unchurched. They don't know what "appropriate" behavior is. And, no, it's not a given. They don't come from "normal" homes with "normal" rules. They operate on completely different terms--terms which can be VERY unsettling for Sunday morning worship.

I followed up with a couple of folks I knew were really upset and tried to hear their concerns. I have to admit I'm biased. I struggle when people tell me things like, "You just need to tell them they can't be here, they have to go somewhere else." I understand the frustration and aggravation, trust me, I've hit my breaking point with them more than once. But, I still cannot fathom telling them they cannot be at the church. It's obvious to me these boys need help and we, as a loving, gracious, and compassionate church (honestly we are) have a good chance of giving them what they are desperate for.

Not everyone is on that page. And I will admit that I have been more than a little upset over the last 3 days. I've heard a lot since I got here that "we need to grow" and "we need more young people." Well, we're growing. We have various new folks in worship as regulars (easily 6-8 since I got here) and yes, half of them are homeless, but that shouldn't get in the way--they are still "new people" who need to grow in God. I've also heard, "We need more young people." Done. Three of them were there on Sunday and you didn't want anything to do with them. So, which is it? Do we want more people or not? Do we want young people or not?

That's a bit of an overgeneralization--it's not everyone in the congregation, and it's not an objection to all new people or all new youth, but there are definitely prejudices and biases against "those" people--whichever people that might include. That bothers me. I'm not perfect. I hit my limits. I have my own exceptions to the rule--those I would struggle to include. But honestly, who are we called to minister to if it's not "them"??

I don't remember reading a passage about how ministry was going to be roses and butterflies all the time....that the Good News would be well received and that everyone would start living godly lives as a result. I missed those scriptures apparently.

For most of the day yesterday and half of today I was left wondering again if it's worth the fight. I don't want to lose members. I don't want people to be alienated. I do want people to find sanctuary on Sunday mornings. I do want people to feel safe when they come to church. I also want us to be in ministry with those that are tough to love. I do want us to be challenged by the Gospel. I do want us to be forced to live differently than we might want to for the sake of God's kingdom. I want those things too. But to be very honest, this afternoon I was ready to throw in the towel. Say to heck with it and just go back to the easy stuff.

I was. But now I'm not. Why? Well, at about 4:00 there was a banging on my screen door. The dog went nuts and I opened the door to see two teenage boys who were hungry and thirsty. M had told them I would feed them (yes, they're *those* boys). She did, did she?? Why would I feed you? Because you love us. M was right, and so are you. Come on in.

I listed off the contents of my fridge and various other foods in the cupboards. One settled on waffles and the other on tuna fish. I warmed the waffles and added peanut butter and chocolate, as requested, made two tuna fish sandwiches and two glasses of chocolate milk so these two characters could eat. I regularly hear, "We haven't eaten all day." I'm not sure I believe it. I guess the better way of saying is that I don't know how it could be true it's so far from my experience. And I'm not sure they're not just trying to elicit sympathy. Either way, it gets them food. They're teenagers--I know they could eat a horse 3 times a day and still be hungry. We talked and they ate. I put away dishes and they helped clean up.

They were ready to eat and run but knew it would be rude, so they stayed a little while longer until I told them it was ok.

We're making slow steps of progress. I am grateful they don't resort to yelling or threats when they don't get their way. I'm grateful when they use their manners: wash their hands before they eat, say please and thank you, chew with their mouths closed, and rinse their dishes before they go. I am grateful they trust me enough to come and ask for food when they are hungry. I know some say it creates dependency. Maybe it does. Only time will tell on that one. But for now I see it as a sign of hope--I can create bonds of love and trust with two boys who have lived through hell and don't understand fully how to love appropriately and have little reason to trust people at all. It doesn't hurt that I love to cook and don't get to feed people often enough in my book. It also doesn't hurt that they eat all the foods I'm not allowed to eat now that I am changing my diet!

Seeing their faces and knowing my love and care for them has made a difference, however slight or fleeting, gives me the courage to keep going. They may get kicked out of worship for months to come as they learn what it means to act appropriately, but oddly, no matter how many times I've had to send them home from youth for similar disobedience--they always come back and I hope they will do the same for worship.

I pray God gives me the grace to work both with these boys and with my congregation. I pray for renewed patience and mercy as I struggle to live in the tension between old and new, respectful and disobedient, seasoned and novice. I pray my congregation takes the time to know each of these individuals and that they see them as beloved children of God and that those relationships gives them courage to love a little stronger and offer a little more compassion and grace.

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