May 8, 2018

Something Small but Possible

St. Mary’s Church in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, where I have served as rector since 2011, recently became a site for “safe parking”. We opened a part of our small church parking lot to be used each night as a safe spot for a few of the thousands of our Los Angeles neighbors who are living in their vehicles after losing their housing. A community partner raises funds to provide security and a portable toilet in the lot each night. That partner also works with local social service agencies to offer case management to each of the guests as they work towards a more permanent housing solution.

This is the first in a short series of posts about how St. Mary’s came to this ministry and what we have learned in the process.

Here are a couple of articles with more in-depth information about how safe parking works:

This is the first in a short series of posts about how St. Mary’s came to this ministry and what we have learned in the process.

The first thing that we learned is to look for something possible. We are a small-to-medium sized church (ASA just over 100) in a low-income neighborhood with all the standard urban problems. Our congregation is a mix of mostly older longtime members and busy, economically stressed young families. We are a bilingual congregation still working on figuring out how to bridge divides of language, culture, race and class. We have all the usual anxieties about the size of our membership, the sustainability of our finances, the condition of our aging buildings.

As in many congregations, you could make a long list of things that we cannot do, or cannot do well. Expensive things, things that involve hiring more staff or renovating our space, things that require lots of active volunteers, things that happen during the week when people are working, things that happen at night when our elders prefer to stay safely at home. We can’t leave things outside that may get stolen or tagged with graffiti. And so on and so forth.

After a certain amount of dwelling on what we can’t do, or do well, we’ve figured out a few things that we can do. We can maximize the use of our buildings and grounds for the benefit of the local community. Sometimes that even generates income or other kinds of contributions. We can find community partners who have good ideas and access to volunteers and funding, and offer space for them to do their thing, and do it well. We can be generous with what we do have and welcoming of our neighbors, who come in all sizes, shapes and conditions. We can draw on St. Mary’s long history of being a faithful and safe space for communities that face rejection and discrimination.

Safe parking has worked for us because it fits. It fits into a long history and vibrant present of welcoming all sorts of people who are up to all sorts of things. On a given evening in our parking lot, some people are there to play basketball, some to practice dance, some to sing opera or play tuba or rehearse a play. Some are there to sleep in their cars. Safe parking works because we have a partner organization that brings things that we don’t have – political connections and a volunteer base and funding and research on how to make the concept work. Together we have tried something new. We are our partner organization’s first operational safe parking lot. We agreed to take on the surprises and bumps in the road that come with going first and they have dedicated tremendous energy to smoothing bumps and making things work well.

Make no mistake – our offering is pretty small. Ten parking spaces that we weren’t mostly using during the night anyway. But we have found a way to have an impact with that small thing that was possible for us.

Most congregations could easily run you a list of what they can’t do. What can you do? What would make it work? What kinds of partners do you need? The more you try things, the clearer the answers will be. The more you know about exactly what works in your place, the more ready you will be to grab an opportunity when it comes. When safe parking came across our radar, we knew. This sounded like something we could do. Next post: Small offering, big fruits, or how God has multiplied our small efforts and presented the opportunity for our small church to have a wider impact that we imagined was possible.