June 23, 2011

Getting Started

Our vestry voted last night to accept Bishop Rickel’s offer to take over operations at the former St. George’s Episcopal Church in the Lake City neighborhood of Seattle. Here we go.

The mission is daunting. We start from zero in a neighborhood new to us in a fairly broken-down old building. Our assignment from the bishop is to maintain the former church’s heart for the poor and to engage young adults as ministry leaders in the new mission work.

I have done hunger and homelessness ministry for 30 years and it is never as easy as just feeding people. Neighborhood dynamics can be brutal when a church opens its doors to the poor. Naïve ministers can establish programs that exacerbate rather than address the problem. And no one already involved in a neighborhood’s response to poverty immediately trusts the new kid on the block, especially when the opening line is, “We are the Church and we are here to help.”

Lake City is dealing with a particular and immediate challenge. The City of Seattle has decided to convert a fire station into a permanent shelter for 70 men. The site had been occupied by a group of homeless and homeless advocates to call for a better response to the need for emergency shelter.. When this “Hooverville” moved on, the city moved in to establish a permanent shelter. 2700 people a night have no shelter in Seattle.

The local Mennonite Church has worked closely with the business community through the Lake City Chamber of Commerce to prepare for this large-scale project. We have been invited to the table as the newbies to be a part of the community response. While we might have thought our first efforts might be a simple feeding program or a week of shelter for a women’s homeless program, instead we will join a major neighborhood debate.

I plan for us to listen, listen, listen. Then listen some more. I do not see us coming down on either side of the issue but seeking to be a bridge between two camps. I don’t see us launching any bold new initiatives at first, but simply being a good partner to the existing providers in the neighborhood. We will be hosting weekly homeless dinners and a couple of AA meetings as we get to know our neighbors. And we will be at the table.

In this blog I will keep you posted on this and the other myriad surprises that await us in launching a new model for Episcopal mission.