Dec. 2017: Ryan Althaus, Mdiv
The holidays are on the horizon and during this season of gratitude and giving, chilly weather and warm our hearts, a call for “compassion” fills the air. Slightly idealistic in tone, the word conjures up images of bald-headed robe-wearing Ghandi look-a-likes; readily huggable with open arms and open hearts. Pleasant enough, but for us jean-wearing everyday folks walking the streets of Santa Cruz, “compassion” is not always the predominant response to our city’s homeless situation. Well that’s okay. Not only would it be hypocritical to write any words of condemnation, but to be a monk you would need to go bald anyway. Frustration, fear, and anger are natural, even justified emotions; however, do we really need or want to submit to them.
Let’s not waste words reciting statistics to provide proof the pandemic that is homelessness in Santa Cruz, just go stroll along the San Lorenzo. Actually, reducing our house-less neighbors to numbers proliferates the problem. The problem of focus today is not the homeless. They are equal shareholders of a larger conundrum which we all play a roll. Fortunately, we hold equal share and reap equal reward in the solution.
A wise man named Siddhartha points to our predicament when stating that “holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You are the one who gets burned.” Regardless of whether the anger, resentment, disdain, and frustration we feel are justified they really just tense our muscles, wrinkle our skin, and mess with our digestion. Buddhism teaches that suffering is a part of life. However, it also acknowledges that we don’t need to self inflict it. So short of walking any “eight fold paths,” how do start trotting in the direction of inner peace and compassion.
One last word from the wise sage Sid may help. “Anything short of acceptance is avoidance” he said. Homelessness is a part of life and it burns. By accepting that we realize that anger doesn’t have to be. Complaints about or attempts to hide, ignore, or mute the problem just heat the ambers. Acceptance allows us to drop the coals so to fill an otherwise burned hand with a healing handshake. For as much as the housed may be negatively affected by homelessness, those without shelter aren’t likely loving the situation either.
Acceptance of the situation also allows us to transition from transactional to transformational responses to it. Despite our best intentions, “serving” the houseless by scooping powdered mash potatoes over a table to a nameless face is transactional. One’s “serving” another reinforces stereotypes and encourages social division. “True nobility is not found through our superiority to our fellow human,” claims Hemingway, “but in our superiority to our former self.”
Instead attempts to serve, save, or eradicate the homeless, what if we focused on transformational interaction where we served, shared, and learned from each another? Transactional outreach provides handouts to address superficial needs. Transformational engagement offers a dignified hand-up that satiates deeper hungers. It may be fault, choice, karma, or luck that lands someone on the street, but our communal and personal growth requires that we move beyond outward judgements and labels. That we recognize this call towards a “superiority over our former self” is communal and that each individual has something to contribute to the process. So lets expose the labels:
“They’re addicts.” Yes, many are. And I write this while satiating symptoms of a painful caffeine withdraw.
“They’re crazy.” Sure, in a society where babbling into a bluetooth headset is saner than bantering with the voices in one’s head.
“Its they’re fault.” There was likely a bad decision or two somewhere along the line that didn’t help the situation; however, surveys show 7 of 10 people are one missed paycheck (one “bad decision”) away from homelessness. Maybe some of our outward judgements should be inner gratitude at our not having personally hit the streets. Yet. “They’re lazy.” A man reading a newspaper in the park on a Tuesday morning is a dignified “somebody” taking advantage of the day. The same man sitting in the same park, but wrapped in a newspaper, is a “lazy” nobody disrupting the day. Perception is interesting.
We all likely fall into one or more of the above categories regardless of the bed we will or will not be sleeping in tonight. Great, now we have a common foundation on which to build relationships.
“Wait, what? Building fences around the San Lorenzo we can do. Even walls across our borders aren’t out of the question in this crazy political season. Relationships though?
“Relationship” doesn’t infer a backyard bbq invitation, but it does mean inviting those in need into our hearts. As the bumper sticker reads, “no one ever said ‘tolerate thou neighbor.” Opening ourselves to relationship simply means accepting that we all have wisdom to share, room to grow, and a common hunger for a home. “Homelessness” is not mutually dependent on, nor synonymous with “house-lessness.” The cravings we share for community and dignity are indiscriminate of economic class, mental condition, or luck. Its through relationship and community, not buildings, that we experience “home.” There are plenty of housed-homeless and also plenty of homed-houseless in and beyond our city limits who stand to benefit from a little diverse and dignified dialogue and relationship.
So you’re not overflowing with compassion yet? Here is a rather extreme, but nevertheless thought provoking experiment to close. Imagine 3,000 hungry and homeless shivering dogs were dumped onto our city streets one cold and wet winter night. The city would be in uproar. Doors of houses would open, kibbles would fill bowls, and belly rubs would be a plenty before anyone had the chance to question whether Scruffy had a drug addiction.
I know what your thinking, and your right. We can’t compare puppies and panhandlers and by no means do I encourage rubbing the bellies of house-less friends on Pacific Avenue, ignoring the presence of drugs on our city streets, or ignore or discredit the serious nature of our homeless situation. I simply plant a seed of contemplation and ponder the possibilities of what would happen if the compassion we’d show our furry friends extended to our (sometimes equally furry) houseless neighbors. After all, holding a puppy is a lot more healing than holding a hot coal. Thus as the city continues careening the crazy path towards an end to houselessness, I hope we may all travel the road of self- transformation and homecoming this holiday season.
From the Santa Cruz Sentinel:
Around 40 people, half of whom were homeless, spent Monday afternoon fishing on the Monterey Bay aboard a luxury yacht.
The trip was organized by Sweaty Sheep Ministries, a Santa Cruz church group that plays sports and games to build relationships across socioeconomic groups.
Chris Roberts (above) and his 11-year-old son, Casey, both formerly homeless, caught the largest fish and the first fish of the day, respectively. Later, they attended a bonfire at Twin Lakes State Beach, where the group barbecued the 70-plus fish they caught.
Roberts said it was the first time he’d gone deep-sea fishing.
“We thought it was a rock, but the rock kept moving,” said Roberts of the 25-pound lingcod he caught.
Before Roberts found work at Santa Cruz’s Homeless Garden Project last year, he and Casey were living in a car. Roberts had just been released from jail, and was recovering from a 20-year drug addiction, he said.
At the garden project, Roberts realized he was good at working with dirt and plants, and everything changed. A Santa Clara County judge was so impressed with his progress that he had $3,600 of fines deleted and charges deemed never incurred, said Roberts.
“I went from looking at three years at San Quentin to being discharged,” said Roberts, who now lives in a Live Oak apartment with his son.
Ryan Althaus, Sweaty Sheep pastor, said Monday’s event was not about fishing, as much as it was about fishing together. Attendees included Rayne Marr, Santa Cruz County’s new homeless services coordinator, several local nonprofit leaders and pastors.
“Our idea of interacting with the homeless is sitting on this side of a table and handing food with an ice cream scoop, and serving them,” Althaus said. “We need to eat together.”
San Jose Presbytery’s Hunger Program is excited that our newest “New Worshiping Community,” Beer Church, has leapt into the mission field! On May 26th Beer Church fed the needs (literally… because we all know that “beer is food”) of Watsonville’s “Loaves and Fishes” program by donating prayerfully poured home-brewed beverages for their program’s kick off fundraiser! This is an amazing demonstration of new and tasteful approaches to our meet our Christian calling to serve our community! Moreover, Beer Church is making a powerful showing of what it means to be a Christian community IN the larger community through the formation of relationships of shared resources!!!
Fun resource of the month: Check out the trailer for “Just Eat It!” This is a fantastic documentary and conversation starter for adult and youth groups and will inspire creative projects, thoughts, and discussion!
“Whether we are feasting or fasting or somewhere in between, food should have a sacred role in our lives. It can be something we sacrifice, something we savor, something we share, and through it all we can remain fulfilled because we are grounded in God, the only One who can satisfy our hungry hearts.”
-Mary DeTurris Poust
To those of you whom I’ve met, well… I apologize 🙂 To those I have not, my name is Ryan Althaus and I have recently been blessed with the opportunity to serve as the Food and Hunger Advocate for the Presbytery.
I’ll (try to) keep this short, but it would be amazing continue the conversation and grow in relationship with each of you over the next several months so that I may learn about the many great things that you are doing around hunger in our Presbytery and/or help take any ideas and resources that are floating around to the next level.
If it is ever helpful, I actually decided a 2nd round of grad school would be fun after seminary, so I enrolled in Business School to study nonprofit organizational development and communications and would be more than happy to work through the grant researching and writing work alongside of your congregation in order to help promote and grow your food and hunger ministry efforts in the “Resource” section.
Likewise, It would be my pleasure to attend a service, session, or mission committee meeting and I would be happy to speak or preach if you would like a day off!
As we travel through the Lenten season we are also encouraged to support the One Great Hour of Sharing offering which runs from Ash Wednesday through Easter Sunday. Amidst this season of fasting and reflection we hope that you will use this offering as an opportunity to help your congregations learn more about what our National Church is doing to address hunger in the world as well as promote opportunities that individuals and churches have to aid in the work.
I close with a two unique (ongoing) opportunities… I work in Santa Cruz at a homeless Job training and transitional employment program called the Homeless Garden Project. The program utilizes an organic garden as a site (refuge) for homeless individuals who grow produce to be distributed to over 1,400 individuals in Hospice and foster care or struggling with implications of domestic abuse, homelessness, and HIV diagnosis. I say that to say this…
1. We are able to host individuals/groups of all ages if your church would like to plan a unique mission day working in the garden alongside the homeless.
2. We have several near-graduate “homeless trainees” that have agreed to speak to your groups and/or help out plan/construct/etc community gardens at YOUR church. If this is something that would be exciting for your congregation, let me know and we will set something up.
Thank you so much for this opportunity to serve and please let me know how I can best do so in our communal efforts to understand and alleviate hunger (physical, spiritual, and emotional) in the San Jose community.