Takin’ it to the Streets

IMG_1567In Luke’s version of the triumphal entry of Jesus we celebrate as Palm Sunday, Jesus sees Jerusalem spread before him and weeps. He weeps for the city because Jesus knows the city will eventually be destroyed. And, he weeps because Jesus knows the people of Jerusalem and her leaders have missed this special moment of God’s revelation. They have other priorities.

If Jesus were to cross the Golden Gate Bridge today and see San Francisco laid before him, I think he would also weep for the “City by the Bay”. Amidst vast wealth and sparkling riches lies a stinking, rotten reality. While $100,000 cars drive by, and average one bedroom apartments cost $3500 per month, people are literally starving on the streets.

San Francisco boasts the highest number of homeless people in the country. One-third of the homeless are African-American, one-third are members of the LGBTQ community, and the other one-third suffer from mental illness. They are forced to urinate and defecate on the sidewalk because there are few places with public restrooms they can use. They have no shelter and few possessions. The homeless in San Francisco are literally everywhere. Well, maybe not everywhere. Certain blocks where fancy hotels are located and swank department stores do business are noticeably free of people sleeping on the sidewalks. The police make sure of that.

Recently, I joined Wesley Foundation students and leaders from UW, WWU, CWU, and young adults from Concordia University in Portland for an intensive cultural immersion. We learned about the unethical way developers try to remove people from their buildings so the buildings can be “flipped” and exorbitant rents charged. And, we learned about the handful of dedicated people from the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco who do their best to fight the developers.

We learned about the history of the LGBTQ community in San Francisco and remembered the discrimination against homosexuals and transgender people that continues to exist across this country. We listened as Harvey Milk predicted his own assassination and the account of his brutal killing. But even the Castro area of the city, the hub of queer life for the last 50 years, is being gentrified and the gay community being pushed out.

We learned of blatant and legislated racism against the Chinese who were recruited as cheap labor and then told they had to leave the country and could not become American citizens, yet stayed to build a thriving and robust community. And how, just recently Chinese railroad workers were recognized in the Labor Department “Hall of Fame”.

There is hope in San Francisco amid the urine and feces-laden streets. There are people who care about the “other” like Jesus did. There are those who accept people as they are and care for them in many ways. These are the people of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church and the staff and volunteers of the Glide Foundation. Twenty Wesley members had the privilege of working along side these quiet and unassuming heroes during our spring break.

We prepped and served three meals at Glide, meeting hundreds of homeless people who smelled of urine, had bad or no teeth, suffered from obvious mental health disorders, and were so hungry. The staff and other volunteers and Glide and almost everyone we served was polite, thankful, and happy to receive a meal. And our guests were not just homeless people. Many were the “working poor”. These are people with jobs that run short of money for food and benefit from a meal or two each week at Glide.

I’ll let one of our college students, Aly, tell you about a volunteer she met while serving at Glide.

The person that had the most effect on me was a man named Doug. We worked together in the line assembling trays for the dinner rush. Before the rush started, we got to talking. Doug is from Jamaica and moved to San Francisco nine years ago for school. At some point he stopped school and became homeless. He said he had been sleeping on the roof and had gotten caught so he came here. Doug was volunteering his time in the kitchen. After the shift started we had less time to talk. When he thought no one was looking he took a piece of bread folded it up and ate it. He knew he was going to get food in an hour, but he was so hungry that he needed something now. Doug was only twenty-eight years old. He was kind, caring, and said goodbye to me twice when we were on our way out. I can’t imagine ever being in Doug’s situation. No matter how much I struggle, I know have a support system to catch me when I fall. The realization that most of these people didn’t have anyone to turn to was a hard one to come to. I feel like I am still processing.

Perhaps the most memorable experiences for me were the two worship services we attended, Sunday morning at Glide, and the Sunday evening Eucharistic Service at Grace Cathedral. From jazz and gospel to meditative high church, these services were wonderful bookends to my day and reminded me that we serve a God already working to bring justice and peace. We are simply asked to do what we can to help others wherever we find ourselves.

I left San Francisco with very mixed feelings. I am appalled that America would allow its citizens to sleep on the streets, have no place to go to the bathroom, and no place to clean themselves. And, where is the access to mental health care? But, because of people like those at Glide and others, there is hope of a brighter tomorrow. God calls us to care for the marginalized, to bring justice, and love our neighbor. Will we respond to that call or like the people of Jerusalem, miss the meaning of God’s revelation? God showed me my neighbor in San Francisco and asked me to love them. By the grace of God, I hope I will.