Friday, April 27, 2012

In support of closing the encampments ... and knowing who our friends are.

This morning, a group of local “clergy, activists and concerned citizens” will be marching from the homeless encampments along the Mississippi River north of downtown to City Hall to protest the City of St. Louis’ closing of the encampments and relocating those living there into housing. I believe this protest is ill-conceived and destructive to the cause of ending homelessness.

Needless to say, I will not be joining it. And I want to be clear about why … and also about the opportunities I see for us as a Cathedral truly to make a difference toward ending homelessness.

Three points:

1) The city’s closing of the encampments and relocating of the residents is a good thing. 

2) Movements for change run off the rails when they treat potential allies as enemies. 

3) Well-conceived band-aid measures are necessary, but until we take a systems approach, urban poverty and homelessness will persist. 

First on the encampments. This is the easy one.

Last year, Kathleen Wilder of The Bridge, Greg Vogelweid of St. Patrick’s Center and Stephanie Perry (then of St. Patrick’s Center, now with Children’s Hospital) and I set out three principles that would guide us as we worked together to try to end homelessness and urban poverty in St. Louis. We agreed we would insist on and promote only solutions that were in line with these principles.

1) We dream of creating a city that makes happy God’s heart.
2) We seek and embrace solutions that promote the safety, dignity, and quality of life for all people.
3) We refuse to defend the rights of people to demean themselves and others.

The encampments are dangerous – a public health and safety hazard. People living outside in filth and subject to assault and robbery is neither safe nor dignified. I realize that it is some of the residents’ preference to live in the encampments, but I refuse to spend my energy defending the rights of people to demean themselves and others.

The City of St. Louis has taken a census of those living in the camps. The people are not being evicted but are being relocated into safe housing. They are being given funds to provide for their basic needs and help with setting up their new homes and connected with resources to help them stay there.

The city’s relocation efforts are not perfect. Just putting people in a home does not begin to solve all their problems. But it is an important piece … and the encampments are not only not a workable solution, they are an active detriment to the health and safety of the people who live there.

In fact, we should not only refrain from protesting the relocation, we should actively support it.

That is why I invite you to join me in making a personal donation to the Encampment Relocation Fund that will help with transition expenses for people being relocated by making a check out to:

Encampment Relocation Fund
C/O United Way of Greater St. Louis
910 N. 10th St.,
St. Louis, MO 63101
 or by calling (314) 657-1702.

But even more disturbing is that this protest and the rhetoric behind it are just more of the same. The biggest stumbling block toward ending homelessness in St. Louis is our inability to work together.

In this instance, the primary players are familiar foes – the City of St. Louis and New Life Evangelistic Center. I’ve spent lots of time with representatives of both these groups. And the truth is, both really care about and are providing necessary services for homeless people. The truth is, we would be in big trouble if the efforts of either one simply disappeared. And the truth is we should be working together to make all of those efforts unnecessary.

Working together. And not just as the City and NLEC … but the City and the County … the business community and the faith community.

As Americans, it’s known as citizenship – working together for the common good. I call it discipleship.

Even if the relocation of those in the encampments was a bad idea (which it isn’t), the answer is not shouting and shaming. That just deepens the chasms between us. The answer is the answer of Gandhi and Mandela and Tutu and King … of treating even your active enemies as future friends. Of seeking loving conversion of hearts.

It is following the counsel Paul gave to the Philippians, “in humility regard others as better than yourselves.”

There is a time for protest. But the protests of Gandhi and Mandela and Tutu and King did not demonize the proponents of the policies they were trying to change and always sought first to work with them. That is not the case here nor has it been anything close to the history of our struggle with homelessness in St. Louis. And unless that changes, there is little hope anything else will.

Finally, we do need to provide band-aid measures that give compassionate care to those who are currently homeless. It’s why we have our Miss Carol’s Breakfast Program on Saturday mornings. It’s why we support The Bridge both financially and with volunteers for their Sunday lunch program. It’s why when City Director of Homeless Services Bill Siedhoff asked me yesterday if we would allow a portapotty to be put on the NE corner of 13th and Olive to try to alleviate the annual warm weather public health problem of outdoor urination and defecation (of which our own buildings are often a target), my answer was, “If you think it might help … absolutely.”

But none of these things do anything to end homelessness. That’s why I was intruiged and grateful to be invited to be a part of a new group forming to look at how systems theory can be used in looking at promoting lasting change for urban poverty and homelessness. We are a priest, a social worker, a homeless activist, a lawyer, developer and a banker. We are a self-described partnership of the two groups that traditionally battle each other … the NIMBYs and the bleeding hearts … and we’re seeing how we can work together to promote solutions that address the multiple causes of urban poverty and homelessness and that don’t just shift the problem around.

 It’s a big job, but there is hope. Click here to read a report of a community effort in Battle Creek, MI, that successfully used a Systems Dynamics model in their efforts related to homelessness. Other systems models, like the Harlem Children’s Zone model that Grace Hill Settlement House is exploring for their neighborhood have shown great promise in sustaining community-based change.

I believe this is the path toward that city that makes glad God’s heart of which we dream.

Why is this important for Christ Church Cathedral? 
This is the intersection of the historic role of the Cathedral as a community gathering place for all people and our Gospel and historical mandate to see, meet and care for Christ in the poorest of the poor. It is an approach that is in line with the mission of the church to “reconcile all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” It is also an opportunity for us truly to be a Cathedral in terms of leading an entire community toward sustainable change and not just being another shouting voice.

What do you think? 
Do you think I should have been a part of the protest? What do you think of the city’s relocation of those living in the encampments? What do you think the role of the Cathedral should be? Should I have said yes to the portapotty? What else can you or we be doing?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Sharing Leadership -- Who Works With What?

I was having a wonderful lunch with a Cathedral parishioner today and the topic turned to a liturgical shift that we made one Sunday recently. She very graciously voiced her objection and we talked about the process that went into the decision. And then she said:

"Did you ask the Chapter?"

To which I said, "No. Because liturgy is not the Chapter's responsibility. Liturgical decisions are entrusted to the clergy."

If this person -- not only a longtime Episcopalian but a longtime Cathedral parishioner -- was not clear on this point, it's clear to me that we have done a poor job of being clear about how we share leadership at Christ Church Cathedral. Who is responsible for what?

The head of the church is Jesus Christ. And insofar as all of us exercise leadership in the church, it is us wrestling together with the question "What would Jesus have us do?"

At Christ Church Cathedral, the primary group that leads that process on a big-picture level is the Chapter -- 12 Cathedral members elected at annual meeting and 6 clergy and laity elected from the diocese at diocesan convention. If you read Chapter Notes each week, you'll see printed on the side column the following description of Chapter's charge. Chapter

*sets the vision for Christ Church Cathedral
*is the policy-making body for the Cathedral
*shares in the spiritual leadership of the Cathedral
*has fiduciary responsibility for the Cathedral finances (sets the budget, etc.)

Some examples of this:

*Chapter is leading a process of discerning what our shared, core values are as Christ Church Cathedral ... values that will drive our mission in years to come. We (I'm a part of Chapter too, just not a voting member) are designing and will lead processes of engaging the congregation, diocese and downtown St. Louis in this work. This is a part of our vision-setting for Christ Church Cathedral.

*This week, Chapter will be discussing the role of political action in the life of Christ Church Cathedral. That is part of our policy-making vocation.

*Chapter members regularly attend worship, pray for the Cathedral regularly and strive to be guided by the Word of God in scripture and as experienced in our own history. We greet people at the 10 am service as part of embodying our ministry of hospitality. That is part of our vocation to spiritual leadership.

*Chapter is continually looking for ways to make our life together more sustainable financially and is working on a process to build broader ownership of the future of the Cathedral among the people of the Cathedral, the diocese and the city. That is part of our vocation to fiduciary responsibility.

In all of these things, leadership is not about "doing it all ourselves" but, well, leading! That's why I hope you are talking to your Chapter members but also asking them "what can I do to help?"

You'll notice liturgy is not on that list. The chief liturgical officer of the Cathedral is Bishop George Wayne Smith. He delegates that authority to me (reserving the right to intervene or countermand) and I, in turn, delegate it to our Vicar, the Rev. Canon Amy Cortright (though, like the Bishop, I reserve the right to intervene, and Amy and I certainly work as a team in discussing things).

But having authority is not a license to do as we please. The authority we have over the liturgy is a sacred trust. We have the authority for the glory of God, for the building up of the body of Christ and on behalf of Christ's people, the church. So our decisions must be informed by prayer, listening and conversation. And that is what we try to do.

Amy and I have started meeting twice a month with Canon Precentor Pat Partridge, to make sure we are working well as a team. Amy and Head Verger Shug Goodlow meet regularly as well as regular consultations with Altar Guild Director Myrna Wacker. And we love it when people come and lovingly share their thoughts ... and are looking for ways to make that easier. We listen, think, converse, pray ... and, like everyone else, we make the decision we believe is our best shot at "What would Jesus have us do?"

Why is this important for Christ Church Cathedral?
We are all the Body of Christ and each of us is gifted differently with different functions within the body. But it is not the ministry of a few but shared ministry of the whole. The clergy and lay leaders who have authority over the life of the Cathedral exercise that authority with and on behalf of the people ... together all of us striving to be the Cathedral God dreams for us to be. It's important that we are all clear about the structures of how decisions are made and by whom ... so we can all participate in the process?

What do you think?
Do you have any questions about how decisions are made at Christ Church Cathedral? Does this make sense to you? Any other thoughts?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

What is the role of Christ Church Cathedral in political and social action?

Is it the Cathedral's role to take stands on issues?  Or Is it the Cathedral's role to be a gathering place where issues are prayerfully and respectfully discussed ... with us lifting up the Gospel in the midst of the conversation?

It's a question your Cathedral Chapter will take up this Thursday evening. And even though we might each have a strong gut answer to the question, the question is anything but simple.

Two recent queries have raised this issue:

In March, I was approached by two parishioners who were taking the training to gather signatures for a petition drive that Metropolitan Congregations United is supporting for a ballot initiative that would seriously curtail the interest rates lenders can charge on payday loans. They wanted to be able to collect signatures at the Cathedral on Sunday.

Yesterday, I was asked if the Cathedral could serve as a backup rain location for a counter-rally to the NRA convention in St. Louis today.

In both cases, I said no ... not because I don't personally support the ballot initiative (I have signed the petition myself) or because I am a fan of the NRA (I can't tell you in how many ways I am not!) ... but because this raises larger questions of who we are and what our role as a Cathedral is, and the Chapter is the body elected by the Cathedral congregation and the Diocese that is entrusted with making those decisions. I wanted Chapter to have those conversations before we waded into these waters.

Either choice carries with it challenging implications.

If it is the Cathedral's role to take stands on issues ... either by making public statements or by allowing our facilities to be used for certain causes ... then who decides what those stands are and what causes we support?

Even if we can all agree that limiting interest rates on payday loans (rates which prey disproportionately on the poor) is a cause worthy of support, who makes that call? And what if someone wanted to come to Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday morning and collect signatures for a Missouri version of the Defense of Marriage Act? Or for restricting federal funds from going to Planned Parenthood? Or to distribute literature about repealing the Affordable Health Care Act?

And what if it was the NRA that wanted to use our space? Or what if both a Pro-Choice group and an Anti-Choice group each wanted to use Schuyler Hall for an open forum on abortion? What would our answer be? And would we charge or would we see it as part of our vocation as a gathering place?

And if we are that gathering place, what does it mean for us to lift the Gospel up in the midst of the conversation? If we, along with our partners in ministry at the Central Library, with joy invited Angela Davis to speak at Christ Church Cathedral, would we extend the same hospitality to Sarah Palin? Why or why not? And who decides?

As individual baptized Christians, we each have the responsibility to be active politically and socially to raise our voices for the voiceless and use our power for the powerless. And as individuals how we do that is informed by scripture, tradition and reason and we each make the call for ourselves.

But what about when we act as a body? According to the Cathedral bylaws, the Dean is the only person authorized to speak for Christ Church Cathedral. But do we really want a Cathedral whose political & social stands are just an outgrowth of my own personal opinions?

Here another angle. In today's Fox News/MSNBC world, we live in opposite echo chambers where we surround ourselves with like-minded voices and are rarely challenged by ideas different from the ones we start with. Is it more in line with the church's mission of reconciliation to take a stand on an issue or to try to provide a middle ground where all can meet in prayerful and respectful dialogue?

It should be an interesting conversation ... and one that isn't limited to just Thursday night's Chapter meeting.

Why is this important for Christ Church Cathedral?
I hope that's pretty obvious. This is important for us because how we decide on these issues will go a long way toward shaping our role in this community.

What do you think?
What do you think our role as a Cathedral should be? And if your answer is that we should take stands ... then who decides what stands and what causes or groups get invited to use our space? And if your answer is that we should allow everyone or no one, and that we shouldn't take stands but be a gathering place  ... then what does that look like? And how do we be a presence of the Gospel in the midst of the conversation?

FYI, there is nothing legally that would prevent us from allowing anything mentioned here. For details about what churches can and cannot do in terms of political action without threatening our nonprofit status, click here for a handy two-page guide from Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Coming Together over Anna Brown

It has been an unusual Holy Week so far, and I'd like to share why ... and how it fits into what I believe our call as a Cathedral of this city can be.

By now, most of you are well aware of the story of Anna Brown, a black, homeless woman who died in a Richmond Heights jail cell of blood clots in her leg hours after being medically cleared at St. Mary's Health Center. Since this story came to light in the Post-Dispatch, there has been an understandable firestorm.

The firestorm is understandable because Anna Brown's death, like that of Trayvon Martin, not only is disturbing in itself but it touches the heart of a brutally common experience of Black America and Homeless America. As a man I sat with this week said succinctly: "Black. Homeless. Woman. Not taken seriously."

The opportunity of moments like this is that they become springboards for communities to come together and work together for substantive change. The danger of moments like this is they become flashpoints for scapegoating and deepening of the chasms that already divide us in this highly segregated metropolitan area.

St. Mary's Health Center has become a target in this. They have received death threats and they are in a state of 24-hour heightened security. There is no doubt that the treatment Anna received at St. Mary's missed making a diagnosis that might have saved her life. But there is also no evidence that St. Mary's had any malice of intent toward Anna Brown or did anything but what they thought was the care they needed to give their patient.

But experience and emotion trumps fact almost every time. And the truth of the preponderance of experience that "black, homeless and woman" has so many times equaled "discarded and denied" makes it easy to turn St. Mary's into a scapegoat ... instead of exploring ways to embrace them as a powerful friend in the struggle to improve access to necessary services for all.

My personal experience of St. Mary's is of an institution that truly tries to live its mission statement of "Through our exceptional health care services, we reveal the healing presence of God." When I have been in St. Mary's ER, I have seen it incredibly overburdened by sheer volume of people (they estimate nearly 50,000 a year), much of which is due to the closing of other city hospitals and the attractiveness of ERs as collecting spots for people who have no insurance. I have seen staff who are trying to live St. Mary's creed under incredibly difficult circumstances.

So I was grateful when our Canon Minor, the Rev. Dr. John Kilgore, called me and asked if I could set up a meeting with him and the Rev. Chris Rice, a minister at New Life Evangelistic Center, which is planning a Good Friday march starting at the County Government Building in Clayton and ending with a rally at St. Mary's. Chris and I have worked together on issues of homelessness downtown, and I love him not only as a brother in Christ but respect him as a colleague. He heard my concern that this Good Friday action might take what I saw as a powerful friend in the battle to improve health care (St. Mary's) and instead alienate them and make it more difficult to work together. He heard and on Monday morning, John, Chris and I sat down and the conversations began.

Throughout the week, I have sat down with John and Chris. I have spent time with Kate Becker, the president of SSM St. Mary's Health Center. I have sat down with the Rev. Larry Rice and a passionate group of pastors and homeless advocates at their planning meeting for the Good Friday action. At each one of these gatherings, I found people of deep faith who want the same thing -- that a deeply broken system that leaves many on the outside of health care looking in be reformed, and that specifically the government, churches and institutions of St. Louis County commit to doing their part to care for the homeless in their communities, and not just continuing to dump them on the City of St. Louis and on overloaded institutions like the St. Mary's ER.

John's and my hope was to bring St. Mary's and the organizers of the march together in a public way on Friday that would take an event that I think has the potential to turn into an unhelpful finger-pointing and blame-throwing exercise and turn it into a springboard for powerful collaboration for the good. With both Kate Becker and Larry & Chris Rice, we imagined what a public role for St. Mary's might be in tomorrow's rally that would be helpful and productive. In the end, St. Mary's decided not to participate tomorrow ..  and all I can say about that is that while it saddens me and I think it is a missed opportunity, I am absolutely convinced that they are committed to being an active part of improving access to health care for all people in St. Louis City and County.

On one level, the time we spent this week with St. Mary's and NLEC was fruitless. The rally tomorrow will probably look the same as it would have had we never had these meetings. But on a deeper level, I believe there is much fruit that is yet to be borne. Christ Church Cathedral now has deeper relationships with St. Mary's and New Life Evangelistic Center.  I will not be a part of the event on Friday -- and I struggled with this -- but I finally decided I do not want to be a visible part of something that could easily be spun as attacking an institution in St. Mary's that I believe wants to be part of the solution. However, I have already committed at their request to continue to meet with both people from St. Mary's and NLEC to explore how we can work toward collaborative solutions to improve the lives of our most vulnerable sisters and brothers.

I am hopeful that Anna Brown's death may yet be a catalyst for real change. And that we at Christ Church Cathedral can be a part of it.

Why is this important for Christ Church Cathedral?
I believe one of our greatest opportunities as a Cathedral for St. Louis is not to be one more voice shouting, but to be a place of reconciliation ... a place where people and institutions are gathered together to live the Gospel in the world. There are plenty of churches that are known for their politics ... and many of them accomplish wonderful things. But I hope Christ Church Cathedral can be known as the place and community that brings St. Louis together across its many and deep divides. That helps us find the common compassion we all share deep down. That, as I preached in my Maundy Thursday sermon tonight, models and equips us to "love one another as Christ has loved us."

What do you think?
Do you think I should be going to the rally tomorrow? Do you think it's the Cathedral's or my role to be bringing sides together ... or should we just pick one side and push hard? What do you think?