A heated debate over Tent City

“Have you heard the news coming out of Seattle? There’s a Tent City on Poverty Rock? The haves and the have-nots have tied the knot.” I can imagine Jay Leno or David Letterman having a field day with our town’s most-talked-about topic on their late night monologues.

But the issue of responding to the homeless is anything but laughable. It is a serious situation that calls for serious dialogue and sober reflection. If you canvass the community, you will no doubt be surprised by those who are willing to pound a stake into the ground in support of helping the homeless.

Nonetheless, this topic is one that has contributed to controversy and conversation. Pardon the pun, but the tensions surrounding Tent City are intense.

For members of faith communities rooted in a Judeo-Christian heritage, the intensity of responding to the homeless is compounded by what the Hebrew Scriptures have to say. We are not given a choice when it comes to assisting the poor. We are commanded to be compassionate no matter the cost. People of faith are consistently reminded that their ancestors were individuals deprived of a permanent home and forced to live a nomadic existence. Our spiritual grandfather, Abraham, was “a wandering Aramean.”

Not long ago, I got a call from Seahawks Coach Mike Holmgren. He was preparing to speak at a prayer breakfast for governmental and business leaders in Seattle. Mike asked me to help him find an appropriate passage from the Bible that would illustrate the moral obligation that people of faith have to help the poor. I did some research and pointed the coach to Isaiah 58, in which the prophet Isaiah registers the Creator’s heartbeat for the homeless and hungry.

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe him and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)

Subsequently, I have read and re-read those verses. The context is this: God is challenging those who practice spiritual disciplines such as prayer and fasting to do more than do without. The ritual of fasting (foregoing a meal as a sacrificial offering) can become self-serving and lead to pride and arrogance.

Although there is a place for such observances, God suggests that a much more meaningful fast is to forego our normal routine of caring for ourselves in order to care for others. A God-honoring fast is not giving up but giving to.

“To provide the poor wanderer with shelter.”

“Not so fast,” you might say. “That was then, but this is now.” Exactly.

That’s my point. I believe Tent City is a tangible process whereby helpless yesterdays can be transformed into hopeful tomorrows.

Last month, I had a member of my congregation approach me and ask to be part of our church’s Tent City task force. When I asked this well-to-do Island resident why she wanted to help, she told me her story.

When she was 5, her father died, leaving her mother with four little girls and a monthly income of less than $150. Her mother quickly remarried a man who frequently lost his job due to alcohol. They stayed in makeshift campgrounds, under bridges with other “campers,” in decrepit motels, and slept in their station wagon for weeks at a time.

Today, Emily (not her real name) is a living example of one who survived homelessness and has become a contributing member of our community. She credits her faith, opportunities and people along the way who care for her. Her desire to flesh out the words of Isaiah 58 is rooted in memories of what it is like to be fearful, hungry and poor. It is also based in the knowledge that she can make a difference.

Pastor Greg Asimakoupoulos is the head of the Mercer Island Covenant Church and a regular contributor to the Reporter.

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