Rich Gamble is the pastor at the Keystone Church that played host to the Nickelsville homeless encampment in October (Nickelsville Coming to Wallingford, Nickelsville Moves On), and he’s written this reflection on their experience:
I received a call the morning of Saturday October 3, from the community of homeless people known as Nickelsville asking if I could meet with them as soon as possible. When we met later that afternoon representatives asked if they could stay in my church for one month beginning October 7.
I pointed out that we do not have a parking lot, explained that the church gets used by a wide variety of groups throughout the week, and noted that the only place available most of the week was the sanctuary itself. And since two congregations worship in the church, the space would not be available to them all day on Sundays. They said that they were willing to work with what we could offer.
The next day my congregation gathered after worship to discuss the issue and decided to offer the sanctuary to Nicklesville for one month. On Monday morning I informed the president of the preschool which uses part of the church building. On Tuesday or Wednesday, (I can’t remember which) I went around to those who live closest to the church to explain what was happening. On Wednesday afternoon representatives from Nickelsville and I met with the leaders of the preschool to discuss their concerns, and on Wednesday evening the Nickelsville community moved into Keystone.
The response from the community was mixed. Many were supportive, some have come by to drop off food and supplies but even those who called me to complain were very civil. There were some of the usual fears associated with stereotypes of homeless people as criminals but the main complaint of those who lived nearby was that it was not fair for my church to bring outsiders into their community – Keystone was being unfair to its neighbors.
This brought to mind a story from my faith tradition. Jesus was asked by a lawyer about the core of the faith which, both agreed, was to love God with their whole being and to love their neighbors as themselves. But the lawyer, seeking a limit on whom to love asked, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied with a story about a man who was robbed and beaten and left penniless, naked and bleeding in a ditch. The upright leaders of the community left the man there and did not offer aid but a foreigner passing by stopped and provided aid sufficient to get the man back on his feet. “Who was the neighbor to the man in the ditch?” Jesus asked. “The one who stopped and helped,” replied the lawyer. Then Jesus invited him to “Go and do likewise”.
In this story Jesus flips the perspective on the word neighbor. The lawyer wanted to use “neighbor” as a way to limit who was worthy of his compassion and justice. Using the lawyer’s perspective, neighbors are the people living close to me. Neighbors are the people living in houses like me. Neighbors are people born in this country like me. The word neighbor is used like a boundary marker, and beyond the line, people are not as worthy of compassion and justice. In this use of the word, the focus is on me and how people relate to me.
Jesus flips the word, taking the perspective of the person most vulnerable. He asks, “Who is the neighbor to the man in the ditch?” Jesus’ question turns the discussion of neighbor into one that breaks down barriers.
Those who want to use the word neighbor as a barrier to compassion, may well be upset with those who see the word as an invitation to shatter all such barriers. Nickelsville started in part as a protest against the sweeps policy of Mayor Nickels. A policy designed to deny habitation to those who may have no legal claim on the word neighbor. It is my hope that we as a community will rise up to claim the moral invitation found in the people who need neighbors.
In the time that they have stayed with us, the Nickelsville community has worked hard to care for the church building and show consideration to those living nearby. Tonight a man from Nickelsville approached me and said, “Thank you for letting us stay here. I was really thankful to have a place to come to and I really appreciate your congregation opening up your home (his arms open to include the sanctuary filled with people sleeping around and under the pews) and inviting people in.”
In his sincere appreciation I feel the gentle challenge to do more than open up a space in our building. I feel the call to open up a space in this community for these our neighbors.
(Thanks to Brandon for sharing this)