The Theology of Nightwatch
- Written by Gary Davis
Our public figures are often narcissists, utterly self-absorbed in their quest for power. And into this mix strides Pope Francis, drawn to the powerless, focused on issues like climate change and human trafficking, declaring, “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined.”
Sounds right. I haven’t seen any polling numbers, but I’d bet that if Pope Francis were pitted against our presidential candidates, he’d blow them all out of the water. Talk is cheap. And people love Francis not only because he practices what he preaches, but his genuine humility deflates any air of sanctimoniousness.
Of course, what Francis is saying is nothing new. It is as old as Jesus. And many others have witnessed to the same message in the centuries since. My own mentors who shaped my personal beliefs—from the pastor of my teenage years to Mother Teresa, whom I admired from afar—preached the same thing.
Among those mentors too was William Sloane Coffin, Jr., chaplain of Yale University when I was attending divinity school there. Bill was one of the pre-eminent social activists of the 1960s and 70s, gaining national prominence for his involvement in the civil rights and anti-war movements, and for his outspokenness raised a lot of controversy and made a lot of people mad. But I’m currently reading an excellent (i.e. balanced) biography of him, and while Bill was certainly not without ego, it’s also evident in the biographer’s mind—at it was to us who knew him—that every position he took was a natural consequence of his Christian conviction.
When he was drawing fire for his civil rights involvement in 1962 (he participated in the Freedom Rides), Bill explained in a radio interview the theology he held that prompted him to activism. He said that behind it all lay “the fundamental, theological presupposition . . . that it is not because we have value that we are loved by God, but because we are loved by God that we have value.” Consequently, “as regards race relations, there can be no graded scale of worth,” as we are all equal in God’s eyes.
To speak of Jesus was to speak of one whose primary concern was “to discover the image of God no matter how torn or how distorted of how faded the image, in every derelict, whore, prodigal, or profligate with whom he came in contact.” The real test of the depth of one’s Christianity was the degree to which one loved: “As Christians we are called upon to love, with the same type of love that God has shown for each man in the life of Christ. . . . We as Christians are not called upon to create the brotherhood of man, only to recognize it.”
Then Coffin told a story about a beggar brought to hospital operating table in 16th-century Italy. As he lay there, the doctors spoke in Latin above him, believing him unable to understand: “Let us experiment on this vile fellow.” But the “beggar” happened merely to be a poor student who later in life would become a renowned scholar, Marc Antoine Muret. He understood every word of theirs and spoke back to them in Latin, “You call vile one for whom Christ did not disdain to die.”
The moral Coffin drew? To treat any as less than ourselves is not only a humanitarian offense, but “blasphemy against God.”
Though this theology was used to explain why Christians should bear a strong commitment to civil rights for those of all races, it also proclaims why we should neither denigrate those who are homeless. This could just as well be articulated as the theology of Nightwatch. For aren’t civil rights, after all, just basic human rights?
To be with the “bruised, hurting and dirty” is, in short, to be where Jesus is.
That’s what Bill Coffin was saying. That’s what Pope Francis is saying.
Indeed, that’s what Jesus said.
And to that we can give a big, “Amen.”
Books and Bread
- Written by Gary Davis
What’s happening in Europe today with the flood of refugees from Syria, Eritrea, and other countries in the Middle East and Africa is a genuine crisis. On the one hand, these people cannot help but to flee; at home, privation is already killing many around them, and ever-present violence adds further peril to themselves and their families. On the other hand, the countries they’re seeking as their havens, even if they carry true humanitarian sensitivities, have no notion how to absorb so many displaced people. Impromptu refugee encampments have become Europe’s “tent cities,” characterized by their own suffering and squalor.
What one might not expect to find in these encampments is a library. But there is actually a French group called, “Libraries Without Borders,” that sends books (and, recognizing today’s “information revolution,” a Wi-Fi link) to establish libraries in refugee camps. I think that’s a stellar idea. Some might object that a library among so much need is frivolous: “Why, these people need food and shelter!” Of course they do. But so do animals in a zoo. And these people are not animals.
Let’s not forget that it was in his struggle with the temptations of Satan that Jesus made the point that human beings are not just made of matter, but of spirit. “Man does not live by bread alone,” was his famous counterpoint to the devil. (Matt. 4:1-3) And offering books along with bread—books that can stretch the mind, quicken the heart, and enliven the spirit—is nothing less than an affirmation of the recipients’ humanity. Considering the refugees’ plight, books can teach them about the new cultures they are meeting; they can charge their imaginations to help them leap the fences of their captivity to escape their circumstances for at least a brief time; and they can inspire with hope when all else to them has been lost.
When I read about Libraries Without Borders, I thought about how important books are at Nightwatch. We have our own library at our Downtown Hospitality Center and one we carry with our Mobile Hospitality Center that we can never keep fully stocked. While we get numerous book donations, they always needs to be replenished because the books often fly off the shelves as soon as they’re displayed. Our guests are readers.
Indeed, our “100 Book Challenge,” which began in January with the goal of getting participants to read 100 books in the course of the year, is still going strong. Whereas 14 people originally signed up, only four have kept with it, but what fun it is to sit down and learn what they’ve been reading lately. One of our 100-Bookers has already surpassed the goal and has now tallied over 140 books. And his reading habits encompass such a wide range of interests that if I suggest a follow-up book, he’ll say, “Nope. Already read it.” “Well, then, how about . . . ,” I say. “Nope. Already read that, too.” Another of our participants has the ambition of reading all Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. So to fill the 100-book quota, our guys are obviously not just reading frivolous stuff! (As one of them said, “A bad book just isn’t worth it.”)
As I wouldn’t challenge anyone to do anything that I wasn’t willing to undertake myself, I’m also out to meet that 100-book goal. As I’m up to 83 books so far, it looks like I’m going to make it. And I have to say that in participating I’ve felt my own humanity affirmed. I’ve had to give up some things this year in order to focus more on reading. I surf the Internet less. Moreover, I find that I’m less clued in to the 24-hour news cycle. And not getting so riled up by the last stupid thing said by a politician running for office, or by the pundit commenting on that politician’s comment has made me feel less stressed and happier. In contrast, I’ve read some great novels set in places as far-flung as Chechnya, India, Malaysia, rural Montana, and post-apocalyptic Michigan that brought the tears and laughter signifying there is a common thread that does hold us all together.
Studies have shown that reading does engender greater empathy and compassion. What then are we to think about surveys revealing that over a quarter of Americans have not read a single book in the past year? Maybe if more did read, there would be more compassion and empathy. Maybe we wouldn’t be having crises in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.
Or on our own streets.
Do a good deed. Affirm humanity.
Give a book.
Read a book.
At the Beach
- Written by Gary Davis
Let’s not underestimate the power of fun.
I could use this opportunity to present yet another missive on the challenges of homelessness (as I often do). But how grim any life would be if it weren’t didn’t experience lulls from stress where it might actually be punctuated by moments of laughter.
That’s the premise behind the occasional outings on which we take our guests. And for such reasons, how they look forward to them when one is scheduled on the calendar!
Just over a week ago, we took them on perhaps our most popular outing (after the spiritual retreat)—our annual trip to the beach. This year we went to Ft. Stevens State Park, a wonderful spot because of the variety it offers: not only sand and sea, but forest, a quiet lagoon, historical gun emplacements, even a museum. Within the few hours we tried to take in as much as the park had to offer. We started with a BBQ, took some frolicking in the surf, then scrambled over the fort’s ruins.
When everyone disembarked upon our return to Portland, it was with smiles on their faces that signified they couldn’t wait until next year.
The message was clear. Fun can have healing power, too.
The Mayor of Clay Street
- Written by Gary Davis
Who knows how many have been introduced “up-close-and-personal” to issues relating to homelessness because of the facilitation of Larry Bishop? Hundreds? Thousands?
Larry spent a good part of his life homeless himself, so he knew from experience of which he spoke. “Back in the day” he was a Nightwatch guest. But once he got on his feet he used his experience to serve as a tour-guide for our sister agency JOIN to lead immersion groups JOIN hosted. Larry regularly led these groups (usually consisting of high school and college students) around downtown telling stories to help them appreciate what a struggle with homelessness involved.
For well over the past decade, Larry lived in an apartment across the street from St. Stephen’s, which meant that though he wasn’t a guest of ours anymore, we certainly saw a lot of him. Though he occasionally dropped by in the evening, we usually saw him during the day when he poked his head in the office. Larry was well-known in the neighborhood because he took such an active interest in wanting to make it a good community for everyone. On the one hand, that meant organizing food and blanket collections for the people in his building; on the other hand, it meant actively chasing drug dealers from the street corners. It seems he knew everyone by name, and one of the benefits we derived from his office drop-bys was gaining intelligence from him of just what was happening on the sidewalks right outside our door.
Larry’s civic involvement was such that several years ago The Oregonian did a feature story on him, dubbing him, “The Mayor of Clay Street.” I’d been calling him “Mr. Mayor” ever since.
And he also played another role: Mr. Mayor put on a white beard and red suit and played Santa at our downtown Christmas parties that last couple of years.
To the great shock and sadness of all of us at Nightwatch and St. Stephen’s, Larry died suddenly this week. Larry was modest guy, so I’m sure he had no idea of what an impact he had on people. But when I posted an announcement of his death on Nightwatch’s Facebook page, it was picked up and shared with over 2300 people—more than any post we’ve ever put on Facebook.
Well done, Mr. Mayor. Your constituents will surely miss you.
The Four Children of Nightwatch
- Written by Gary Davis
In the ritual Passover meal known as the Seder, there is a point at which the youngest participating child is scripted to ask, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” That prompts the Seder leader (usually the father, since the Seder typically is enacted around a family dinner table) to tell in summary form the story of the Exodus, the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
Yet what also comes in response is something called, “The Story of the Four Children.” It tells of four possible attitudes a “child” might have in posing the Passover question.
- The wise child asks, "What are the testimonies, the statutes and the laws which the Lord, our God, has commanded you?" You, in turn, shall instruct him in the laws of Passover. . . .
- The unappreciative child asks, "What is this service to you?!" He says `to you,' but not to him! By thus excluding himself from the community he has denied that which is fundamental. You, therefore, speak firmly to him: "It is because of this that the Lord did for me when I left Egypt"; `for me' - but not for him! If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed!"
- The simple child asks, "What is this?" Thus you shall say to him: "With a strong hand the Lord took us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery."
- As for the one who does not know how to ask, you must simply initiate him, as it is said: "You shall tell your child on that day, `It is because of this that the Lord did for me when I left Egypt.'"
The Story of the Four Children is merely a recognition that all people are individuals, different from one another. And because they are different, discernment, flexibility, and adaptability are required when addressing their needs. In the real world, “one size” certainly doesn’t “fit all.”
We meet a great variety of personalities at Nightwatch. Some are incredibly gracious. At the end of an evening, they are effusive in their gratitude even if we’ve done nothing more than give them a smile and a baloney-and-cheese sandwich. On the other hand, there are others who wouldn’t know how to be gracious no matter how much we have done for them. We invite them in, treat them to free coffee and food, fortify them with foot care, socks, a jacket, and a blanket, and still have nothing to bestow upon us but a curse upon our mothers.
What explains the difference? Nature or nuture? Something of both, I imagine. Mental illness would fall into the former category. But when someone exhibits no ability to show the most basic manners (e.g. cutting in line, trying to amass everything for himself, not knowing the appropriateness of “please” and “thank you”), I would attribute that to upbringing.
In last week’s New York Times Book Review there was a review of a book by a middle-school teacher who criticized the habits of parents who over-involve themselves in their children’s lives—so-called “helicopter parents”—who cheat their children from learning the lessons of failure. These children themselves come to adulthood burdened with the feeling that they are “incompetent, incapable, unworthy of trust and utterly dependent.”
I don’t doubt that’s true. But what about those (like many of our Nightwatch guests) who grew up with alcoholic or drug-addled parents who didn’t care for them at all, or who were essentially orphans because their childhoods were histories of moving from one foster home to the other? They’ve experienced nothing but failure. How can we expect them to have the most basic social skills when no one was present in their formative years to act as models for them?
The analogy I’ve been fond of using when orienting new volunteers at our Hospitality Center is to tell them that “it’s like entertaining guests in your own home.” The expectation upon a volunteer is play the good host; in contrast, the role of those who come to us is to play the guest. But it’s only lately I’ve been pondering how imperfect an analogy that is. Whether because of nature or nurture, a number of our visitors have no idea what it means to play a good guest.
As a result, for a number of guests I find myself not only playing the role of host, but of parent. I will point out behavior that is inappropriate. I will let them know what is rude. I will model for them what it means to be gracious and polite, and tell them that, as I have respected them, my hope is that they’ll show some respect in return.
I know I open myself to criticism in taking such an approach. It’s sounds paternalistic, if not downright patronizing. For aren’t we dealing with adults here?
But just as the Seder acknowledges there are different sorts of children, so it is true that to affirm individuality is to recognize that “one size” doesn’t “fit all” in dealing with different adults. Discernment, flexibility, and adaptability are all required if we are to be helpful in dealing with all in their individual needs. Some need merely to be affirmed. Others need more direction.
At Nightwatch, no night is really that different from any other night. Compassion laced with wisdom is required on all of them if true hospitality is to be ours.