Tuesday, November 21, 2006

brimstone and bologna sandwiches

My father's brother ran a homeless ministry. He was a fire breathing preacher, full of faith and gospel and god and he commanded the same of everyone around him. He was larger than life, my Uncle, when he walked into a room people gathered around him. He took that pulpit and made it scream. People loved him. Feared him, too. I always felt like he was God On Earth. His words WERE the holy commandments, and you better listen up.

He lived in the church office with his wife and kids. They lived onsite because they kept their doors open 24/7 to anyone needing a place to stay. Anyone could sleep on one of the pews. The only rule was you'd better be upright at 6am to get your fill of Jesus. Praying, bible study, church...you abided by all of it if you wanted a place to stay.

I cut my homeless baby teeth inside those walls. We'd visit regularly, we'd help cook meals, make sandwiches, go to church. It was unavoidable - my grandmother lived in the back of the church by then, and the rest of the family came and went as well. Running the church and the various programs was a true family affair.

They ran a summer camp for inner city kids. The camp was spartan - tents and outhouses, a lot of white bread and oatmeal. They'd round up hundreds of kids from deep inside L.A. and get them breathing mountains for a week at a time. My parents would send me, and truth be told, I hated it. Camp was hard. We were roughing it. And the kids, well, the kids were tough. There was so little money to spare that the evening activities mostly consisted of chasing one of the counselors around while he held a hershey bar in his teeth. Whoever finally caught him got the candy. I never won, not once.

My uncle ran things with an iron fist wrapped around a bible. From time to time city workers would hassle him - people were being housed illegally, overcrowding, pews were not meant to be used as beds. Nothing was up to code, food was bartered and begged. Folks did drugs. One guy from the Health Inspectors office tried hard to shut the place down. I remember threats of litigation and of closing our doors. I remember my uncle fighting with him and bringing it up in church, bible raised and voice thundering, asking God to intervene. The guy dropped dead of a heart attack the next week. I kid you not. This was how my uncle rolled.

All of that combined meant I had a healthy fear of my uncle. He commanded and I responded. He told me what to do, what to read, and I did. I loved him very much. I also was just a little girl, and easily impressionable.

While I certainly learned about humanity, I struggled with the religiousity of it all. As I grew older, I disagreed that someone should have to augment their belief system in order to receive help. While I appreciate his passion, I don't agree with the approach. To be honest, I don't know how many folks were truly helped...did they end their homelessness, or was it just passing time? I know some people seemed to make miraculous recoveries...pimps became pastors, that sort of thing. Perhaps salvation IS the goal, eternal life certainly trumps this world if one is a believer of that sort, but at the same time, I think helping is helping, and it shouldn't come chained to the bible.

My uncle died quite a few years ago. He was out at dinner, looked at his wife, said it's time to go home, and died on the spot. We always felt it was a blessing that he died away from the church, because people saw salvation in him, and seeing him wheeled out in a bag might have been too much to bear. I recall his funeral - the church was filled to the brim and there were 200 or so more people gathered outside in the street. I remember a lot of wailing and crying. One woman threw herself on his coffin. I cried for a week. My aunt, though - she was a rock. She never did leave that church office, not for many years to come.

Without knowing, he gave me my start. I had no idea I'd end up doing what I do now way back then, but those experiences taught me a lot about perseverance and hope. About dedication and compassion.

But mostly, it taught me but there for the grace of god, go I.


acumamakiki said...

What a story Jen! I love that your uncle had so much influence on you, it really was your beginning. Having grown up without any religion (how very cali don't you think?)I have to agree, that helping is helping and shouldn't be attached to anything, especially God. But I also understand working for what you receive and perhaps this was your uncle's way of having people pay back and maybe it was that simple.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting story.. and a glimpse into your roots. :) I agree with you and your commenter that attaching a belief system to help causes a problem. Giving should be an activity attached to a desire to express our own belief systems. Still, your uncle helped many people in his lifetime ~ and that's what counts in the final round.



Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that a side of brimstone is the best accompaniment to a much needed sandwich. The truth is I have no idea what is the best way to help those in need. It seems like your uncle did what he thought was best and helped many in the process. You can't fault him for that.

mrs.incredible said...

Very interesting story, Jen. All I can say is that a) I agree with helping for helping's sake. That maybe attaching your religious beliefs isn't necessarily the best approach. But he lived for his calling... and b)You said "To be honest, I don't know how many folks were truly helped". Maybe not as many as he would've liked at that time. But think how many are being helped NOW because of you because of him......

Her Bad Mother said...

Wow. What a story. Your uncle sounds like an amazing human being. I agree that helping shouldn't be attached to anything, but it sounds like the experience gave you an excellent experience of both charity and religion, especially for the questioning that it prompted.

Anonymous said...

Most mission and "relief work" in this country has traditionally done by churches, and it sounds like your uncle fit right in with the times. And having gone to my own share of camps when I was growing up, I had to laugh at the chocolate bar story!

Regardless of the methods, your uncle made a lasting impression on those who came to your family for help, and most of all on you - for the better, I would say. You are a caring and compassionate person - I think he merely aided your focus.

KC said...

Jen, I love hearing these stories about how you became you. But, I also know that not just anyone would have gone in the direction that you have after being exposed to this kind of outreach and compassion. It contributes, but it is all you.

Hats off to you, every day.

Jo said...

Amazing. It's amazing how life's experiences, positive, negative and a mixture of both, can contribute to who we end up as later in life. Sometimes we become who we are because of something that happened, sometimes in spite of something that happened. Great story, Jen.

Momish said...

Ah, another little piece of the Jen puzzle! I love it, keep them coming. What an amazing history you and your family have. It truly is no wonder how you became so amazing, with such role models!

Anonymous said...

Jen, your writing is so evokative. I agree with you that charity should not come with strings attached. I know of so many Chritian charities that do good work simply for the sake of doing good work but then there are the evangelical ones who always seem to make spiritual demands in return.

Your uncle sounds like a remarkably charismatic figure.

Deezee said...

ditto on the agreement. so glad you have gone to helping for helping's sake.

and your picture of Venice...

much has changed, and so much not. the homelessness, the lost souls on the boardwalk - they're all there and are my most long term neighbors in a town of transition.

Penny said...

I don't know how I missed this post, but it was a great post.

The thing about teaching people about God is to lead by example, just like when we teach our children how to communicate, how to eat, how to dress, how to think, when to play, how to bathe.

I know many people who have come to God from watching those who have been close to Him use their faith and serve in their daily lives.

I don't know many who have been close because they were forced.

A preacher feeding the poor isn't naive enough to think that a man will buy away his physical hunger at the price of compliance.

Jesus said to love God, one's neighbor and one's self. And, He said to feed the poor. And so we should.


Many reasons that are interesting debate, but none of which negate the fact that this charity has been instructed to us by our maker, who is to us a mother or father, as we are to Him a toddler.

We are the 'children of God', a collective toddler who can ask Why, but who does not have the capactiy to fully understand all aspects. Just as our own toddlers act as you explain to them that they should, they come to see on their own the bigger pictures answering many of their whys and they learn quickly, applying their knowledge to more situations.

Whatever the food does inside of a man, man cannot live by bread alone. And, many poverty stricken have lost their faith, and just as money could not heal the schitzophrenic (in my earlier comment on your earlier post), bread alone cannot heal a man's soul.

But, the analogy imbeds the very easy transaction of giving up one's spiritual hunger for free salvation ~ giving up your spiritual poverty in exhange for the invaluable gifts in faith.

(Forgive me if it sounds as though as I speak as though I knew him.) If I had to analyze your uncle's actions, this is what I would think...

Certain denominations worship in certain ways, certain people believe more fundamentally than others, some believe in strict doctrine and scripture and others believe in scripture and humor and acoustic guitars.

But, whether you are sitting on a sidewalk, inside a Roman Catholic church, A Luthern church, A Pentecostal Church or a Street Church, the Trinity (not always the people) is the same.

If people see others doing all that they do for the glory of God, it won't matter which street, pew or pulpit they sit on or hear the message from. But, giving and receiving the messages are important - they are the word. They help us discern in our lives, they guide us, they fulfill us, they sustain us, they comfort us and they give us the way.

The message comes in the form of action, as well. The messages on the pulpit are meant to be taken out and used as tools.

In our times, a lot of people have become disenfranchised with 'the church' and for many reasons equate that with 'God'. Or, some people know God is 'something' 'out there' but can't find Him, because most of what they see is the devastation on the street, of secular society, and darkness and misery, of which there is plenty, in which it is hard to find hope, encouragement, comfort, inspiration, determination, a door out, unless faith gives you sight.

Your uncle provided a service, food, blankets, shelter, safety and a message in all these things, a message about all these things and a message from the host of all these things.

The denomination your uncle worked for had their rules and regulations as did the city your uncle's church was in.

But, your uncle as a man of God, working as he could, doing what God instructed and giving charity to those in need. The church handbook or city bylaws did not make up your uncle anymore than they make up God. Your uncle was in this spirit and God was in your uncle.

And, by his action, your uncle translated God's message into the hearts of those, who for a brief moment while they slept safer or ate better, looked to see where the goodness cames from. Those who weren't necessarily looking, he drew their attention for a moment.

The fact that your uncle believed in a 6 a.m. worship was his way of waking his guests to showing them Who it was that was feeding them. And, God isn't a human man with whom you can visibly see and shake hands. But, you can feel His presence in others, in places, in yourself, in prayers, in actions, in sermons and in music and song.

Your uncle didn't subscribe to the norms in the idea of introduction. Just as within his church, which existed under bylaws, he didn't subscribe beaurocracy, either. He subscribed to God.

Your uncle gave them the chance to meet God, as God worked through him, as God had instructed him to do for Him, for them.

It would have been nice for them to think of what a wonderful man your uncle was to live at the church and to pray away inspector and I am certain that they did think of him this way.

But, your uncle would have known that he alone could not save these people. And, that their gratitude to him was not the point or the answer. In leading by example, in giving them some comfort, some life, some shelter and some subsistence, he led them to a place where they could find more of that, where they could see God's doctrine and people and promises, in action.

Where, if these people could not seem to find Him on the street, faith was easily accessible.

Your uncle would have known that someday he'd be gone and that he would have left having introduced some of those people to a source of love and open-arms that could feed, help and aid them, and that at the east and that at the most would give them comfort.

He was planting mustard seeds.

Not to preach to them, would have been, for him, to perform a disservice, to take God's glory for himself, or to ignore the opportunity to help heal a broken man's spirit instead of just feeding and blanketing him for the briefest of moments in the course of an eternity.

God does not tell us to feed the poor only if they comply, only if they are Christian and only if they augment their faith. He tells us to feed the poor, to be better people ourselves, for all the gifts that living with, giving and receiving charity, hope, joy and faith bring to us and others.

Religiosity sometimes skews our perception of what we are supposed to be, do or act like in order to reach the great beyond or be worthy of aid. Just as sometimes secularism skews our perception of what our religious leaders really mean when they say "Can I speak to you before breakfast".

If you come to God's house for warmth and food, you won't be turned away, but you must expect to meet The Man of the house. Your uncle just had a firey way of introducing people to their host.

And, as in all meetings, an instant respect isn't always felt or given. But, with meeting God, you are not turned away or shunned in your reluctance.

If you ask to hug your child and she asserts herself and says No and walks away. You wait. In the meantime, you feed and blanket your little girl.

I think this is a wonderful story. I hope you don't mind my little (sorry.. became sort of long..) comment ('sermon?')(lol).