Room in the inn? For homeless in California, there are spaces in (some) church parking lots

Room in the inn? For homeless in California, there are spaces in (some) church parking lots

As we enter the Christmas season (my apologies to those who celebrate Advent for skipping ahead), you may recall the biblical story of a baby born in a barn and placed in a manger because there was no room in the inn.

A few years ago, I wrote a Christian Chronicle story on programs such as Room In The Inn and Family Promise that — on colder nights — transform church buildings into temporary shelters for the homeless:

“Sheltering people in congregations is not as difficult as many people assume,” said Jeff Moles, Room In The Inn’s community development coordinator for congregational support. “People often think about their insurance needs, but Room In The Inn guests are covered just like any other visitors to the building.”

Most concerns about safety, security and liability disappear after a church hosts the program a few times, Moles said.

“Stereotypes are broken down,” he said, “and there is a ‘holy ground’ experience of people coming together in new ways.”

This week, I enjoyed a compelling Washington Post feature by freelancer Kimberly Winston on houses of worship in California opening their parking lots to the homeless. Yes, some people who have part- or full-time jobs and vehicles can’t afford a place to live.

That’s where people of faith come in:

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Holy ghosts haunt Houston Chronicle's front-page profile of former Astros pitching great J.R. Richard

Holy ghosts haunt Houston Chronicle's front-page profile of former Astros pitching great J.R. Richard

Far too many journalists are "tone deaf to the music of religion," as commentator Bill Moyers once told GetReligion's own Terry Mattingly.

I get that sense about an in-depth Houston Chronicle profile of former Astros pitching great J.R. Richard that appeared on Sunday's front page.

At repeated junctures in this otherwise excellent and nuanced piece, facts and details appear that seem to scream, "There's a religion angle here! Please ask Richard about his faith journey and what he believes about God!"

Instead, it's as if the Chronicle can't hear that voice and instead moves forward with unrelated material, leaving obvious questions unanswered.

The first clue of a religion angle comes right up top.

See where Richard is speaking:

The most terrifying pitcher ever to have called the Astrodome home slowly pushes himself up from a couch and lumbers, at 68 years old, into a small room overcrowded with 100 of Houston’s homeless and neediest people.

They have come off the searing hot pavement to Lord of the Streets, an Episcopal Church and clinic on Fannin Street, for the free lunch, but first they must fill rows of foldout chairs and listen to uplifting testimonials from others like them.

Many in the audience do not know there is a guest speaker until the 6-foot-8 J.R. Richard wades through the aisle toward the pulpit.

“I don’t have no psychology degree,” he says during a private aside, “but sometimes it don’t take that.”

A church? A pulpit? Might there be a specific reason for Richard speaking at this location?

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Malibu, Methodists and the homeless: There is a religion story in here somewhere

Malibu, Methodists and the homeless: There is a religion story in here somewhere

With homelessness being a major discussion topic on the West Coast these days, it’s only fitting that the Los Angeles Times team found this quirky story about what happens when Christians act, well, too Christian. I would argue that there could be a religion angle to this debate.

In a story titled “Malibu church pressured to end homeless dinners, some saying it lures needy to upscale city,” you have everything turned around. Here we’ve got a church doing the right thing while the rich are telling believers to knock it off.

Los Angeles, by the way, has the nation’s second largest concentration of homeless, so it was only a matter of time before their presence infiltrated the dwellings of the very rich living north of town.

Being homeless in Malibu is different...
Residents have long been generous to those who live in the city's 21 miles of canyons, beaches and glittering shopping centers.
For 17 years, religious groups fed homeless people, and the city and private donors put up hundreds of thousands of dollars for social workers to find them housing and services.
But Malibu United Methodist Church -- facing pressure from the city -- in recent weeks took a U-turn, deciding twice-weekly dinners for homeless people would stop after Thanksgiving. The cutoff came after city officials summoned organizers and suggested they were attracting more homeless people and making the problem worse.

What follows is a description of how the Methodists and another Christian ministry, Standing on Stone, have been co-hosting dinners for the homeless at the church twice weekly for three years. Another social service agency helped two dozen of them get off the streets and into decent housing. But then:

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Unitarian parking slots vs. the homeless makes for quirky story in The Seattle Times

Unitarian parking slots vs. the homeless makes for quirky story in The Seattle Times

Just over a week ago, I was complaining about how the massive Seattle Times project on homelessness was not spotlighting the religious element.

I spoke too soon. On Wednesday, a delicious story appeared with a cast of unusual players.

The villains are local Unitarians who are more obsessed with how the local trees are faring than the poor at their door. Everyone involved is all eco-conscious blue-state folks, but in the end, the bottom dollar is the bottom dollar.

Headlined “When do churches stop caring about people more than SUVs?” the story dishes out irony in buckets.

When University Unitarian Church leaders asked their congregation for thoughts on its $17 million renovation of their almost 60-year-old church in Ravenna, the response was mostly typical of a liberal Seattle church.
Will it have all-gender bathrooms? Could it be solar-powered, with electric-car charging stations? Is the new sanctuary ceiling too high, contributing to a corporate, rather than spiritual, feeling during worship?
Only one of the UUs -- a casual term for Unitarian Universalists, whose roots began in Christianity but count many agnostic and atheist churchgoers among their numbers -- asked about a cluster of three cottages on the property, which house 10 formerly homeless people. What would happen to them?
Preserving the houses and bringing them up to code would cost an additional million. Instead, the church will tear them down -- and replace them with 17 parking spots.

The reporter then interviews Brendi London, a resident who suffers from depression and PTSD, who will be displaced by the remodel, then a mental health specialist who tries to find housing for the poor in the city’s skyrocketing housing market. 

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Homeless ministry on wheels: a compelling take on 'least of these' in wealthy Silicon Valley

Homeless ministry on wheels: a compelling take on 'least of these' in wealthy Silicon Valley

Back in 2004, my Associated Press colleague Matt Curry — now a Presbyterian pastor — tipped me to the story of "SoupMan."

If I recall correctly, Curry served as a volunteer for David Timothy's mobile soup kitchen in Dallas and didn't feel he could write the profile himself (for obvious conflict-of-interest reasons).

Thus, I ended up with a nice feature that ran on the AP national wire:

DALLAS — The theme from “Rocky” blares from a rickety white van that David Timothy calls his “SoupMobile.”
The music alerts hundreds of the homeless that it’s time to eat, and in a more subtle way, tells them that they – like Sylvester Stallone’s boxer character, Rocky Balboa – can overcome challenges.
“Rocky started with nothing and he rose to the top as world champion,” Timothy said as the hungry men, women and children emerged from their cardboard boxes under Interstate 45. “And these people here don’t have much. I just wanted to give them a little hope that they can rise to the top.”
On Thanksgiving Day, as he does every weekday, the 56-year-old Timothy will nourish those in need. Each will get a bowl of soup and a healthy portion of hope. But for the holiday meal, he’ll also serve up something special: turkey sandwiches bought in memory of his wife, Peggy, who died a month ago after a long battle with multiple sclerosis.
“She was always a cheerleader for the SoupMobile,” said Timothy, whose red “S” on his shirt gives his nickname as “SoupMan.” “She had a real heart for helping people and I feel she is with me every time I turn the key to start the SoupMobile.”
To the hundreds he assists, Timothy is more like Superman than Soupman.

I thought about that story and that still-active ministry after reading Religion News Service managing editor Yonat Shimron's recent compelling take on a mobile ministry that serves the homeless in wealthy Silicon Valley.

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McDonald's franchise owner gunned down in cold blood: Why his amazing faith will be his legacy

McDonald's franchise owner gunned down in cold blood: Why his amazing faith will be his legacy

The life of Carroll Patrick Oliver seems to scream "Matthew 25."

In that famous chapter of the New Testament, Jesus describes what it means to be a disciple of Christ:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’"

Oliver's treatment of "the least of these" figures prominently in a front-page Houston Chronicle story today — even though holy ghosts (the kind GetReligion was created to expose) haunt the piece.

Let's start with the Chronicle's riveting lede:

McDonald's image via Shutterstock.com

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A homeless man, Tony Romo and 'a flashing neon sign from God'

A homeless man, Tony Romo and 'a flashing neon sign from God'

Hungry for some leftover turkey?

Actually, this story from the Houston Chronicle is a Thanksgiving feast — an absolute delight from the newspaper's holiday front page last Thursday.

It's an amazing profile of a formerly homeless man who is now "paying and praying it forward," as the Chronicle describes it.

Let's start at the top with a longer-than-normal chunk of the story. I apologize for the length, but this superb intro sets the scene for the entire piece:

Bobby Depper slips his arm through the straps of a backpack. Then another. And another, until five are piled on his back like a stack of pancakes. It’s a 30-minute walk to the train station, then a 35-minute ride to north Houston. Depper doesn’t fidget with the bags or sit down on the empty train. He just grabs a handrail and waits for his work to begin.
Off the train, Depper bounds toward a strip of grass between a Wal-Mart and a parking lot, where a group of men sit on the ground beneath a cluster of trees. This is how he spends his days: searching for homeless people, giving them backpacks and, if they’re willing, treating them to meals. He has given away hundreds of backpacks in the last several months. Demand never dwindles.
Depper remembers when he needed a backpack.
Five years ago, he slept beneath a pile of newspapers in a Dumpster behind a Dallas restaurant, his clothes and medicine water-logged.
“I was just so angry, and I said, if (God) is real, I guess I’ll shout out at him. If he’s real, I guess he’ll hear me now,” Depper recalls. When he woke the next morning, he couldn’t see out of his right eye. He crawled out of the garbage and asked the restaurant’s valet for spare change so he could catch a bus to the hospital. Depper was an addict at the time, so parts of the morning are hazy. But he says he’ll never forget what happened next. A man stepped out of a car in the valet line.
“He said not to give me any change, and I thought, ‘How could anyone say that?’” Depper recalls. “But then I turned around and he was handing me a $100 bill.”
The man was Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who asked Depper to “pay it forward.”
Romo remembers giving the $100 bill to Depper. It’s the kind of thing the quarterback does sometimes, though Cowboys spokesman Rich Dalrymple said Romo “isn’t really comfortable talking about it publicly.”
It was a quiet act for Romo. But for Depper, it was a flashing neon sign from God.

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What's faith got to do with it? An embattled homeless shelter takes in 'anyone and everyone,' but why?

What's faith got to do with it? An embattled homeless shelter takes in 'anyone and everyone,' but why?

Tina Turner asked: "What's love got to do with it?"

Here's my question for The New York Times: 

Holy ghosts — as we dub 'em here at GetReligion — haunt the Times' 1,300-word story on an embattled St. Louis homeless shelter. 

The top of the story:

ST. LOUIS — The thermometer is barely reaching the driving age on this late February evening, bringing the type of arctic bite to the air here that numbs fingers and toes within minutes, and a grim procession takes place downtown.

One by one, men and women, bundled in ragtag wear of varying thicknesses, shiver into an old, cocoa-brown brick building near a strip of hip bars, restaurants and boutiques. They raise their arms at the door to be patted down, show identification and sign their names on sheets of paper before grabbing flimsy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or dry pastries and having a seat on metal folding chairs. The air is a bit stale, the mood a bit weary. But it is warm. And for the dozens filing in, that seemed to be good enough.

“It’s livable,” said Anthony Lewis, 44, curled under a scarlet blanket on a cot in a spacious but chilly room with about 125 beds on the fifth floor. “It’s a blessing right now.”

This place, the New Life Evangelistic Center, has for decades been a safety net for hundreds of people without a place to lay their head at night. Around here, it is the shelter that is known to take in just about anyone and everyone. Even the police have dropped off the homeless at its front door, which leads into a century-old former YWCA building.

But now that this former garment district is transforming into a hub for urban renewal with new lofts and businesses attracting young, affluent residents, a war has broken out over the center’s future.

That's some nice description up high. It really paints a picture. And it provides the first hint of a religion angle.


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