This week I got a small taste of what it must be like to be a politician.  Councilman Samuels is under pressure from his constituents to renovate the oldest park in Richmond which happens to be in the middle of the city.  The park is frequented by VCU students and area residents but is best known for the homeless individuals who hang out there.   In my post “Listening to the Homeless in Monroe Park”, I shared the insights of many who call the park home.

Thursday, I addressed a crowd gathered to discuss the issue of the parks closing. My intent was to share the insights of the homeless; to look at the issue through their eyes.  However, it was obvious that many people in the room came with their own agenda.

The most vocal group in the crowd were the Anarchist who feed the homeless in the park through a program called “Food not Bombs.” Their agenda: keep at least a part of the park open at all times!  They argued it, shouted it, demanded it and tried at every turn to dominate the conversation with this agenda.  I had three individuals from that group at my table and when I dug deeper into why they were so adamant that the park not be closed, I discovered their fear.  One of the more soft-spoken activist stated, “If they are successful in closing the park for up to two years, they will dislocate the homeless population.  They will push them off into alley ways and distant corners of the city.  It will be out of sight and out of mind.”  While I found their tactics less than helpful, I resonated with their motivation.  They claimed to be the voice of the homeless.

At my table there were also many residents from the community surrounding the park.  They shared stories of how church groups dump clothing in the park, leave trash after their feedings and attract more vagrants.  Their beautiful neighborhood has been turned into a homeless shelter and they no longer feel safe. They argued that Richmond already has feeding programs in many churches and claimed that there was no need for people to feed the homeless in the park.  They felt that the homeless would be far better served inside the local churches where they can eat safe food in a clean environment where they could be cared for.  They see the feeding in the park as degrading to the human dignity of the homeless population and called for a more humane response.  I witnessed several acts of dumping and feeding the day I was at the park.  I resonated with their call for a more dignified approach to the way we serve those in need.  They claimed to represent the deeper needs of the homeless.

The third group present at the conversation were social services agencies that work one on one with the homeless through feeding programs, shelters and other assistance programs.  Unlike the other two groups, they actually know the homeless by name.  They have successfully helped hundreds of former Monroe Park residents find safe affordable housing.  They know the real issues and barriers keeping our friends in the park.  They were there to advocate for a more coordinated, holistic approach to the issue.  They value case management services and recognize that many of our homeless friends are eligible for services that they are not aware of.  If anyone could speak for what is in the best interest of the homeless it would be this group of professionals.

The fourth and smallest group, were people of faith who spend time with the homeless in the park. In the faces of the homeless they see Jesus and in their service to those in the margins they embody Christ to the world. They have formed authentic relationships with the homeless, have seen lives transformed and have themselves been changed through their friendships in the margins. They see the need for a central site where the homeless can feel at home and where people of faith can practice Christian hospitality in whatever way God leads them. A place not dominated by institutional rules but by grace and mercy.  They were there to speak for the vulnerable; to insure that their voice was heard.

The fifth group, the people who actually call the park home, were absent.  Their voice was not heard.  Everyone, including me, was there to speak for them.  I even brought my friend Charles, who is formerly homeless, to speak for them.  However, I did not bring them.  The Anarchist did not bring them.  Their neighbors did not bring them.  The city councilman did not bring them.  The churches did not bring them.  The cases managers did not bring them.  As I have reflected upon this reality; I have come to recognize my own hypocrisy.  Yes, I went to the park, listened to their stories, shared them on my blog and with the group gathered at the forum.  However, I did not care enough about their voice to bring them to the conversation. I did not believe in them enough to go out in the rain, pick them up from the park, give them space at the table, and invite them to share their perspective.

We encourage Christians to advocate for the marginalized.  We practice being present with the disenfranchised.  We are willing to fight for the rights of the voiceless against political powers, money and greed.

But, do we think they should have a place at the table?  Do we really see them as equals?  Do we think their opinion matters?

Are we not marginalizing them just as much as those in power? Is our patronizing tone any less offensive?

I am thankful that unlike Councilman Samuels, I am not the one deciding the fate of those in the park.  I have a new respect for those who are in that position and have committed to pray for him and all the others who have that kind of power.  May they remember the empty seat at the table.

This post is part of a Synchroblog, where a group of bloggers post on the same topic on the same day, so that people can surf from one to the other and get different views on the same basic topic. The topic for November is “Seeing Through The Eyes Of The Marginalized”  Learn more at Grace Rules.

Here’s a list of all the contributions for this month’s synchroblog:

Kathy Escobar – Sitting At The Rickety-Card-Table-In-The-Family-Room For Thanksgiving Dinner

George at the Love Revolution – The Hierarchy of Dirt

Arthur Stewart – The Bank

Sonnie Swenston – Seeing through the Eyes of the Marginalized

Ellen Haroutunian – Reading the Bible from the Margins

Christine Sine – Seeing through the Eyes of the Marginalized

Alan Knox – Naming the Marginalized

Margaret Boehlman – Just Out of Sight

Liz Dyer – Step Away from the Keyhole

John O’Keefe – Viewing the World in Different Ways

Steve Hayes – Ministry to Refugees–Synchroblog on Marginalised People

Andries Louw – The South African Squatter Problem

Drew Tatusko – Invisible Margins of a White Male Body

Image in this post provided by Jascha Hoste