This evening I had the honor of speaking at a benefit for Portland Homeless Family Solutions - the group that operates the Goose Hollow Family Shelter at First United Methodist Church and the 13 Salmon Family Center at First Unitarian Church. You can download a podcast of my remarks below:
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The rough text of my remarks can be found below:
Remarks At The Portland Homeless Family Solutions Benefit
The Rev. Chuck Currie
Tonight we gather with good purpose. Not only are we raising money for two critical programs - the Goose Hollow Family Shelter and the 13 Salmon Family Center - but we also are afforded the opportunity to dream a little bit about how together we might forge a brighter future for this community we love during a time of crisis that is so brightly illustrated by growing homelessness, particularly among families and children.
Robert Kennedy, quoting George Bernard Shaw, used to tell Americans: "Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?"
We have, I'm afraid, set our sights to low in recent years. We don't "dream things that never were and say why not?"
Despite this, I have hope. This hope is not rooted in wishful thinking but rather in a belief, articulated by William Sloane Coffin, that: "It is hope that helps us keep the faith, despite the evidence, knowing that only in doing so has the evidence any chance of changing." Despite the evidence, I still have hope that God's holy word of peace can transcend human sinfulness and overcome the present realities of our day.
I'm not an economist and I'm not a politician (I point I proved quite dramatically during the May elections). I'm a preacher and if you want an answer to the economic crisis of today, well, here it is from the Prophet Isaiah in the Hebrew Scriptures:
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday...
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
Our job in this moment of history is to witness to the fact that life need not be this way. Homelessness did not become a large scale societal crisis until 1981 when the federal government began a series of cutbacks in support for affordable housing, aid to seniors and mental health programs. Since then - with the exception of the 1990s - we have employed economic policies that have benefited the wealthiest Americans while poverty and homelessness have grown.
But this crisis is not simply a political one. It is also spiritual.
Let me tell you about an experiment we did when I served on the board of directors of Baloney Joe's in the late 1980s (when I was a very, very young man):
As we recorded from a van across the street a man staying at the shelter - dressed in donated clothing from our clothing bank - laid down on the sidewalk on his side. People literally stepped over him as if he were invisible. Finally, he got up and came into the van where he changed into a business suit. Then he walked back across the street and again laid down on the sidewalk. This time people rushed to his aid.
Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew that "just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.” (Matthew 25 NRSV).
When we step over someone who is homeless, when we ignore the plight of a family that is unemployed, when we pretend not to hear the cries of a child in the night who sleeps in a car or outdoors because there is not enough shelter, we are in fact turning our backs on God. Our relationship with the Almighty is broken and until we acknowledge the common humanity of those around us who are suffering and begin to treat the "least of these" as we would treat our God we will never be able to resolve the political and economic crisis that allows homelessness and poverty to grow. This is a battle that must be waged on several fronts.
In 1993, I approached First Congregational United Church of Christ and First United Methodist Church on the same day with the same request: open your facilities to house people experiencing homelessness. That night The Rev. Patricia Ross of First Congregational UCC handed me the keys to the church and we opened up space for homeless teens that operated for seven years until a permanent space could be found for kids to sleep. First United Methodist Church, under the leadership of my friend Kate Lore, designed that program that would open a year later as the Goose Hollow Family Shelter.
In a world filled with division the people who have worked and volunteered at the Goose Hollow Family Shelter over the years have proven that we can come together in common cause to promote the common good. On any given night, you might see Baptists working alongside Unitarians or Jews working with Muslims, or atheists working alongside Catholic priests. All in the pursuit of a better Portland where the "least of these" are not forgotten.
I wish that I could simply say thank you and congratulate you on your efforts or that my time tonight could have been spent reminiscing about my years as the director of community outreach at First United Methodist Church when I served as the executive director of the Goose Hollow Family Shelter. I will forever treasure those years.
But more babies are being born homeless today than when I left First United Methodist Church on December 31, 2002. More families are homeless. More than 19,000 children experiencing homelessness attended our state's public schools last year - a 5.5 percent increase from the previous year and a 134 percent increase over the past seven. Poverty is growing in Oregon. This isn't a time to look back. It is a time to look toward the future and to summon the best parts of ourselves in new ways that contribute to the ultimate goal of ending homelessness and poverty.
"Hope of the world is in our generation. It's all left up to us to change this present situation," sings Legend in a cover of Leon Moore's "Our Generation" on the new album "Wake Up!"
The work of sheltering those who are homeless is of critical importance but we must expand our focus to include ending poverty. Politicians and pollsters will tell you that the American people do not have the stomach for such work but "It's all left up to us to change this present situation;" to keep hope alive so that we change the evidence of our time.
President Obama ran on a pledge to cut poverty in half in ten years. The Half in Ten Campaign - endorsed by the Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Center for American Progress, among others - offers a road map on how to achieve that goal. We need the President's forceful advocacy to help dramatically reduce poverty in America. We need to put pressure on our president and on Oregon's Congressional delegation to advance this cause.
Locally, we must push our great city to acknowledge that poverty is a crisis in our midst. The faith community must take the lead in pushing for a new housing levy, for example, that the politicians are too timid to put forward. The job of the faith community is to push the boundaries, to ask the questions that others are afraid to ask, and to challenge the community to do better. As more faith communities partner with government and use government grants to run programs there is the very real danger we will lose our prophetic voice. We must not allow that to happen.
The faith community helped to give birth to the Labor movement during the Progressive Era and later the Civil Rights Movement. That is our legacy and we must live up to it by embracing the challenges of today.
And if you are waiting for a great prophet from God to arise and led us from darkness to light remember that God is calling us all to this struggle. We are the inheritors of the dream and whether we like it or not, whether it is convenient or not, whether we are ready or not, for the future of our children and their children and their children, for the future of creation itself, we must loudly answer God's call by saying: Here I am, Lord. Here I am.
Politics, they say, is the art of the possible. Maybe. Faith is something different. Faith is about dreaming things that never were and saying why not?
As we leave tonight, let us resolve not merely to manage the problem of homelessness and poverty but to dream of a time when no one is forced to live a third world life in a first world nation.
Good night, and may God bless Portland.