Every week I drive to Land Park from Rancho Cordova to take a morning walk with a good friend. Although there are many ways to travel there in my car, I like to get off the Route 50 Freeway at 26th Street, turn left at 26th, go to Broadway and turn right, then up to Land Park Drive and take a left. It is a route I have travelled dozens of times.
One striking aspect of this route is the experience of driving under the 26th Street overpass. In this area is a small tent village of unhoused persons. Last Tuesday, when I drove through at about 7:45 a.m., I quickly counted the number of dwellings—there were about fifteen living spaces. Tents, chairs, tarps, bicycles, a couch, shopping carts and a few bags of trash lined each side of the covered portion of 26th Street. At that time of day during the winter, it is rare to see anyone awake and outside his or her tent.
Each time I drive through, I find myself with different responses and feelings. I have at times been curious, wondering who lives inside these dwellings, why they are here, and why they chose this particular neighborhood. I think about the challenges these people face and the burdens they carry in their lives. I have stood in judgement at times when it seems that everything is a mess and trash is everywhere. (The last few months, things in this little neighborhood have actually seemed well ordered and cared for.) I have been curious about the thoughts of those who run businesses and live in houses near here. I wonder what problems people experience in this little “pop-up” community. Do its residents envision it as a long term place to live? Do neighbors wish they would just get the hell out of their community? Sometimes, as I drive by, I pray for these tent-dwellers. Sometimes I pray for our city and nation to find creative and compassionate responses to people who face these realities. Occasionally, I just try to ignore everything I see.
I have never stopped to meet or visit with the people in this neighborhood. At times I think I should. But what would I say? Would I feel a need to offer something? Would my presence even be welcomed there? Would I do the same in a more permanent, well off community? What gives me the right or responsibility to be in that place?
Tuesday night as I listened to the howling wind outside the window of our house in Rancho Cordova, I wondered how the folks under the overpass were faring. After I went into our backyard that night at 9:30 to see that part of our wooden fence had been blown down, I questioned whether their tents would stand up to the same gusts. When I put on my down vest and raincoat against the cold, I considered what the temperature would be in a structure with only a fabric wall.
Today our public radio station aired a conversation about how unhoused persons are faring in Sacramento during this time of extreme weather and COVID-19. At the mention of an unhoused resident of this city dying in the cold, I thought about the tents on 26th Street. I appreciated the mayor’s frustration and desire to provide compassionate care for folks in these situations. But I am also reminded that as a community, “we’ve been here before.”
I have my own history of encounter with those we have often called “the homeless.” In my college years I helped at a shelter on Burnside Street in Portland, Oregon, thinking I needed to “bring the Gospel” to these folks. As a pastor I welcomed many of those who were wandering the streets into my office. Sadly, instead of acknowledging the person’s humanity, I often tried to shuffle them off quickly with a handout. I’ve spent some hours helping with Family Promise, an organization that helps whole families transition into permanent homes and jobs. More than once when I was walking, I have crossed to the other side of a street so that I would not have to encounter someone whose appearance signaled a marginal existence.
Until just a few years ago, my spiritual director was a wonderful Catholic sister named Claire Graham. She died in 2018 at 81 years old. Claire was funny, irreverent, and deeply compassionate. The most important words she shared with me (and no doubt others) were “God is love and nothing else.” I frequently pray that I can be guided by this belief.
Sister Claire was a gift to so many—and especially to the unhoused residents of our city. One of the ministries she was part of creating was the “Steps Ministry” at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Sacramento. In Claire’s mind, the most important part of that ministry was not the provision of food for the hungry, not the setting aside of a place to sleep for those without a home, but the acknowledgement of the personhood of those who are so often overlooked. As the St. Francis website says, the Steps Ministry offers a “daily welcoming presence.” That is what Sister Claire did for so many. That is what she offered to those who were unhoused and in the streets. That is what she offered to me. A welcoming presence. I miss her.
I suspect the people who live under the 26th Street overpass need a daily welcome. I wonder what that welcome might look like. Who will offer it to them? How will it be received? In what way will it change both the giver and receiver of welcome? I hope—as a resident of this region—I am part of offering that kind of welcome. I hope, wherever I travel, that a genuine hospitality is always part of what I offer.
Spiritual Practice: Don’t Look Away
Everywhere we travel there is pain. There is crisis. There are people on the margins. There are those who are victims of violent histories. There are those whose present situation is difficult. I am sure it is possible to travel without seeing any of this. And I get it—none of us wants to carry so many burdens when we are on “holiday.” But why? Why do we work so hard to avoid what is real for so many?
Perhaps a better way to travel is to be courageous enough to see the whole of the neighborhoods and nations we are witnessing. We tour the grand mosques—but can we also notice the residents of “Garbage City” of Cairo? We sing, dance and drink at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany—but why not not also visit the ruins of the Auschwitz death camp in Poland? We enjoy the amazing hospitality and cuisine of the American South—but perhaps we might add to our itinerary a visit to a memorial for those who were lynched under the knee of white supremacy. We may walk in Jesus’ or Moses’ steps in the Holy Land of Israel and Palestine—but perhaps we should not ignore the present day Separation Barrier and all that it represents.
And that is the practice. Eat the wonderful food. See the beautiful sights. Revel in the glorious and interesting history. But do not look away from the pain. For to do so is to deny the humanity of those we meet, and to rob ourselves of the opportunity to be part of the healing of the world.