Just Relations: A friendly face at church to ease the pain of the homeless

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A statue of a homeless Jesus in front of Catholic Charities’ office. | Sun-Times files


I will call her “Tabitha” — even though that isn’t her real name — because I respect her privacy.

Besides, according to the New Testament Book of Acts, Tabitha was one of the first deacons in the Christian church who served people in need. So Tabitha is what I’ll call her.

Tabitha and I work together. She is often one of the first to arrive at the church in the morning. She is the first face many who come to us see — people who come for meetings or classes or social services or just a warm place to be, to rest, to be safe.

Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner. | Provided photo

Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner. | Provided photo

Tabitha always treats our guests with kindness, dignity and compassion. Sometimes, she receives kindness in response; other times, she does not, as we all have our days of grouchiness or frustration.

Lately, some of our regular guests, whom we have come to know as our weekday congregation — those looking for a place other than the streets to spend their day — have begun visiting with Tabitha and others on our staff about the changes they are seeing, changes we too have seen in the last 12 to 18 months.

These guests recognize a heightened anxiety. They are finding people showing less respect for each other. As community mental health services have become less available and some overnight shelters changed their rules, the resulting sense of chaos has imposed more stress on those already feeling stressed as they try to survive on the streets.

We see it and hear it and are brainstorming about how to even more effectively and compassionately support those who are struggling. At the same time, I wonder at what point do churches and other houses of worship who regularly feed those who have little food begin to ask why people in our city are still hungry?

For those of us who actively engage in emergency services for people teetering on the edge, when is the right time for us to lift our heads and ask when the edge became so narrow? What can we do to give folks a more solid, long-term place to stand?

I don’t have these answers. But the questions keep piling up. Our meals ministry has gone from serving approximately 33,000 meals in 2016 to around 37,000 meals last year. And the director of our social service center has reported a 51 percent increase in the number of people seen just in the past year — to approximately 80 people per day. So while we might not have the answers, all of us have a stake in the asking and in the solving.

In the meantime, let’s get back to Tabitha.

I watch the way she works. She makes sure to treat each and every single person she encounters as a beautiful child of God. She learns people’s names and their stories. She knows when we have not seen someone around for a while. Whether a person is a member of this congregation or a participant in one of our programs or a part of the weekday crowd who has an appointment with one of our social workers in the Chicago Lights Social Service center, Tabitha makes a point to extend hospitality and welcome to all.

Even when folks become frustrated or angry with one thing or another, they still know — because of Tabitha’s firm gentleness — that they are worthwhile people. They are not invisible people. They are not just the signs they hold or the corner they occupy or the bags they carry or the clothes they wear. They matter. They know it because Tabitha takes the time to see them — to really see them — as beloved, broken and strong children of our Creator.

I wonder, as I watch her work, whether, if more of us around our city participated in the same kind of intentional welcome and compassion for each other — for those we pass by, for those we try to ignore — would those questions about systemic change still be as difficult and overwhelming to ask or to work on?

Probably. But more of us might also be convinced that the asking and the working are worth it.

The Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner is senior pastor at Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church.

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