The Fast We’ve Chosen: Begging with Our Friends

Today Christians in Durham join sisters and brothers around the world to begin the season of penance that we call Lent. Pastors and priests call us to “remember you are dust and to the dust you shall return.” Recognizing that our sinful inclination is toward hubris, we dedicate forty days to the imitation of Christ’s humility through the practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

But this year, Christians in Durham face a challenge: we cannot give to the beggar on our city’s streets because panhandling has been outlawed in Durham.

In a consensus agenda that City Council unanimously passed at their December 2012 meeting, ordinance #14375 went on the books, effective January 17, 2013. Council has been adamant that this new ordinance does not outlaw begging in Durham. And on that point, they are technically correct. The new ordinance only outlaws begging on the medians and exit ramps where our most vulnerable neighbors have been standing to ask for our help in recent years. To these neighbors, the distinction makes little difference.

Yesterday, I listened to one man’s story. For years, he lived in the woods off of 15/501. With the help of friends from local churches, connection to social services, and the generosity of passers-by, he and his partner got an apartment. Just last month, his partner learned that she has lung cancer. She’s getting treatment at Duke Hospital, and he is caring for her at home. But this man has not been able to pay his rent since being cited for violating this new law. Come March 1st, he’s scheduled for eviction.

For the past decade, I have lived at the Rutba House, a community where the formerly homeless and the housed share life in Durham. I’ve had the opportunity to live with dozens of people who did not have a home when leaving prison, drug treatment, the hospital or the streets. As a Christian, this experience has been a sort of extended Lent for me. Sharing life together with formerly homeless friends, I’ve come to long for Christ’s humility and to celebrate the beloved community that is possible across lines that so often divide us.

What’s more, I’ve come to love Durham as a place where this sort of community is possible. In Durham, our churches are deeply invested in care for our most vulnerable. Just a few weeks ago, four hundred of us spent a whole day at Union Baptist talking about how to address our 27% child poverty rate. On New Year’s day, I sat with Mayor Bell, members of Council, and hundreds of others at Peace Missionary Baptist Church to remember the Emmancipation Proclamation of 150 years ago and to commit ourselves to the liberation of today’s captives.

In this pursuit of beloved community, Durham’s Christian community is not alone. Ours is a place where friends of other faith traditions—Jews, Muslims, Buddhists—and other neighbors of good will join hands across every kind of division, insisting that we can live together, despite our greatest fears.

I do not believe that City Council passed ordinance #14375 with malice toward our homeless neighbors. But I am convinced that they made a mistake. And I know that they need our help to change this law.

For this reason, we at Rutba House, along with many of our friends in the community, have decided to make our Lenten practice public and invite others to join us. For the next forty days, we invite Durham to pray with us for our homeless neighbors and for City Council. As we fast from food and drink, we also commit to communicate with Council personally, expressing our deep desire that they would join us in overturning this unjust law. And, in solidarity with those who are begging to survive, we commit to stand with friends who already have court dates for violating this ordinance.

The fast we have chosen is one that, we pray, will turn the hearts of our city to confess together that it is neither a crime to be poor nor to share alms with the poor. But we know that change is not easy. So, even as we begin in hope that this Lent can change Durham, we also commit to an act of civil disobedience on Monday, March 25th, if this law has not changed. In keeping with Saint Augustine, who said that “an unjust law is not law at all,” we will beg alms on behalf of our friends and suffer whatever consequences they are suffering.

This way of the cross is not comfortable for anyone, but we invite all of Durham to join us because we know that love is stronger than the powers of death. We look ahead to Easter, when Jesus rose from the grave. And we celebrate that this same Jesus is alive, walking among us in the world—even knocking on our door, asking to come in. “When you did it to the least of these, you did it unto me,” Jesus says.

I pray we might together welcome Jesus to Durham this Lent.

  • Matthew

    “So, even as we begin in hope that this Lent can change Durham, we also commit to an act of civil disobedience on Monday, March 25th, if this law has not changed. In keeping with Saint Augustine, who said that “an unjust law is not law at all,” we will beg alms on behalf of our friends and suffer whatever consequences they are suffering.”
    I suppose if the law is not overturned and the begging of alms takes place on medians and exit ramps in Durham, then those involved will in fact suffer legal consequences. My question always is … when is civil disobedience for the Christian right? When is it wrong?

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      We pray, Matthew, that this will be an act of divine obedience. Not all such acts are illegal (to God be the glory). But when they are, I think God calls them “right.”

      • Matthew

        I didn´t think of it that way Jonathan. Thanks.
        On another note … it would just be good if there was an effective way for churches and other communities to individually connect with most of the homeless and poor in the city — you know — really get to know them, their stories, etc. and find customized ways of helping each of them. I just think that churches — as an example — are simply are not aware of the folks and their individual needs. There is a disconnect of sorts going on.

        • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

          You’re right, we need such spaces. Rutba House tries to be one. Open Table Ministry here in Durham is also a great space for people to meet.

  • Anna

    Thank you for supporting the Open Table community – and those who haven’t found Open Table yet, but are equally affected by Ordinance #14375. For your readers – executive director Carolyn Schuldt has also published her response to this ordinance:

    • Matthew

      Carolyn Schuldt´s response to Ordinance #14375 was chock full of information that I myself had never really considered when working through the complexities of this issue. Sadly … she was apparently silenced when she attempted to read the response in front of the Durham city council. My prayer is for not only more social services to be provided for these folks, but also for more churches to rise up and do the right thing in terms of supporting them. As Galatians says … “practice doing good to everyone …”

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Thanks for sharing this, Anna. Carolyn’s leadership in this has been exemplary. We’re working closely with her.

  • karl

    Respectfully, I think that ensuring the legality as a precursor to giving is misdirected at best. Your argument that we can not give because it is illegal to beg goes against what I perceive to be the core of the Christian ethic – to give regardless of whether someone is asking.

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Yours is a good point, Karl: divine obedience calls us to faithfulness irregardless of the consequences. The practical challenge here is that people aren’t being ticketed for giving, but for begging. So the most vulnerable bear the brunt of this ordinance. Many who haven’t gone to court yet are hiding in the woods to avoid detection.

      This is why we’ve committed to beg in their stead–and suffer the consequences–during Holy Week. Please pray for and with us.

  • chuck

    the city requires these homeless people to get and pay $20 for a `business license` so that they could panhandle and knew, when issuing these licenses when and where these people handle…all this ordinance does is to make things even tougher for these people to survive, force them into paying fines for something the city had already licensed them to do, potentially lead to more crime, more police time spent on victimless crimes and waste more tax dollars in efforts to enforce. How is this a benefit to anyone? The ones who are cited barely had the funds to pay the $20 licensing fee and now will face fines and/or jail time because they can`t pay fines, court costs or a lawyer to defend them???? This is IGNORANCE at its worst!

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Those who’ve received tickets already, Chuck, are facing a $250 fine or 30 days in jail. It seems to me that, if nothing else, Durham County (which runs our jail) should resist a city ordinance that will inevitably mean they have to pay to both house and guard people the city didn’t want to see on its streets.

      • Matthew

        Do those in power ever really consider the consequences of the ordinances they pass? Wow … what a mess.

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  • Dan Sidey

    Jonathan, thank you so much for all you do and Rutba House does. Y’all’s faith is so refreshing.

  • Dan Sidey

    Jonathan, thank you so much for all you do and Rutba House does. Y’all’s faith is so refreshing. What will y’all do about your children if y’all are arrested?

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      good question, Dan. we’re not all risking arrest. And, so far at least, the police are just handing tickets out for violation of this ordinance. We’re glad to be part of a broad community of folks who are working to overturn this. If a few of us need to get arrested, we will. But there’s lots for others to do as well. (And we’re holding out hope that Council will change the ordinance before March 25th.)

      • Matthew

        So … can we expect an update? I´m curious about how this will all play out.

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  • http://StewardsInc Gloria Marshall, Eastern University 1960

    One idea that helps and gives one the right to help guide the future for those who panhandle for a living is to organize and start an RPO (Representative Payee Organization) under the local Social Security in your neighborhood. If an individual is truly disabled (mentally or physically) and unable to earn a living they can sign up for the Social Security Disability income. As his/her payee, you have the right to help them budget their income (about $800. per month) to cover food, a roof, etc. That contact and relationship gives you an open to door to introduce trust and hope into their lives. We have over 1700 individuals and the families they represent in Bakersfield, CA whose lives are ameliorated by this ministry to them.

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