No, it wasn’t an Onion article. You read that right.
A cathedral in San Francisco—where most people pay more in monthly rent than the working poor make in a year—has installed overhead sprinkler devices in their alcoves. Not for fire safety. But to prevent the homeless from sleeping on their porch.
And with no neighborly warning, either. Like, “Hey, guys, sorry, but we now water the porch every 30 minutes or so, because you’re dirty and gross; so if you hang out here, you and your few belongings will prolly get soaked, and San Fran gets kind of chilly at night… Oh wait, YOU know that. Who are we telling? Ha ha. Anyway, so you’ll get really wet if you sleep here, and ruin your books and newspapers so… K.” Hey, that wouldn’t be any more hospitable, but at least it’s honest. But no. The indigent neighbors got no warning. Just the intermittent deluge in the most passive-aggressive church maneuver of all time.
And you guys, that is saying something. Because if anybody knows how to do passive-aggressive and make it look like fine art—it would be Church.
Needless to say, we who work in Christian marketing were horrified by this tale.
But listen, I’ve been in enough church meetings to know how this probably went down. My guess is that the folks who made this decision are not terrible people who hate the poor. Probably they are just church people who have been doing the drudge work for too long.
I’m not defending the installation of the poor-people-water-torture facility. But I will venture a guess that every church you know has executed a major hospitality fail of similar proportion—at one time or another. We’ve all been in those meetings when we are faced with the choice between what’s right and what’s easy, and…well, you know.
Granted, these folks went past what was right OR easy and went straight to making us wish that God would still take people out with floods and pestilence—like the good Old Testament days—but. We can’t assume that we would have had a better solution, in the moment.
Here’s who was probably in the room for the “sprinkler system” decision: a priest, a lawyer, an insurance guy, a CEO, and that one person who is still angry about when they changed the worship times. Twelve years ago.
I tell you who wasn’t in that meeting—Jesus.
If Jesus had been invited to the board/vestry meeting, here’s how it would have gone down…
Priest: As you know, the neighbors have been complaining about all the homeless people sleeping on our porch. They’re afraid it’s bad for property values.
Mission Committee Rep: But we’re a church!
Insurance Guy/Property Chair: True, but we aren’t a shelter. We can’t be responsible for everyone. It’s [wait for it] a liability issue.
Lawyer: Yes, it definitely is. I didn’t feel good about having to put a ‘no trespassing’ sign out there, but we had to do it for our own protection. If something were to happen…
[Communal muttering of agreement.]
Board Chair: Well clearly the sign isn’t working. We are going to have to try something a little more dramatic to get the message across.
Jesus: What ‘message’ is that, exactly?
Priest: That we are not a hostel! They can’t sleep on our steps.
Jesus: “Your” steps?
Priest: Yes, “ours.” Do you see the dioceses covering the cost of our capital campaign?
Property Guy: Well, we’ve looked into barbed wire, but the aesthetic value of that would be a negative. We could try surrounding the whole property with a pad-locked metal fence, but we don’t like the message that sends.
Jesus: You think?
Board Chair: Listen, this isn’t just a liability problem. The neighbors are ticked, so this is a hospitality issue!Jesus: NOW we’re talking about hospitality?
Lawyer: Have we looked into 24-hour security guards?
Finance Chair: Too expensive.
Church lady: Why don’t we open the doors and let them sleep INSIDE the building?
Lawyer, Priest, and Insurance Guy: –collective gasp and heart clutching—
Priest: I know. Why don’t we install some sort of sprinkler system…
Jesus: (sounding hopeful) You mean like, for baptism? Or showers?
Priest: No! Like, as a deterrent. If we make it rain up in here twice every hour…
Jesus: This is starting to sound like a really crazy twist in the Hunger Games!
Lawyer: No, actually, that’s a great idea. It’s cost effective, it’s not an eyesore, and it’s humane.
Jesus: Debatable on that last point…
Priest: Well, it sounds like we’re ready to move forward with this.
Jesus: You have heard it said that you must do whatever it takes to keep the neighbors comfortable. But verily (I never get to say ‘verily’ any more!) I say unto you, this is bull-$^*t. A church is not a sanctuary to protect the rich from suffering and DIRT. You have walls and a roof. They don’t. I’ve been pretty clear about rich people and needles and getting into heaven. This is what I was talking about. I can’t tell you what heaven is like but THIS IS NOT IT.
Priest: Now, Jesus, don’t preach.
Jesus: SOMEbody has to.
[Group] Ooh, burn!
Insurance Guy: No, now Jesus, they’re right. This is the only way to keep our walkways clear and safe, and to keep the neighbors from…
Jesus: You mean the neighbors who OWN THE INTERNET and are pricing the working middle class out of their own homes?
J: Look, I could quote a bunch of scripture at you, but instead, I may just go RED JESUS on your asses. I’d hate to have to go and start turning over your nice new folding tables in the parish hall. What with one of them holding your shiny new espresso maker…
Church Lady: Oh, I forgot! You guys, there’s coffee and pie—for Pi Day!—in parish hall, once we wrap up this meeting…
Jesus: I can’t even. Y’all do your thing. I’ll be over here with the homeless guys, helping them get ready for a flood.
And so it goes. If you’ve been in church long enough, you’ve been in *that* meeting. And probably you’ve been every one of those voices, at some point. Let’s just remember that, as the body of Christ, having poor people sleep on our porches is not exactly the GOAL. Sure, it’s more compassionate than dousing them with water – but it’s not the transformative work of the kingdom. For that kind of work, we can’t just be ‘welcoming.’
To truly embody the gospel, we’ve got to be bold; creative; visionary; prophetic. Kind of like Jesus. Kind of like this church in D.C. Sounds like these folks had a few meetings that started out exactly like “that” meeting. But… somehow, they found another way. This is what love does, people. This is what mercy looks like in the flesh. Next time, let it be us.