Friday morning I was in “Freedom Park,” an audacious name for that little hunk of concrete in Pennsylvania Avenue in front of Washington’s City Hall, the Wilson building. Miriam’s Kitchen, a program that feeds the homeless out of Western Presbyterian Church on Virginia Ave, brought many of their regular homeless guests to the park to display artwork. Out of cardboard they built 500 houses. Don’t worry, this isn’t another Occupy DC, which had earlier inhabited the same space. These houses were symbolic. They symbolized the 500 homes that Miriam’s Kitchen and the Washington Interfaith Network, among others, hope the government can create for the homeless next year, through a program called Permanent Supportive Housing. The houses were a way to ask the mayor to include more money for Permanent Supportive Housing in the Washington DC budget this year.
There in the square I ran into my friend Eric, who himself is homeless and an activist in DC. Eric wanted to bend my ear for a moment. He said to me, “Reverend, you know there is a passage in scripture where Jesus says, ‘you will always have the poor with you.’” “Yes,” I said, “in fact I’m preaching about that passage on Sunday.” “Really?,” he said, “good, I caught you in time. Preachers get that passage wrong.” I was intrigued. Eric said, “people use this passage to say that you can’t ever do away with poverty. They say Jesus said there would always be poor people, but that is wrong. That’s not what he meant. This isn’t prophesy from Jesus that we’ll never be able to end poverty. We could end poverty if we really wanted to.”
I liked Eric’s exegesis, his interpretation of scripture. It squared with the reading I had been doing around this text. I think Eric is right; I don’t think Jesus meant that we could never end poverty. So what does Jesus mean, “you will always have the poor with you?”
Maybe we should ask the new pope. All the hullabaloo about the new pope this week was exciting for church nerds like me. I skipped my yoga class on Wednesday afternoon to watch him appear on his balcony. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed he didn’t belt out, “don’t cry for me Argentina.”
Seriously though, so far his words seem to echo this sense of Jesus’ “you will always have the poor with you.” I don’t know much about the new pope, time will tell, but all this talk of Latin American Catholics made me think of another archbishop who I know more about, a Roman Catholic archbishop from Brazil: Dom Helder Camara. Known as the the bishop of the slums, Camara famously said, “when I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” Archbishop Camara was not a communist. He was a Christian, who saw that poverty required more than the easy actions of feeding the poor. Having the poor with you, always, means asking the hard questions about how the structures of our society impoverish some, while allowing others to flourish.
Selling the perfume and giving the money to the poor would have been the easy answer. Acts of mercy make us feel good, and then they are over. Feeding someone at a soup kitchen, buying “Street Sense,” giving someone change for the bus, these acts of mercy make us feel good and then we get to go home. “Having the poor with us always,” is more difficult. “Always” is a strong word, “always” is a word that defines loyalty, defines an identity. “You will have the poor with you always” is not easy, but it is who we are as Christians.
So, to paraphrase Ed. Koch, “How we doin?” I think our society is very good at keeping the poor away, keeping the economically powerful and the economically vulnerable at a distance from one another. No where have I felt this more than on the border. I used to live in San Diego, and lead trips down to an orphanage in Tijuana, and the border wall always fascinated me. The corrugated tin, poured concrete, and concertina wire sent a clear message of division between rich and poor. Where we don’t build physical walls we build psychological walls. How big of a divide is the Anacostia river in our city? How big a divide was Rock Creek not too many years ago? Those geographical walls are matched with personal walls. I put up walls when I encounter the homeless on the streets of DC. We all do. Our society is in the business of keeping the poor and the empowered at a distance from one another. It’s easy to keep your distance, but I think Jesus’ words “You will have the poor with you always” are a challenge.
I think Jesus’ words today could be expanded to say, “I know you all, and you know what I’m about. My followers will always seek out the lost, the least, and the left out in society. You’ve seen me go across the walls of the cities to lepers and to outcasts. You’ve seen me eat with women and Samaritans. You’ve seen me feed the hungry. You know what I’m all about. You know that we break down barriers, and you know that our community will always include the poor.” The Church will always be a place where the poor are welcome, sought after, where they find friends and allies. Rich people like Mary Magdalene, Joseph of Arimathea, and Matthew the tax collector had the poor with them in Jesus’ community. Jesus called rich and poor alike, and the poor were sought after.
Do we have the poor with us always? Do we have the poor with us when we make laws about gun violence, which disproportionately affects poor communities? Do we have the poor with us when we make decisions to send our military into harm’s way, a military whose combat troops come disproportionately from the poor families in our country? Do we have the poor with us when we make decisions about public schools and about healthcare? Do we have the poor with us when we think about sensible immigration reform that would protect the rights of the 12 million people who work in this country without the protections of a visa? Do we have the poor with us always?
Washington DC has the money to end homelessness this year. Washington, with its surplus of $417 million, could house all of the chronically homeless. We probably won’t, but we can ask the city government to make a start by housing 500. I hope you all will join St. John’s and WIN this Spring in our work to get those homes written into the budget. Through ongoing work in education and job creation we could make a significant dent in ending poverty in this city. We could. What do you say, let’s prove those preachers wrong, and my homeless friend Eric right. We can end homelessness. We can end poverty. But we will only do so by having the poor with us, always.