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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Pastorgraphs: “Urban Plunge”

E-Vangel Newsletter
December 1, 2014

Christ United Methodist Ministry Center

“Christ in the Heart of San Diego”
3295 Meade Avenue - San Diego, CA 92116 - (619) 284-9205
Pastorgraphs: “Urban Plunge”

The NBC news story last week about Sacramento megachurch pastor Rick Cole brought back memories. In case you missed it, NBC reported Cole set out to raise money for food and shelter by living a few days with the homeless. The experience touched him so deeply he extended his experience to two weeks, living as a destitute man among the nameless, faceless, homeless of our State Capitol.

Way back in July 1976, I too spent three days on the streets of Kansas City. It was part of a seminar for the doctoral program at Midwestern Seminary in Kansas City. (I later transferred to Columbia Theological Seminary.) I came across a picture Midwestern took of us. No laughing, but that’s me on the far left. Yes, I once was younger and thinner with a bit more hair.
Each doctoral seminarian was required to take the “urban plunge”. We had to sign a document releasing Midwestern of liability in case we were killed or died while on the plunge. We had to live as though we were homeless, with nothing more than two quarters and our Social Security cards for identification if that became necessary.

I recall it was extremely hot, 110 degrees in the concrete jungle of downtown KC. We were paired off for safety. We were required to rendezvous with our partner every three hours during the day. If our partner did not show up at the appointed place and time, we were to use one of the two quarters to call the seminary who would notify the police. At night, we were required to stay together, sleeping on park benches or in the grass of a downtown KC park.

Much like the TV series “Undercover Boss” we were not allowed to tell anyone the truth. We didn’t have to lie, just not blow our cover. Our task was to survive on the streets for three days using just our wits to see what it is like to be homeless. No change of clothing, no showers, no meals (unless we earned the money to buy them) for three long, hot days.

A couple of my buddies went to a site that hired street people for day-to-day jobs, such as washing dishes or yard work. I had the good fortune of sitting next to a delegate to the National Republican Convention which was in downtown KC at the same time. (They nominated Gerald Ford to oppose Jimmy Carter.) The delegate asked me how things were going. I gave him my hard-luck story without blowing my cover. He must have taken pity on me, because he opened his wallet and gave me a $5 bill. Back then, that was like $50. I knew I could survive three days on quarter cheeseburgers and coffee at McDonalds. (Yes, in 1976, McDonald burgers were 25 cents.)

Police treated Black “vagrants” differently than they treated me, a White vagrant. I met people who had been on the streets for years, and who had lost all hope. Many were just good folks who suffered some misfortune, especially in the devastating OPEC oil embargo economy that led to 18% inflation.   
Call it boot camp for urban ministry. No other experience had more to do with helping this rural Southerner to even attempt urban ministry. Like pastor Cole, my urban plunge was an experience that changed the trajectory of my life and ministry.

It all came full circle yesterday. Before walking into church, a man asked to speak with me. We went into my office where he said he had a court order to talk with me. It turned out he had been arrested by the San Diego Police for sleeping on our parking lot outside stairwell. He pleaded no contest to this misdemeanor, but part of his penance was to apologize to me (as Director of CMC). Apology accepted.

Let me tell you what I learned about Jim (not his real name). He is 70, a very nice person. I would never thought Jim homeless if I passed him on the street. Jim is a Viet Nam veteran, two tours with the 82nd Airborne Paratroopers out of Ft. Bragg. His only failing is trying to survive on his $1000 a month pension in San Diego. He told me he found a motel on El Cajon Boulevard that he can afford half-time. So he spends a week in the motel and a week sleeping on the streets. The motel takes two-thirds of his pension for his two weeks a month shelter. It was one of his “homeless” weeks he found our stairwell a safe place to sleep.
Jim does not suffer from PTSD, appears to be neither an alcoholic nor drug user. He has been dealing with our broken VA system. After 14 months, he is now No. 3 on the waiting list for Veterans-assisted housing, which he hopes materializes before the really cold and rainy weather gets here. I gave him enough money to get some food, a bus pass, and told him he could stay temporarily in the basement of Christ Ministry Center where we have a restroom with a shower.

Not all homeless are “bums”. Some are heroes who have fallen on hard times. And if we follow the example of Jesus, we do not judge or fear them. We give them our love in His name. It might help us in this season of Advent to remember that Mary and Joseph were homeless, too, in Bethlehem.

In Christ’s Service,
Bill Jenkins

From The Quote Garden:
“When I was living in New York and didn't have a penny to my name, I would walk around the streets and occasionally I would see an alcove or something. And I'd think, that'll be good, that'll be a good spot for me when I'm homeless.

~ Larry David, American comedian, writer, television producer, creator, with Jerry Seinfeld, of the television series “Seinfeld”. (Brainy Quotes)

Photo credits: Midwestern Seminary “Urban Plunge” Kansas City MO, July 1976. Fotolia, all royalties paid.

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