Saturday, March 19, 2011

"the churches are too damned timid"

"it seemed pretty tame to me; but [reverend dave] moss now made an announcement: 'after dinner we can't go outside until 7 am. we've gotta be really under the radar about this. if you have to smoke this evening sometime between now and six, go out in ones and twos at the most. we cannot be visible to the neighbors or we'll have to shut the program down.'

"a blondish young woman name charlene remarked that up in oroville she had rented a lady's front yard for three hundred dollars a month so that she could pitch her tent there, with kitchen and toilet privileges. the police arrested her. the neighbors came to her defense, the landlady brought proof of payment, and the police had to let her go, but did so in an angry spirit. she also said that in marysville the city council had posted signs in churches announcing that people were not allowed to stay there after dark.

"frank asked for a volunteer to lead us in prayer and thank the church. we formed a circle, holding hands, and a woman prayed in a weak, tremulous voice. I heard her express gratitude to safe ground...then the church people served us dinner from a buffet table, ladies first. I thanked one woman for the salad she ladled onto my plate, and she replied: 'it's my pleasure to serve.' people like her give christians a good name.

"david leeper moss, retired from the united methodist ministry, big-shouldered alumnus of the board of loaves and fishes, white of beard and mustache, had been involved with safe ground since july of last year. 'I heard about tent city and defying the anti-camping ordinance, and I thought, man, this is the place where I would like to be! there's a disconnect between the people who are supporting safe ground and the people who are living safe ground, and since I know my gifts and graces, I know that I can be a bridge between them.'

"I told him that the necessity of his guests' hiding themselves from the neighbors made me sad. he replied: 'the trinity cathedral on capitol doesn't have the same community that we do, so people can smoke on the sidewalk. also, it's larger. there are even facilities for pets.' (all but one of the animal owners here tonight had left their animals in their tents at the river. the exception was a woman with a tiny, utterly silent dog.)

"moss went on: 'if you ask me, the churches are too damned timid.'

"'there must be many homeless who for whatever reason won't follow the safe ground rules,' I said.

"'safe ground is not a solution for homelessness. it's part of a mosaic of solutions.'

"I liked that. it was modest enough that it might be true...

"lying on my back in the darkness, I stared up at the high ceiling and around me at the yellow-glowing door panes, the long low sleeping-bag islands against the walls, and dave moss sitting alone in the light of the restroom doorway, reading a book. he sat there all night as far as I know, for in the morning he was in the same spot. another sentinel manned the table by the front door. I suppose that if one of us had attacked another, or tried to go into where the women slept, one of them would have called for frank. as I lay there, I felt a strange feeling of happiness. I could hear a woman's high-pitched cough, rich with phlegm. now the church was almost entirely silent. a man rustled crossly in his sleeping bag. a pack buckle clicked quietly open.

"in the morning the lights came on at six o'clock sharp. some of us were already rolling up our sleeping bags as quietly as we could. frank was booming out: 'I need a volunteer to mop the floor. I need a volunteer to clean the men's bathroom. thank you, volunteers.' there came a prayer, and toast and cereal for breakfast."

--from "homeless in sacramento: welcome to the new tent cities" by william vollmann in the march 2011 issue of harper's magazine

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