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Patapsco UMC reaches resolution in homeless issue

December 20, 2016

Patapsco UMC in Dundalk

By Erik Alsgaard
UMConnection Staff

Patapsco UMC in Dundalk, which was facing a $12,000 fine for allowing unhoused people to sleep on their property, has resolved the issue, according to the Rev. Ed DeLong, interim superintendent of the Baltimore Metropolitan District.

“The church found a way for the three persons residing on the property the past few months to find more permanent solutions,” DeLong said. It was those three people, DeLong said, that brought the ire of a neighbor who brought the matter to the attention of Baltimore County officials.

One of the men, he said, went to live with his son. Another man is living in a shelter, and a woman has found her own apartment.

The Rev. Katie Grover has been pastor at Patapsco UMC since 2013. She said that it’s been difficult to wrap her head and her heart around the situation.

“It’s very difficult with my heart to have to look past an individual, recognizing that in looking past that individual, maybe we can do something for him and others with a more lasting solution in the future,” she said.

With the resolution of the complaint, both Grover and DeLong said, the case brought by the county will be dropped and the church will not have to pay the fine. The church had been previously warned twice by officials about allowing the unhoused to stay on their property. The most recent citation, for “non-permitted rooming and boarding house,” carried the $200 per day fine.

DeLong said that with the case being dropped, there was no need for the church to appear in court, which was scheduled for Dec. 19. “No one likes to go to court,” DeLong said. “We’re very grateful that the matter has been resolved.”

The situation at Patapsco UMC, which recently lost its furnace to the tune of $80,000 in repairs, has brought the crisis of homelessness to the fore.

Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, speaking at the Homeless Person's Memorial Day service in front of City Hall in Baltimore Dec. 21, said that to address homelessness, we first have to see homeless people as children of God.

“It’s so easy to look up, look down, look around – we don’t make human contact,” she said, speaking at the War Memorial Plaza. “The promise of Christ is that light came into the world and that the darkness would not overcome it."

The bishop said she wrestles with the term “homeless,” just like she wrestles with the term “slave.” That’s because, for her, when a person is identified by a status, the danger is the whole person becomes defined by that word, she said.

“No one has ever been born a slave,” Bishop Eastlering said. “Rather, you are enslaved. Very few have been born homeless; rather, they are rendered homeless by circumstances some, yes, by their own making, but far more by those that are imposed upon them beyond their control.”

Bishop Easterling called for people to live out the scripture imperatives to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God every day, not just acting them out on occasion.

“Our justice acts, our merciful acts, yes, they must meet the immediate needs of those who are most vulnerable among us,” she said. “But we cannot stop there. If we stop there, we are only appeasing our own guilt and assuaging our own egos. No, after that, we must shine a light on the systems and the strongholds that create the vulnerabilities in the first place and find creative ways to dismantle them.”

How do we, as fellow human beings, and especially those who have the audacity to call ourselves "Christ-followers" live in this juxtaposition, the bishop asked.

"May we not wait until next year at this time to recognize in death those whom we ignored in life," she said. "May we see them; may we look at them; may we acknowledge them; may we liberate and love them every single day.” DeLong said. He sees the Patapsco story as a springboard to greater intentionality throughout the United Methodist churches in Baltimore.

DeLong, who attended the Memorial Day service and helped read the names of the 165 people who died in the past year who were known to have experienced homelessness in the Baltimore Metropolitan area, said he sees the Patapsco story as a springboard to greater intentionality throughout the United Methodist churches in Baltimore.

“In my doing 64 charge conferences throughout the district,” he said, “how to better take care of the needs of homeless people was the number one issue.”

Throughout the district, he noted, there are several churches doing outstanding ministry with, to and for the homeless population. Feeding programs, health clinics, and clothing give aways, just to name a few, are prevalent in and around Baltimore.

One such location he noted was St. John’s in Baltimore, where the Rev. Irance Reddix is serving in a unique combined ministry. At her church, Reddix serves half-time. The other half of her appointment is to lead a health clinic, housed at the church, that works in partnership with Ames UMC in Baltimore, the University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins University, and Morgan State University.

Another example, DeLong said, was the recent coat and warm clothing give away done at Ames UMC. On Dec. 10, the church distributed more than 380 coats and hundreds of other clothing items to those from the neighborhood. The church will be doing it again, he said, on Christmas day.

“It’s not that we’re doing nothing” on homelessness, DeLong said. “It’s that there’s this feeling we need to, and could be, doing more.”

DeLong is the interim superintendent of the district, and as such, he expects a new district superintendent to be appointed by Bishop LaTrelle Easterling July 1.

“My job will be to get the new superintendent on board” on the issue of homelessness in the district, DeLong said. “I expect to start a conversation with my churches, with clergy and laity, after the first of the year about what we can and should be doing together.”

DeLong also sees partnering with city and county officials as key to successful ministry in this area.

Grover said that she hopes the conversation on homelessness would address systemic issues, not simply addressing immediate needs. Finding places for people to sleep and be safe not only when it’s below 32 degrees, or above 100 degrees, is needed, she said, but helping people move out of homelessness are also needed.

She cited one man she was working with who needed a job. However, to get a job, the man needs a birth certificate and Social Security card so that he can get an ID card. If you don’t have that, she said, you need to have official mail that goes to your address.

“Trying to figure out if he even has those things” can be difficult, she said.

Grover sees United Methodists playing a central role in a larger conversation about homelessness, noting that we are both citizens of the kingdom of God and the country.

“Citizens of the kingdom are called to address this,” she said, “but as citizens of the country, we have the ability to address this through our votes and placing some pressure on our elected officials.”

For Grover, the events of the past three weeks have been a Gospel issue.

“This strikes at the heart of the Gospel,” she said. “If Christ isn’t welcome on the bench outside your church, how can you say that he’s welcome inside your church. And if he’s not welcome inside your church, how can you say that you’re a church?”

She urges churches that want to do homeless ministry to not be afraid; to do what they can the best as they can, and to love the humans that God brings to their doors.

Through it all, Grover said that she has felt the prayers and support of the wider connection, receiving e-mails, phone calls and online notes from around the country. The story, she said, grew much bigger than she ever thought it would.

And when Grover prays, she said, she prays that the unhoused people of her neighborhood wouldn’t be forgotten in this whole story. “They are human beings with needs,” she said. “My prayer is that they would know they are loved.”

The congregation at Patapsco UMC has been struggling about finding its future, Grover admitted, but finds that perhaps now, the church has found a new direction.

“The support, for my spirit, and for the spirit of the church, has been beyond what words can even capture,” she said. “The opportunity to share the Gospel across the nation and even in the community has been beyond myself, beyond the church, only something that God could do.”

“Where we’re going will be a great story,” DeLong said. “We have a rich tradition in The United Methodist Church of working with the poor, going all the way back to John Wesley himself. It’s in our DNA.”

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