Pastor Jami Fecher at Gift of Grace Lutheran Church, which has been at the center of the SHARE homeless shelter controversy for two weeks, asked us to publish this letter to the community. We’ve posted it in its entirety:
Dear Wallingford Neighbors,
There has been some anxiety generated in Wallingford by the decision of Gift of Grace Lutheran Church to host a SHARE (Seattle Housing and Resource Effort) coed shelter for 15 or fewer homeless persons, which opened September 15th. The reason Gift of Grace made this decision is because, to us, it is an act of love, which our faith in Christ demands of us, and because we consider it trustworthy stewardship of the property God has entrusted to us. God has called this congregation to serve the Wallingford neighborhood since the ministry moved here in the late 1940’s. We have not always been good at it, or faithful. But God is faithful to us, and by grace we have been allowed to continue.
There are many ways to serve the neighborhood. We offer several ways to which any and all are invited and welcomed: public worship and opportunities for learning and celebration. And for those who have no interest in our religious life we created GraceFeast: a weekly, non-religious, free meal at noon on Sunday intended to encourage neighbors to engage with each other over fresh, homemade food. This congregation is constantly discerning ways we might serve the neighborhood. Given the number of homeless persons in our neighborhood and the opportunity SHARE provided us to host a covenanted community of homeless persons, we decided it was within our means to provide a safe, clean, warm place to sleep.
This is not a radical move. Our five nearest Lutheran neighbors host or have hosted SHARE shelters. It is consistent with the stated identity and mission of the 5,000,000, member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The ELCA’s social statement on our economic life has articulated it like this: “we commit ourselves as a church and urge members to:
* provide counsel, food, clothing, shelter, and money for people in need, in ways that respect their dignity;
* develop mutual, face-to-face, empowering relationships between people who have enough and people living in poverty, especially through congregational and synodical partnerships;
* advocate for public and private policies that effectively address the causes of poverty;
* generously support organizations and community-based efforts that enable low-income people to obtain more sufficient, sustainable livelihoods;
* continue working to eradicate racism and sexism.” (A Social Statement on Economic Life: Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All p. 15 Adopted by a more than two-thirds majority vote (872-124) as a social statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America by its sixth Churchwide Assembly on August 20, 1999, in Denver, Colorado.) http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Social-Statements/Economic-Life.aspx
We are aware that some Wallingford neighbors felt anxiety and considered our decision heavy-handed because they were not consulted prior to our making the decision. We intended no disrespect, alarm, disturbance or annoyance. We have long been the home to 12 step groups that make a fairly significant impact on our near neighbors because of traffic, parking and noise. For one year we have hosted GraceFeast, which brings approximately 60 guests (many of them homeless) into and around the church property. Although we never asked for neighborhood input, our near neighbors have graciously tolerated and perhaps even welcomed the activity our church generates. We are convinced that the 15 people living in our building will make little negative impact on our neighbors. They arrive at 7 PM, go inside, and leave at 7 AM. They agree not to loiter in the neighborhood. If, God forbid, they do cause a problem, the problem will be immediately solved or the shelter will be closed.
Some of the alarm was generated because Huckleberry Forest Preschool rents the basement of the building Monday through Friday from 8 AM-5 PM, with the children coming at around 9 AM and leaving around 1 PM. We are aware of at least three other preschools that co-exist harmoniously with a SHARE shelter in the same building. Nevertheless the main alarm came from the fact that the parents of Huckleberry Preschool students were not alerted that the shelter was coming. We are saddened by their shock which was the result of having the news sprung on them only a week before the shelter’s opening when some of the parents received the notice from SHARE about the shelter’s opening, inviting them to an informational meeting the coming Sunday. Although it is not the place of Gift of Grace to interfere with the business relationship between the owners of Huckleberry Forest Preschool and their clients, we did make conscientious provision in our lease with the preschool that required the preschool owners to obtain a signed waiver from each client alerting them to our dynamic ministry that includes homeless persons and any risks that might be involved.
We are even more saddened that the preschool has since given notice that it will be leaving as the result of this unintended conflict. For our part, Gift of Grace thinks Huckleberry Forest Preschool is a topnotch school that we would recommend to anyone. We appreciate having them in this community and we fervently hope they will reconsider the move.
Finally, some neighbors are suspicious of or disapprove of SHARE as an organization and are troubled that a SHARE shelter is now in this neighborhood. Our experience with SHARE has been positive. The reports we have received from the other Lutheran churches involved with SHARE has been positive. We are not so naive as to believe SHARE is without faults. We have heard accusations of corruption, strong-arm tactics, and failure to properly (in the view of some) screen participants. The primary interest of Gift of Grace is not in SHARE as an organization, but showing hospitality to the 15 persons living in our building. However, because of our relationship with these 15 persons we are growing a relationship with SHARE as an organization. We hope they will allow us to influence them just as we expect these 15 persons living in our building to influence and enrich our community.
Although there has been some acrimony generated as the result of our decision to host this shelter, many powerful questions about what it means to be community together have arisen: questions about accountability, about the fairness of the non-tax status of churches, about how best to care for the impoverished and how best to protect the property of those who have worked hard to earn it. Some of the conflicting needs and desires of our community have been exposed. Now might be a good time for this community to engage the enormous deposit of talent, intelligence, education and goodwill residing in the hearts of the people of this neighborhood in fruitful dialogue about our life together. We have the resources. The question is, do we have the will?
Some neighbors have begun a loosely formed team to figure out how best to help shelter residents who want one to get an ID. There was the hope that this might lead to dialogue with SHARE, the organization, around some of the concerns about their screening and public relations strategy. There is also the likelihood of a conversation among the Lutheran pastors of congregations that host SHARE to compare notes and perhaps engage with SHARE about any concerns including the issues mentioned above. Focusing attention on SHARE, however, does not help us, the Wallingford neighborhood residents, directly address the more important issues that are about us: in what way are we accountable to each other as neighbors? How do we have fruitful public conversation? How does the homeless population figure into our self-understanding as a neighborhood? We hope we can begin to consider these questions at the second open public forum Gift of Grace has called, set for October 23, 2010, 10:30 AM- noon, at Mosaic Coffee House on the corner of 44th NE and 2nd NE. You are invited.
Yours in community,
The Steering Team of Gift of Grace Lutheran Church on behalf of the congregation:
Ana Parke, Vivian Little, Laurin Gaudinier, Rev. Benjamin (Jami) Fecher
Previous posts on the SHARE shelter at Gift of Grace:
SHARE shelter meeting looks back and ahead (Sept. 18)
Gift of Grace pastor sets community meeting (Sept. 16)
SHARE shelter opens tonight, see video (Sept. 15)
Homeless shelter to open Wednesday (Sept. 12)