Walking across the grounds of a housing project for people moving out of homelessness is a stark reminder that there are many things in the United States that are fundamentally broken. After working for years in Africa and often compelled to justify our work with the poor and dispossessed in sub-Saharan Africa, while America suffers, I was reminded once again that there is much to do in the cities of America. Poverty in this country is no respecter of geography – you can find it in the city, the suburbs, and the rural areas of the United States.
Poverty is harsh anywhere you go. What I saw this week in the inner-city of Indianapolis was a poverty driven by substance abuse, hunger, and domestic violence. Gathering in the basement of the Colonial Apartment complex on Washington Street were 80 individuals whose lives defied clear definition. They were gathering to worship, but they were all refugees from the streets. Many were missing teeth from years of methamphetamine abuse; their skin showed a premature aging often associated with chronic alcohol abuse, use of cocaine, and malnutrition. On this morning, they were excited about the free breakfast that came with the worship service. They stood patiently in line waiting for their scrambled eggs and sausage. A young girl with Down Syndrome sat at one of the tables. Her smile lit up the room, but her eyes revealed a vacancy that reflected an unusual level of hopelessness.
Alongside this collective group of broken humanity, people of faith offered words of encouragement, made sure everyone got food, and affirmed a day or a week of sobriety. Their words of encouragement were almost medicinal and gave promise of a healing, if only temporarily. Many of these helpers were once homeless and living on the streets of Indianapolis. They were a bridge from the current reality of their audience to a reality filled with hope.
The numbers tell a distressing story. Fifteen percent of all Americans or 46 million people live in poverty. Twenty-one percent of all American children live in poverty. In that room on Sunday morning was a cross section of this number. Yet, these numbers do not capture the larger picture of poverty of spirit in America that allows us to ignore the suffering of our neighbor, the unemployment and despair of the man who can no longer feed his family, or the crippling disease of alcohol dependency. We have become a culture of blame versus a culture of promise. It is the fault of this politician, or the weakness of that leader, or the failure of this parent to do the right thing at the right time for their children.
Yet, as revealed by the work of the Shepherd Community in Indianapolis and their leader Rev. Jay Height, simple interventions have huge benefits. Without this Sunday morning gathering, there would be no food that day; there would be no promise that they were doing the right things to maintain their sobriety, and there would be no promise whatsoever. Instead a large man approaches us and tells us of his year and months of freedom from cocaine addiction; another woman tells us of her liberation from tobacco, and yet another tell us of her enrolling her children in school. She thanks one of the leaders for their advocacy.
The Shepherd Community in Indianapolis is a congregation and a gathering of individuals whose passion for service places them in the middle of some of the most desperate and broken individuals found in our communities. In the midst of this brokenness, they have said NO to death and despair. Through their action and their lives – they are saying YES to life and YES to a better tomorrow. There is a Shepherd in this neighborhood and the Shepherd is healing the broken.
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