Thursday, December 11, 2008
Miracle on Second Avenue
Sometimes, through a benevolent combination of circumstances, you get the privilege of walking straight into the heart of Love, and tonight, at the invitation of my friend David Timothy, AKA SoupMan, I got to do that.
For months David had been inviting me to visit the Dallas International Street Church with him, but I hadn’t gotten around to it. Then the story broke today about this tiny, poor, South-Dallas church sheltering homeless people in the hundreds who had been unable to get into the Bridge and other shelters in downtown Dallas. When I had dropped by the SoupMobile this afternoon to pick up some brochures and chat with David and had learned he was going to the Street Church tonight to deliver some crates of canned food, I jumped at the chance to go with him.
All day rumors had been flying about the status of people being allowed to sleep inside the Street Church for tonight (Thursday). The previous night the Fire Marshall had shut them down for code violations — the church is housed in a very old building south of Fair Park — and for having too many people inside sleeping on the pews, on the floor, anywhere there was a square inch, so that they would not have to sleep outdoors in the subfreezing weather. The Dallas International Street Church had become the last refuge of many of the Dallas homeless population now that the Bridge had found it necessary to revise its open-door policy to coincide, unfortunately, with cold weather. The timing of the implementation of this policy change with the advent of subfreezing weather was abysmal, and was resulting in extremely difficult circumstances whose lives are already quite challenging.
First we’d heard the Fire Department would have a representative stay in the church tonight to keep an eye on things and allow the homeless to shelter there. Then we’d heard that was a no-go, and that a large open-sided tent the congregation owns — complete with a with an outdoor heater — was to be set up to shelter the homeless behind the church — not exactly snugly warm, but better than sleeping in the open or on the concrete.
We pulled up into the church’s parking lot in the SoupMobile van to unload the food, and I noticed an official City of Dallas vehicle parked outside. “I think the Fire Marshall is here,” I told David. In the next moment, a woman came running up to us waving her arms and either laughing or crying — I couldn’t tell which. It was ‘Queen,’ the de facto shelter director, and she was calling out, “Oh, thank God you’re here. Did you bring any food? You’re not going to believe what’s happened!” The city had relented, it turned out, and was going to allow the homeless to sleep inside after all, with a Fire Marshall present all night to oversee things. “Look, look, there they come!” She pointed to a group of people walking along the sidewalk toward the door of the church. “They’ve walked all the way from downtown! We were not allowed to go downtown and pick them up in busses [which had been happening earlier in the week], but, if they can walk to here, they can come inside. We made the rounds of the shelters earlier. People have to have money and ID’s to get in, but, anyway, the shelters were all full.”
Several men came out of the church to unload the van, and we all went inside. A church service was in progress, loud, spirited, with a gospel band. Queen took me by the hand and led me through the pews of people, introducing me as we went along. We sat down in the second row, and, suddenly, both of us began to cry. She put her arm around me, this sister that I’d never met before tonight, and I leaned my head against her shoulder. The frustration, the anger, the bewilderment, the stress that this week had brought to everyone who loves and works with Dallas’ homeless people — it poured out of us both to the sound of the searing gospel music as we searched our pockets for Kleenex and looked at each other without the necessity of explaining anything.
The sermon, given by a young, dynamic preacher, was pure, was strong, was speaking truth to power without condemning anyone. “Seven months ago,” he said, “I was an addict, was homeless, hadn’t had a bath, was walking up and down Second Avenue, right out here.” He pointed toward the front of the church. Speaking eloquently about letting yourself be willing to shine, he said, “The changes that have happened to me in the past few months should by all rights have taken years.”
As the service continued, David took me for a tour of the building. To say that Pastor Karen Dudley operates the International Street Church on a shoestring is a mild understatement [http://www.kdministries.org/staff.php]. When dinner was served in the kitchen, the plates of the first shift of ten or so people had to be washed before the next round could be fed! Looking on, David said to me, “Seems just a little bit like the stretching required in the feeding of the loaves and fishes, doesn’t it?” We laughed. “Hey,” he commented, “this is a pretty good-looking meal they’re serving tonight, mashed potatoes and meat. Often they don’t have hot food here at night. Louis,” he asked the cook, “where did this food come from?” “From you, SoupMan!” Louis said, “You brought it yesterday, and it’s been in the freezer since then.” David had forgotten he’d ‘paid it forward’ with some food sent to the SoupMobile by Bakers Ribs! It was pretty funny.
Near us in the kitchen, I noticed a quiet, unobtrusive young man sitting by the wall, observing, and saw that he wore a badge. I walked over and introduced myself, asking, “Are you with the City?” “Yes,” he said cordially, “My name is Anthony _____. I’m the Fire Marshall.” We expressed our gratitude to him for being there and our happiness that a compromise had been worked out with the city. He was polite and kind, with a low-key demeanor and good people skills in evidence.
Twenty-six code violations were found the previous night when the city had shut the shelter down, and we looked at some of them. It’s a very old building, and some fix up is in order, to be sure. The contractor who had graciously volunteered his services to make the repairs and get the building up to code after the story of the shutdown aired on WFAA, Channel 8, is due to arrive at 9 A.M. tomorrow morning (Friday) to get started.
We went outside to talk to some people, and Queen came out. “Guess what? You’ll never believe it. That was the Dallas Morning News on the phone just now. Two people have called in and are going to pay for hotel rooms for a few dozen people tonight! We’re signing them up right now!” There were ‘woohoos’ and high-fives all around. When a [shelter] door closes, sometimes more than one window miraculously opens.
By this time, the church service had ended. We went back in the building for one last look around and noticed a clean-cut, white-shirted man standing across the room with Anthony. When we approached him, we could read “K. Sipes, Fire Chief” embroidered on his shirt. It was now 9:40 P.M., and, long day notwithstanding, Deputy Fire Chief Kevin Sipes himself was on the premises to check out how things were going. We met him, talked to him for a while. “This compromise seems like a win-win for the homeless and the city,” David said. “We don’t want people to be out in the cold in this weather,” the Chief told us.
After a dispiriting week, it was a very uplifting couple of hours, amid the people who are the poorest of the poor, the most outcast of the outcast. The gratitude, the love, the truth, the peace that is in that place and among those people does indeed pass all understanding.
P.S. Much appreciation to the good people at Channel 8 News, WFAA, for their coverage of this issue.