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Injustice upon injustice – it’s called Life on the Streets

Some things set me right over the edge, mostly it’s a different story with a similar theme: injustice (see Justice III, Feb 26/10).  Here is yet another:

Tom is a recovering alcoholic that will be celebrating seven years of sobriety in two weeks.  He works his 12 step program and is determined to stay clean.  He came to visit us, then volunteered, and then entered our work skills program.  He comes to the office four days a week to help: no job too big, no job too small, he does them all – with a cheerful heart.  He has a record but his probation ends in two short months – and he works hard at keeping clean.  He won’t even cross the street  without a walk signal.

Clean. Squeaky clean.  Pleasant, kind, hard-working, and a delight to be around. We have high hopes for Tom.

So one day, he doesn’t show up. A day, then two and more and then a week and we wonder where he is.  No way to contact him.  Finally we find him – in jail. 

He is in jail right now, been there just over two weeks for “parole violation”.   For “panhandling”.  Reported to his Parole Officer (P.O.) by an “anonymous” person who called it in.  Over fourteen days in jail (and counting) with no help.  No lawyer.  No hearing.  No explanation.  Just “there”.

I called the P.O. and left message after message with no response.

Tuesday of this week the P.O. goes to see Tom in jail to tell him he can’t get out until next Thursday.  Sorry, no.

How can this be?  What about his rights?  Good question.  Looks like Tom doesn’t have any.  An ‘anonymous’ call is enough to land him in jail.

Right now, I don’t have the complete story. But I know enough to know there’s something wrong here – very wrong.

So, today I called my lawyer.  Let’s look into this.  Lawyer will call the P.O. and make an inquiry.  Let’s find out what’s happening here.  Let’s get to the bottom of this.  I have an appointment tomorrow at the jail.  Somebody has to do something about this.

This is a sad story.  Sadder that it happens all the time.  Sadder still that most of my street friends’ rights violations (this appears to be one of them) go unnoticed, undetected and unresolved – particularly so because they don’t have anyone who will help.  They get lost in the “justice system” – or the justice is lost in the “system”.  Maybe it’s just “the system”.

ANYBODY INTERESTED IN DOING SOME ADVOCACY??  Get ready for rejection, apathy, unanswered messages, high levels of frustration getting around red tape, and white hot rage when you see injustice heaped upon injustice heaped upon injustice – oppressing people who are already broken and helpless.

Naw… it’s hoping for too much that somebody somewhere might respond to this plea for help and say, “Hey, I can do something.  Send me.” (Isaiah 6:8)

(Let me get back to you on this next week.  Friday morning, 1:01 am)

Violation of Sacred Trust

“Of all people, you should know better.”  His words pierced my soul.   These words and this day will be burned in my mind forever.  Seven years ago, but it seems like yesterday.

I had just started with OIM and everything seemed like chaos.  I guess it was chaos for me, trying to balance everything, be fair, help people, and do intervention in a culture that was strange to me, potentially explosive – all the time.

About 200 people at the drop in on a hot summer afternoon.  I was watching two men: one of them was pacing the floor across the room strung out on drugs and aggressive.  Probably crystal meth, I thought.  Crystal meth was in abundance on the streets – not good.  It’s the kind of drug that can make you feel invincible, feel no pain (literally), and you can become aggressive.

The other man was using, maybe some blend of alcohol mixed with prescription drugs – he was having a heated argument, with no one, someone or anyone.  Have to keep an eye on him.

Another man comes up to me and engages me in conversation.  In just a few short minutes, he has told me some of the highlights of his unbelievably traumatic life.  His earliest memories seeped in torment, a childhood of abuse, loss and damage  so severe that it’s almost unimaginable.

Across the room the ‘pacer’ has a violent verbal outburst and I look to see who is the target.  Then immediately to my left the second man throws a wild punch into the air- trying to keep his invisible tormentors at bay.

The man in front of me says, “I can see you are too busy for me.  I’m going to go.”

Cut to the quick.  I quickly explain: the guy across the room, the guy to my left, I’m in charge, so sorry, I want to hear you, I am listening, but things are happening…

“You’re in charge here?  Of all people you should know better. I’m going to go, you have no time for me.”  He turned and walked out, ignoring my desperate pleas to remain and give me another chance that I really didn’t deserve.

Burned on my memory, I had done the greatest misdeed that could be done to someone who was in the midst of crisis – in a  moment of confession where all he needed was a friend to listen.  Too busy, preoccupied, otherwise engaged when I should have been engaged – with him.

People experiencing poverty and homelessness, living on the streets have two things they have complete control over, that they can choose to give or not: one is their real name, the other is their story.  If someone gives you their real name and their story, they have given you everything.

A violation of a sacred trust: a lesson I will never forget.

Justice II

Justice.  I stepped back for a moment at our drop in and marveled at the 200+ guests that were visiting that day.  In the midst of all the noise and clamour, I was amazed at what I saw: people in all directions, but without  distinction between our volunteers  and our street friends; people mixing and mingling with our guests, caring, listening, loving – it was a beautiful picture of a caring community.  In the midst of all the bustle and busyness, there was a sense of the presence of God.

Why this sometimes overwhelming sense of God’s presence, I wondered?  It must be because the people who come to us have been traumatized, abused and neglected. They are often innocent victims of abuse and violence that has made an indelible imprint on their lives.  Rejection has been their bread throughout life, and their brokenness has never had opportunity to heal.  For the most part, the damage that makes up their lives and their stories has not been something they could have done anything about.  Abused and violated as children, they have no responsibility for their hurt, and many will live (and die) with these issues unresolved.  Surely I thought, at least in part, this is why it seems that God has a special care for the ‘least of these’.

Some time after arriving at this understanding I was challenged in my thinking as I considered what the Bible says.  God does not care for people experiencing poverty or homelessness any more than He cares for anyone:  He loves all with a perfect love.  Unbiased, impartial, fair and just, He cares for all equally.

So why is there often a definite and real sense of God at work among the poor?  On more than one occasion I have experienced what Mother Theresa has described “Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poor.”

It is not an issue of favoritism or partiality, but rather  an issue with the character of God Himself.  Over and over again in the Scriptures, we see that God’s justice is intrinsically fused together with his righteousness.   In fact, these two aspects of God’s character are so bound together that there is often no distinction between the two.  The words are commonly used interchangeably.

God who is just, is also righteous.  This is part of the very fabric of the character of God.

God’s character is violated when people are mistreated, marginalized and abused.  With no one to care for them, our street friends are moved along from one styrofoam cup to the next.  People sleep in doorways and alleys, behind garbage bins and scrounge for food where ever they can.  They are alone, lonely and isolated.

That this is true of thousands of people here in Ottawa, and in your city, is a cause for great alarm.  This is injustice, and is an affront to the character of God, a shame to those of us who can make a difference and an opportunity for those of us who choose to do so.

Justice I

Biblical Justice as it is demonstrated towards the poor.  What’s that look like?  First the Old Testament:

  1. Historically we see the development of the children of Israel beginning as slaves in Egypt through the Exodus to their coming into the promised land.  No real class distinctions.
  2. Canaan/ Promised Land:  The land was allotted to every Israelite, which produced conditions which developed into social differences and classes of distinction.  With a concern to prevent permanent poverty, God gave specific commands to His people regarding care of the poor: those sold into slavery were to be released (Exod 21:2), gleaning of the fields was allocated to the poor (23:19,21) with instruction that the poor were not to be exploited (22:22).  God was the Protector of the Poor and by His laws sought social justice for the poor.
  3. The period of the Monarchy brought economic development and prosperity for some but poverty for others.  Things worsened and the prophets took up the cause of the poor decrying forced labour (Amos 5:11,12), enslaving of fellow countrymen (Jer. 34:8-11) and the depriving of widows, orphans, and the poor of their rights (Isa 10:1,2).  Those who were socially strong were guilty of oppression (Amos 2:7; 4:1; 5:11).  Hunger for land was driving the poor from their inheritance (Isa 3:15; 10:2;14:32)

 

God would not forget the poor (Ps 9:12; 40:17); He pities and comforts them (Ps 34:6; Isa 49:13), and is concerned for their well-being.

 

  1. Israel becomes more and more selfish, materialistic and self-centered.  The poor become increasingly oppressed by the rich (Prov 30:14; Isa 3:14); afflicted by the wicked (Ps 10:2; 12:5); subject to oppression and abuse (Amos 2:6; 5:12); were constantly in want or poverty (Prov 6:11; 11:24) and lacking the basic necessities of life (Job 30:3).

God speaks forth in Micah 6:8 “He has shown thee O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you.  Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly before your God.”

Do Justice” – what’s that all about?  Here in my office, I am a 15 minute walk away from the Supreme Court of Canada.  When we think about justice we think of robed lawyers and judges making judgments that affect the lives of Canadians.  We think of decisions made passionately but passively in the halls of this great building.  Or perhaps we move east on Wellington Street to the Peace Tower and Parliament Hill where more judgments and decrees are pronounced.

Sound pretty complicated doesn’t it?  It’s not really that difficult at all.

Justice is something to be acted upon, an action word, a decision, it could be considered by some as a verb even.  Do Justice.  Do justly.  Do the right thing.  Treat people fairly.  Show the same respect to all.

Treat people equally and with fairness.

What’s so hard about that?

Random Act of Kindness Multiplies Itself BIG time!

The Backgrounder:  OIM sponsors the 8:00 am and 5:00 pm news on a local radio station, CHRI 99.1 fm.  For one of our 60 second spots, I interviewed a young lady (we’ll call her Rachel) from our Passion for Youth art program.  In this interview, she commented on how much she enjoyed participating in the program, so much so that she says that she dosen’t even think of drugs while she is  involved in the program.  This is quite remarkable, really!

The Story:  So Rachel came to our office to get some stuff and stays a moment for a visit.  She told me this story:

Part 1:  She was panhandling on the street when a kind lady offered to buy her some supper.  She agreed and the two of them had an enjoyable time together.  She felt special because a.) she was noticed, b.) the time over a meal brought a sense of dignity, and c.) somebody actually cared.

Part 2: Two days later, this same lady comes by and Rachel is at the same spot, panhandling.  She stops and chats, one of the first questions she asked was: “Was that you that I heard on the radio?  I recognize your voice.  That was great!”

Rachel’s face beamed with joy as she answered in the affirmative. Imagine, someone recognized her!!

This is huge!  We might get a kick of being on the radio, but for Rachel, this is so much bigger.  In her part in this little story, she was recognized not just a panhandler, or even as a person who might be ‘down and out’ for the time being.  She was someone who was recognized for making a larger, positive contribution to a good cause!  Mabye even informing and influencing the way that radio listeners think about people caught in the web of poverty and homelessness.

She was radiant as she recounted this story.

It might be hard to imagine just how much of an impact this would be for someone who calls the streets their home.  Think of it for a moment:  24/7 you are struggling to survive, just trying to make it to the next day; the past continually comes before your mind: harsh words (“You are such a loser! You’ll never amount to anything!  You are worthless trash!); every imaginable form of abuse (from abusive parents and relatives, residential school system, etc); multiple foster homes; struggling to survive, and well… you fill in the gaps.

THEN someone comes up to you in the midst of your despair and darkened world and brings a burning magnesium light of hope and glory, and says, “Hey, was that you I heard on the radio?  I recognized your voice.  That was great!”

You never can know the full impact of such positive words and affirmation.  It just might be enough to change someone’s life!