On June 1, I started an 11-week journey of CPE. CPE stands for Clinical Pastoral Education. From the ACPE website:
“Clinical Pastoral Education is interfaith professional education for ministry. It brings theological students and ministers of all faiths (pastors, priests, rabbis, imams and others) into supervised encounter with persons in crisis. Out of an intense involvement with persons in need, and the feedback from peers and teachers, students develop new awareness of themselves as persons and of the needs of those to whom they minister. From theological reflection on specific human situations, they gain a new understanding of ministry. Within the interdisciplinary team process of helping persons, they develop skills in interpersonal and interprofessional relationships.”
This summer, I’m doing my CPE with the Training and Christian Counseling Center at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. There are six of us, and we each serve in various placements in downtown Atlanta. I’m serving with Central Presbyterian’s Outreach and Advocacy Center. Central works in partnership with individuals and families to assist and advocate with them to avoid or overcome homelessness. In fact, most of the guests we serve on a daily basis are currently experiencing homelessness, or are just one step away from having nowhere else to go but the streets.
Much of what we do involves helping people obtain some kind of identification. Atlanta has a relatively poor track record when it comes to working with individuals experiencing homelessness. In preparation for the 1996 Olympic Games, the City of Atlanta passed a law which made it illegal not to have a government-issued ID. Many people who live on the streets don’t have a state-issued ID, or a birth certificate or social security card. For many of our guests, those things were stolen from them. For others, they had to leave them behind because they were fleeing a dangerous situation, like domestic violence. Others were kicked out of their homes as teenagers, without any documentation proving who they are. Still others, suffering from undiagnosed or untreated mental illness, simply can’t keep up with the things they have.
So, many people who have no where else to go end up in jail or prison because of a violation of this law. To add insult to injury, the state of Georgia confiscates your ID when you’re incarcerated, and they don’t give it back. So, when you get released, you’re potentially back on the streets, without ID, and therefore without the ability to get a job or find housing. And you have to start the process all over again.
Day in and day out, the staff and volunteers at Central tirelessly work to restore hope and dignity to those who are ignored, mistreated, or worse. There’s a surprising amount of laughter when we’re meeting with a guest. There’s also a less-surprising amount of sadness. My heart breaks, over and over, for these children of God who have nowhere else to turn.
The most frustrating thing about the work that I’m doing is that Central Presbyterian is directly across from the front steps of the Georgia Capitol, and very close to Atlanta City Hall. The work that we do at Central, and places like it, will never end until the people with the power to do something for the least of these actually do something. Much of what’s legislated in Georgia is for the benefit of those already wealthy and powerful. Many of our guests sleep right outside of our gates, in the shadow of the gold-plated dome.
I’ve been reading through the lectionary this summer, and I was struck by a pair of the readings last week. The Old Testament reading was Deuteronomy 16:18-20. It reads:
“You shall appoint judges and officials throughout your tribes, in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall render just decisions for the people. You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eye of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”
It was coupled with the Gospel reading – Luke 18:1-8:
“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me down by continually coming.” And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will God not grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?'”
Well? Will he? Nothing has made me wonder that more than these past two weeks. What is God’s justice? Whatever definition we may find, the for-profit prison system isn’t a part of it. Illegally detaining people isn’t a part of it. Forcing the most vulnerable among us to jump through a thousand hoops while simultaneously demanding and expecting that they be working and “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps” isn’t a part of it. Institutional and systemic racism isn’t a part of it.
This is what we face, as people of God. A world that wants us to believe that there’s such a thing as valueless and disposable people, cogs in the machine. That’s in direct opposition to the biblical narrative of redemption, of grace, of God’s love for the world and each individual who is a part of God’s creation.
And so, we demand justice from our leaders, crying out day and night until they, too, are worn down like the unjust judge. So that, when the Son of Man comes, he will indeed find faith on earth.