“Put a nickel in the drum, save another drunken bum!”

poverty isnotasin“Put a nickel in the drum, save another drunken bum!
Put a nickel in the drum and you’ll be saved!”

When I was a youth, this old Salvation Army song was used as a drinking song. But the sentiment of the song and the evangelical theology it represents has infected our culture in a pernicious way. It is to the point now that people who are poor are seen as somehow morally defective. It seems a large part of the population, including many, if not most church-goers in America equate poverty and homelessness with drug and alcohol addiction, sloth, immorality, lasciviousness and general lack of faith. I got asked again, last Thursday, if we have seen much results of people coming to faith through this ministry through the years. My answer did not make the youth leader happy. I said, “I am not here to save them. I am here to save me. These people are not rats. The food is not bait. Just because they are poor does not mean that they need saving. When someone thanks me for serving or asks why I do what I do, I tell them, ‘I am here because Jesus loves you and He compels me to be here.’ And some have learned to thank God for us.”

We have never coerced people to sit through a sermon in order to receive a meal. I find that degrading, humiliating and contrary to the Gospel. The Gospel is to be without price, never by coercion. So, if we were ever going to preach, it would be after the meal to whoever would want to freely stay and listen. And we have on occasion shared stories of the Saints and of Jesus’ ministry and message.

People have assumptions about homeless people that are not based in reality. The most common is that a majority of them are addicts and that is why they are homeless. That is false on two counts. Addiction rates are the same among people becoming homeless as they are among the general population. The rate doubles after a year of homelessness. So homelessness is more a cause of addiction than a result of it.

The most common cause of homelessness is a health problem or hospitalization that causes one to be unable to pay the rent or the mortgage. Medical debt also ruins one’s credit rating, so one cannot rent anywhere else and disqualifies one for many types of employment. Once a person is homeless, it is very difficult to break out of it. Most employers will not hire anyone who does not have a permanent residence. The social service industry prides itself on its placement rate, but, at the same time, does not want to go out of business, so the hoops seem endless and there is no incentive for them to short circuit the process so people do not become homeless in the first place. One has to fall through the “safety net” that isn’t there before one can be helped, losing all one’s possessions, memorabilia, etc. This process takes years, and forces a lifetime dependency on the social service industry; good for the industry, bad for the people.

Poverty is not a sin. “And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: ‘Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.’ ” [Luke 6:20]

Wealth on the other hand. … “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.” [James 5:1-6]

People who know me well will find this hard to believe. I do more listening than speaking among the homeless. Perhaps it is because there is an easiness there. They really do save me, by their presence and by their prayers.

I should be working among them full time, but soon I may not be doing anything but living among them. The business has failed. We need $600 today just to pay July’s health insurance. If we don’t, we will end up owing even more. Two months’ mortgage due, utilities, etc. Apparently, what I do is not worth my space in the world in this economy. This ministry will die without meaningful support. I should not have subsidized it for as long as I did, I guess. But I only see death as an alternative.


* thanks to Jennifer Barefoot McCoy for the photo

Our Holiday Picnic

On the 4th of July, we worked our plan. Bethann and I made four loaves of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on whole wheat bread, for a total of 38 sandwiches. One of the Kaminsky’s delivered several loaves of bologna and beef bologna sandwiches to our house. Lydia brought over about a dozen hearty, veggie sandwiches on wonderful bread. I assembled on the kitchen table. Bethann assembled on the dining room table / desk. First we wrote on the lunch bag what type of sandwich was going in. Then it was a pint bottle of cold water, an orange, a hard boiled egg, a box of Cracker Jacks, or a snack cracker pack, and the sandwich! The bags had been decorated the night before by our granddaughters and Bethann when she was visiting them while their folks were out. As we finished a case of water, I would go down to Uncle John’s and get another case out of our freezer and bring it up. We packed 140 dinners.

We placed these into two large cardboard cases, one large Ikea bag, and several reusable grocery bags. We loaded these into the TKJ-mobile along with a folding luggage cart and bungie cords to carry the two large boxes. We also had a large bag of very ripe bananas. Uncle John, Steve and I, dashed down to the Lansdale train station. I parked in the taxi stand for a minute while we unloaded all the boxes and bags. Then I parked the car and ran back up to the station. Good thing Steve was along. He recruited some of the young people to help us carry all these bags onto the train. We had to run down to the far end to find space and split up. Four young people helped carry on bags. I ended up sitting in those benches that face each other right by the door. The kids came in the door, dropped the bags and then went into the next car to find seats. I was nearly buried with packed dinners. John and Steve were in the next car. And we started our hour long, crowded, noisy train ride into center city.

Now, at the same time we were doing this from the northwest, in Souderton, the McGraws had been working on preparing and transporting 30 dinners from Glenmoore to the southwest of the city. The train that Philip and Esther were to catch was cancelled. So they caught the next one, a half hour later. It was so crowded, no one bothered to collect fares. They phoned me while I was on the train to tell me they were going to be late. No worries.

My Sunglasses I made these myself
My Sunglasses
I made these myself.

Now we had to recruit crew to help us off the train when we got to Suburban Station. There was no way humanly possible to get all of these bags off in the allotted time. I was at the front of the car, facing backwards, and wearing my sunglasses, so my task was easy. There was a group of young adults heading down to the festivities, crowded into the seats in front of me. I asked them if they could help me unload. One of the girls said she couldn’t, but the guys would be glad to. They asked me what I was doing. I shared the history of the ministry and how we had sued the city and that I had been serving on the street each week since 1989. One of the men who had been volunteered said, “Wow! That’s when I was born!” They helped us off the train and some others helped John and Steve off their car. Some of them offered to help us carry it to where we were going. We thanked them and assured them that we had it covered from there.

Anthony and Gregory met us at the train and the five of us hauled the 170 dinners through the crowds to the Galusha Pennypacker statue at Logan Circle four and a half blocks away.  It was about 6pm. Anthony and Greg handed out the meals. I hung out and talked with people. John and Steve sat on the shady side of the base of the statue and did what they do every night, “plot to take over the world!” About a half hour later Esther, Philip and Irene showed up with the remaining meals.

Our regular customers were so amazed to see us. They asked us where we parked. There was no parking in the whole area. So we told them we took the train. Then they were truly amazed and grateful. Alex saw a Chinese lady who was suffering from the heat and needed water so was trying to offer her some of our free food and water. She would not accept it for free, but it was obvious she needed it. She was selling these little trinkets, so she gave him a couple of those in exchange. Everyone was happy!

We gave away the food. Then we took the train back toward home and drove the rest of the way. We saw some fireworks as we were arriving home. It was an exhausting day. It was an intense day. This was the first time I have ever been in Philadelphia on the 4th of July and I didn’t even stay for the fireworks. I still don’t know of a better way to do the 4th of July.

Thank you to all who helped and participated to make it possible. It would not have been doable, had it not been for the Almsgiving Flash Cash Mob on Facebook the weekend before, since the water and the bags and the snacks and the trainfare and the sandwich ingredients were more than we usually spend, and we were down to nothing. God bless you all!

Special Delivery

On Sunday, I delivered our last Operation: Clean Start kit to a man who recently moved off of the street into an apartment. I had brought one down for him on Thursday, but I was unaware that another man was going to meet me to receive his. We had delivered a kitchen set and several other pieces of furniture a couple of weeks earlier to the man who showed up unexpected for a Clean Start Kit. We had failed to deliver it then because we had so many missed cues that when we finally made the delivery we failed to grab the kit. We were going to deliver a leatherette couch and loveseat to him as well, but the stairwell to his apartment was too narrow, so Anthony found someone else who needed them and he and Uncle John got them to him.

At any rate, Carter needed a ride into Phila. to play bass at his church in Northern Liberties. I know some of the people who go there from the coalition of those serving on the street. I did not see any of them there. I endured the performance / service. Then Carter and I delivered the Clean Start Kit in center city to Howard. He was very grateful. Another man saw it and put in his request. He is due to move into his apartment in two weeks. So we need more Clean Start Kits. Anthony just called me while I was writing this to tell me that another fellow just moved off the street and needs living room furniture. Howard could use a microwave. So, if you can help us out with any of these, it would be greatly appreciated. We will figure out how to pick it up and deliver it. It’s what we do.

May God bless you.

“If the salt has lost its flavor …”

“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion–its message becomes meaningless.” ― Abraham Joshua Heschel
May I add a hearty Yea and Amen!

Apostolic Economics

Nothing is ours. When we give, it is not ours to give, so there is no obligation of gratitude expected. When we lend, it is not ours, there is no repayment expected. It is all God’s. We can earn nothing except God gives us breath.
Just give thanks that you can give rather than have to receive.


“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” – Acts 2:44-45


“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” – Acts 4:32


“Do not turn away from him who is in want; rather, share all things with your brother, and do not say that they are your own. For if you are partakers in that which is immortal, how much more in things which are mortal?” — The Didache, chapter 4


“Thou shalt communicate in all things with thy neighbour; thou shalt not call things thine own; for if ye are partakers in common of things which are incorruptible, how much more [should you be] of those things which are corruptible!” — The Epistle of Barnabas, chapter XIX

The Training of Men

usps92sta034Now the training of men is a difficult and intricate task. Its technique is a matter for educational experts, but its object is for the vision of seers. If we make money the object of man-training, we shall develop money-makers but not necessarily men; if we make technical skill the object of education, we may possess artisans but not, in nature, men. Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools—intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it—this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life. On this foundation we may build bread winning, skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life. . . .And so we come to the present—a day of cowardice and vacillation, of strident wide-voiced wrong and faint hearted compromise; of double-faced dallying with Truth and Right.
– W.E.B. DuBois

Mae & Freeman

"Freeman" Joseph Coulter displaying WWI booty in 1949
“Freeman” Joseph Coulter
displaying WWI booty in 1949

I know it was called the Great Depression, but from all the stories I heard about that time when I was growing up, it sounded like it was the happiest time this country ever experienced. Sure, money was tight. Jobs were scarce. But people looked out for each other. They worked together. People tolerated more quirkiness and took in people who were not their relatives as if they were, just because they were fellow human beings. “Whose brother was Uncle Wynne?” No one could quite make the connection. It didn’t matter. He was family now.

My dad grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. His parents were Mae Wise Coulter and Joseph Coulter. Except no one ever called my grandfather Joseph. They always called him Freeman or just “Free”. You see, he was an atheist, who in those days liked to style themselves as “free thinkers”, so he took the moniker “Freeman.” Mae was a devout, Holiness Methodist. Freeman owned his own service station and worked on cars. He loved his work. He was good at it. My uncle Howard raced at Daytona Beach and Bonneville and my dad, Charlie, was in his pit crew, when he was just 13 or 14. That would be about 1938. Of course, Howard paid his way to those races. He was 11 years older than my dad. But I digress.

All during the Depression, Freeman and Mae were, at any given time, supporting four to six other households in one way or another. If Free was aware of it, he never let on. He worked long hours. He was happy if he had clean clothes and hearty meals, good scotch on the weekends and some cheap beer during the week. He had good friends. He let tabs go long at the shop. Sometimes he got paid with vegetables or chickens or plumbing or electrical work. It all worked out. He handled the books at the shop and gave Mae the profits. Mae handled the household finances. Mae always had a large garden. She was always cooking and baking, and canning. She would send one or more of her four children with packages of meals, fresh produce, canned veggies or fruit and envelopes of money to various neighbors, after school, before their dad came home for dinner. The children all wore handmade clothes or hand-me-downs. She made her own clothes, nothing fancy, always floral, but not too many. She kept weekday shoes and Sunday shoes. Occasionally Free would ask her why they couldn’t get something nicer for the house or some nicer clothes. She would just say, “Times are tough. We need to watch what we spend.” And that was the end of it.

All four of Mae and Freeman’s children grew up to be hard working members of society. They all carried with them those lessons and memories and I heard them tell various stories, each one of them, with smiles and tears, of the quiet generosity, through the Great Depression. This is not unique to my family. I have interviewed many folks born between 1880 and 1920, and their stories are much alike.

Back then, people recognized themselves in any other human being. I know that is what my dad took away from the experience and what he drilled into his four kids. I met Vice-Presidents and plumbers, bishops and florists, and was told, “Don’t sweat it. Everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time. People are people.” There is even a social theory that says that the Great Depression was the great equalizer that laid the groundwork in the national psyche for the civil rights movement. It seems to be slipping away. I hope we haven’t lost that.

I never met my Grandpa Coulter, though I am named for him. My middle name is Joseph. He died of his first heart attack in 1953. Mae passed away at age 82 in 1972.

So my dad synthesized both his parents’ positions, his dad’s ‘freethinking’ atheism and the quiet, practical generosity of his mother. Whenever he saw a need, if he had the means to meet it, he met it. A general appeal letter came from an old family friend’s daughter and son-in-law who were serving with Wickliffe Bible Translators as medical missionaries in Peru. They had transferred all of their money into the Peruvian currency for the year. Then there was hyperinflation, so it was not going to last. They needed X thousands dollars to make up the shortfall. Charlie acted as if the letter was to him alone. These are family. She helped pull my first loose tooth when she babysat me. He wired the whole amount that day. One example. I could only give you a half dozen. I only know the ones that he was careless about laying around or that people told me about later.

So when the Pope talked about atheists possibly going to heaven according to Matthew 25, and the cardinals got all nervous and had to walk it back or somehow make that not covered by papal infallibility, because we wouldn’t want to not be able to hold hell over atheists heads, instead of just letting them be surprised by grace, I think Jesus wept.

Don’t get me wrong. My dad was an ornery cuss and impossible to live with. We got along like oil and water. He probably had the same congenital brain defect that I have that is making me tend to the ornery side. But his example and his stories are responsible for a lot of who I am today. So for Mae & Joseph and Charles: may their memory be eternal!

May we each recognize the humanity and the image of God in each person we encounter.

Sundaes on Thursday

On Thursday, June 27, it was Holy Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church’s night to serve on the street. They decided to bring ice cream sundaes with all the toppings for dessert along with the meal. They always do a bang up job. This was no exception. It was pouring rain when they set up and as they began to serve. I was put to work holding an umbrella to keep the soup from becoming diluted per Fr. Christos’s orders. The rain soon stopped and the ice cream came out: a huge container each of vanilla and chocolate. There was a case of Reddi-Whip, tubs of Maraschino cherries, chocolate and colored jimmies, chocolate and other syrups. Everyone got firsts. Many got seconds and more!

The volunteers were joyfully serving. Billy seemed to be even happier than usual as he piled on the whipped cream and topped it off with a cherry. It was a joy to witness. Once the ice cream was gone, I cheated and enjoyed a bowlful of whipped cream with chocolate jimmies.

Amazingly, there is an attitude that has taken hold in this age that would take offense at what we did. It goes something like this: ‘Why should we give people who don’t work nice things with our hard earned money? How will they learn to go out and get a job and better themselves?’

There are several flaws in that attitude. The first is that God told us to give  to everyone in need. He told us to give until there is equality: “If you have two coats, give to him that has none.” “Our desire is that … there may be equality.” (2 Cor. 8:13) Jesus did not put any conditions of judging worthiness of alms recipients. In fact, we are repeatedly told to not judge.

The second flaw is that we could earn nothing except by the grace of God and the gifts He had given us and the accidents of race and friendships, geography, health, healthcare, etc.

The third flaw is that even after we have “earned” it, the money is not ours. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof.” (Ps.24:1) God is not a respecter of persons. So to share a little bit of summer joy with some of God’s children who are down on their luck or who have lost their way or however you want to put it, is well within the Father’s will.

The fourth flaw is that most of these people could not even buy a job with a living wage. Many of those we serve do work and work hard, but wages have not kept up with the cost of living, especially of food costs in the city. Many are older or veterans with PTSD and no employers want to be bothered. Many worked hard at jobs that have now been moved to China. No one will hire someone without an address.

We just try to bring a little brightness and joy in Jesus’ Name. How can this be a bad thing? It is the tender mercies of God that lead men to repentance. Soften our hearts, Lord.

Serving the Homeless – an Acrostic by Jack Karpinski & Hilary Coulter

Serving the Homeless is not a crime.
Endeavoring to own more than a dime
Rescue me from eating a sour lime
Vexed by mayors greed and grime
Imprisoning our souls forever in the city’s pine
Nothing in this world is mine
Gracefully accepting time.

Thank you for choosing to understand
Humbly I accept offerings in my hand
Even I deserve pride in this land

Home is more often than not a grate or a box.
Often the powers say the feeding must stop.
My God says take care of the least of these.
Everyone deserves to not be on their knees.
Let those who can reach out and help me stand.
Even the richest can become the homeless brand.
Service, big or small, is really serving yourself.
Squashing homelessness is the only real wealth.