More than enough blankets!

cropped-tkjprofile.jpgI tend to be pretty loosey goosey about planning for food for Thursday nights on the street. I have always felt that whatever God provided was right. Many times I would look at what was in the car and say that it must be going to be a small crowd that night. Other times, the car would be full, and I would know that the crowd would be large. Years ago, my godfather, Alex Smerkanich, of blessed memory, asked me how many sandwiches I needed on an average night. I told him I had no idea. He was very Type A, so he was not at all happy with my answer. He recruited people to sign up to make sandwiches on certain weeks of the month and wanted to know how many loaves he needed to get commitments for. I told him that I had never had to bring any home. His goal was to get me so many sandwiches that I had to bring some home. OK. Within three months, he did that, so he knew his ballpark number. We really don’t know if we have met all the need unless there are leftovers.

We regularly give out blankets. Normally we have to ration them out to whoever asked first for them. The last two weeks we have had a wonderful experience! We were able to just put all the blankets out and let everyone take as many as they wanted or needed. The week before last, I hollered to give away the last one and someone took it to give it to someone who wasn’t there. Last week I took two home. These are beautiful, plush blankets made by the Matushka Olga Sewing Group at St. Philip Orthodox Church, Souderton, PA. God bless you! We also gave away many scarves made from the remnants of the fabric. It was like a free bazaar!

What a blessing!

More Good Press

I was interviewed, photographed, and taped on January 3 by a reporter from the Intelligencer whose editor felt bad about being scooped on the story by the Phila. Inquirer. The Intell finally published the story yesterday, Jan. 16. It was available online free for just one day, then it went up behind a $9.99 annual paywall. I bought three copies, so I think I can share one article online.

Occasionally I say something right to a reporter. This time it actually got through the filter:

“I’m having fun when I’m doing this … This is just me being me. If everyone would just be who they are really supposed to be, everyone would be doing something good and right.”

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To honor Fr. Christos

ChristofidisFather Christos Christofidis is being transferred from Holy Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Elkins Park, PA to Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, Wilmington, DE, the end of this month. For the last few years Fr. Christos & Presvytera Joanna have led a team of cheerful volunteers to serve with us among the homeless. A couple of years ago, they took over providing all of the food for the last week of the month, with Presvy. Joanna doing the lion’s share of the preparation. We thank them for their service and their friendship. They don’t serve out of a do-gooder mentality, but out of a truly human spirit of humility and kindness. As for the food, the golden rule is observed. The guys always look forward to “Greek night.”

In Honor and Love of Father Christos from the Annunciation Bible Study Class, a $100 donation has been made to The King’s Jubilee.

“Lord, please take good care of Daniel.”

As we pulled up at the park at 1801 Vine to serve last night, Sadie was waiting for us. She said, “I have some bad news. Danny passed yesterday morning.”

I asked her how it happened and she told me that he just collapsed and was gone. The rest of the family wouldn’t let her see him until he was on the stretcher to be carried out. She thought they were all playing a game and she pounded his chest, telling Danny to open his eyes now, the joke was over. It was no joke. The reality of Danny’s death still had not sunk in to Sadie as of last night.

Sadie & Daniel have been mentioned three times before on this blog. The last time was in December, because Daniel could not come out on a wet night to receive his St. Nicholas coins just prior to his 38th birthday on December 7th, as he had walking pneumonia. He never recovered from that pneumonia. Sadie took him to the hospital on three occasions, because he was so bad he was coughing up blood and they turned him away, saying he was alright. Now if he had fancier insurance instead of medical assistance, or didn’t have an address in public housing, or were more assertive, or were white instead of mulatto, he may have been treated and he would live to see his grandchildren grow up. But, as I have said before, Daniel and Sadie are some of the sweetest people you would ever want to meet. They have had the worst couple of years imaginable and now this.

Daniel would always ask me how I was doing and really want to know. He wanted to know because he wanted to help in any way he could. He was always quick with cheerful encouragement. He would look up possible resources. He would check up with me to see if I followed through. I found out last night that he organized a circle of prayer intercessors among several of the men on the street. They had heard about Danny and were looking for Sadie and asked how my wife, Bethann was doing, because they remembered her from when Danny put her on their prayer list when she had her pacemaker installed.

Daniel is one of those rare people, unsinkable, in whom there is no guile. As I went to bed last night, I just spontaneously prayed over and over until I went to sleep: “Lord, please take good care of Daniel.”

In the place of thy rest, O Lord, where all thy saints repose, give rest also to the soul of thy servant Daniel, for Thou alone art the Lover of mankind.

I’m no hero.

hatinqThe last couple of weeks has been just a bit crazy. There have been two positive articles in the Phila. Inquirer with photos, three lengthy interviews, three photo shoots, money, phone calls, emails and Thank You cards coming in from all over the world. I just do this to stay alive, folks. I could go into the theology of it again, how God created good works for us to do and us to do them. That may be. “Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief!” I also found out last year that I have a developmental defect in my arterial system that causes me to be more religious. Now that is a paradox for the atheists to ponder. The 30 to 50 little migrainous strokes that I have had on the right side of my brain would only further accentuate this.

My religion is to strive to live in Jesus’ Name. Let me explain that. The Hebrew concept of in someone’s name, does not mean just to say their name repeatedly, like some kind of mantra or prayer ending. It means to do things according to that person’s will and purpose. There are a lot of people who say “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!” who are just using his name in vain, as they oppress the poor and extol earthly riches as a sign of heavenly blessing. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor” and proclaimed curses on the rich and powerful. So serving the poor in Jesus’ Name, means to treat them with dignity and respect, not to condescend and preach at them. It is never “us and them.” It is always only us.

We help serve one hot meal in the week and give the people another to take away for the next day. We give out clothes, blankets and toiletries. We help some when they move off the street. This does not make me a hero. This is a drop in the bucket. We want to do so much more. We want to find a solution. There is no good reason we should have homeless people on our streets! There are 6 vacant houses for every homeless person in this country. That means that we have structured our economy in a stupid way. We have divided tasks unjustly. We have divided wealth unjustly. There are just no two ways about it. Our society is broken. I am driven to push for a way to fix it. I can’t help myself. It’s the way my brain is broken.

I am not absolutely certain of much. These things I know:

  • Jesus loves me.
  • My wife and my daughters love me.
  • I need to serve the poor and homeless in Philadelphia.
  • I have some very good friends who tolerate my bad behavior.

If you want to help us continue to help the poor and homeless out of our own brokenness, in Jesus’ Name, consider making a monthly donation.

What’s this strange feeling?

It is our 25th year as a ministry, and this is the first year I did not put out a Christmas newsletter for The King’s Jubilee. On Dec. 20, I actually started a draft of a blog entry entitled: The Economic Rationale for Dying Now. It just seemed according to all of the economic indicators, what I do was not valued, and the fact that I had worked was no longer valued according to the GOP Congress and the GOP state legislature and governor. I am not employable in a normal job, due to the pain in my spine. I have bad days and worse days. Social Security turned me down. Their callous policy is to routinely do that to everyone the first time and make them wait a year and a half. (just long enough for them to lose their homes) I still have a valid life insurance policy that would pay off the house, so according to pure economics, society was telling me my family was better off with me dead. On top of that, I have felt so much condemnation, rage and hate coming from priests. On one side, there are public service announcements to stand up to bullies; on the other, I am supposed to be quiet about a bully priest. Sorry, too many good priests have told me that Christianity accepts good psychology. I will not be silent.

On Christmas, the third woman to chide me, Charli Riggle, finally ordered me to start a GoFundMe campaign to save our house from foreclosure, starting the next day. I complied, not expecting much. I set the bar low. $15,000 was the bare minimum to meet back payments and maybe pay all the fines and fees. It wouldn’t really help us on a way forward. Our little almsgiving group had no way of raising that much among ourselves. Charli said, “Just do it, it’ll take less than an hour.”

I wrote it up and it took much less than an hour. She posted it in the Almsgiving Facebook group. Immediately donations started to come in. We were up to 1% in no time. It began to snowball. Then Charli asked me If she could get the press involved. I told her only if they were friendly. I have had bad experiences with the press. The Inquirer printed a great article in last Sunday’s paper with a follow up in Wednesday’s, with pictures. Gofundme, in turn, featured our story and emailed it out to supporters. We not only received donations. A very strange thing happened. We have been receiving Thank You notes with checks enclosed. I am going to say that again with emphasis.

We have been receiving Thank You notes with checks enclosed.

A complete stranger from Australia sent us $500 and a thank you. Complete strangers from Philadelphia have sent us $500 in Thank You notes! Some people have sent $10 in a Thank You note promising to pray for us. Project: HOME sent a beautiful card hand signed by Sr. Mary Scullion and the staff to accompany a donation. We have received encouragement, blessings and donations from all over the world, it seems.

So this is what it feels like to be appreciated. I am not used to this strange feeling. But I like it. I would like a chance to get used to this. Thank you all! GOD BLESS YOU!

Why do I do this?

Last Thursday, while I was preparing the soup for the street, Claudia Vargas, a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer was sitting across the table from me asking me questions. Her questions, and my meandering answers, forced me to re-examine why I do this ministry. Her article, while very positive, did not expose as deeply as she had delved. I guess she wanted to know if I was the real deal or not before she wrote a sympathetic article. The interview felt more like a visit to a psychologist than a press interview. (I better be careful, or she may send me a bill.)

I shared my stories of having been asked at various churches, “So, how many of the people you feed make professions of faith and end up joining a church?” And my answer: “These people are not rats, and the food we serve is not bait. I am not there to save them. I am there to save me!”

I continued by telling her that that did not make me friends in evangelical churches, who didn’t seem to want to do anything unless it was connected to proselytizing. Just because someone is poor doesn’t mean they need saving. Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20) For the first two years when we were serving over at the Love Park, we didn’t even say a blessing publicly. I felt that we were entering their home. If I were to enter your home as a guest at your table and proceed to stand up and say a prayer in your house, without you asking me to, that would be pretty insulting. So we would bless the food as we made it and before we got out of the car. It wasn’t until one of them asked if they could say a blessing that anything was done publicly on site. Now they expect a blessing and respect that. Now I am one of them, part of the community. Sometimes one of them wants to offer it and that is OK. We have had Muslim blessings and Hindu blessings and Jewish blessings and Evangelical blessings and Catholic blessings and Orthodox blessings and even one Native American blessing. It’s their home. We do it their way.

Claudia followed up by asking, “So you do this to save yourself, to go to heaven?”

I responded, “No. That’s absurd! No one can work to go to heaven. I may still go to hell. I’m still a selfish bastard and an ornery cuss. Ask the people who know me. In the only picture Jesus gives us of the Judgment in Mt. 25, everyone is surprised.  So I can’t decide to do this to earn heaven. … At that day some fighting fundies are probably going to be surprised to see some Muslims enter heaven and they’re going to be standing there saying ‘What the ___!'” Then I told her about the Hindu family that saved Christmas for 20 little children.

I just know that God made everyone to do something good. (I’m going to wax more eloquent than I did in the interview, while I was trying to cut carrots.)

Ephesians 2:8-10. Most people forget about verse 10. When I did the “born again” thing in the Baptist church, they gave me Ephesians 2:8-9 “assurance verses” or “salvation verses” when I made my profession of faith. Well it’s verse 10 that is the real aim of the passage.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.

We were created “for good works, which God prepare beforehand that we should walk in them.” This is what I mean when I say I do this ministry ‘to save me.’ Save doesn’t just refer to the great by and by. It also refers to growing in grace and being in God’s will, and all of the aspects that lead to genuine inner happiness, sanctification, and redemption. I am being saved, that is, I know true joy by doing this service, because this is what God prepared for me to do.

How can I say this with such assurance? Isn’t this just the talk of a crazy man? Let me tell you how I got started. In January of 1989 I laid out a vision for The King’s Jubilee. I shared it with Bethann (my wife), and a few close friends, and we prayed about it and decided to launch in February. I presented this vision to about 150 inmates in the E-Block Bible Study at SCI Graterford, a maximum security state prison, during our 1-1/2 hour Saturday morning session. One of the requirements of our organization is that everyone is involved in some way directly in the ministry. There are no Monday morning quarterbacks on the board. So I asked the men what they thought I should do for my personal involvement in The King’s Jubilee. Now this was a novel experiment and a risky business, to have 150 inmates in a free for all discussion, and ask them to arrive at a consensus. This was not an established block with an ordered hierarchy. This was the intake block to the institution. They were all getting to know one another and the prison. Within five minutes, they came to a universally accepted consensus that I should minister to the homeless in center city Philadelphia. I considered that pretty miraculous. I took that as my Macedonian call and we started in February 1989. I recruited a couple of guys and we went down on Wednesday nights. We took over for a little store-front church who were serving two nights a week. We have never seen a reason to quit. We have been harassed by three different mayors. We have been investigated by under cover police at least three times that I am aware of.

We had to sue the current mayor in federal court to continue to serve, and won. In that court case the mayor’s lawyer asked me about motivation, too. He asked, “What percentage of the people who serve the homeless do it out of a religious conviction?” I was a mess on the stand. I was crying the whole time. I was crying for months after the decree was supposed to go into effect and the hearing was no exception.  I replied, “All of them, according to Jesus. When I read my Bible, He says that ‘If you have done it unto the least of these you have done it unto Me’, so even if they don’t know it, that is their motivation.” The lawyer wasn’t the least bit happy. He asked, “What percentage would you estimate would they say their motivation is religious?” I said, “Now that would be hearsay. I didn’t think hearsay was admissible in a court of law. If you want me to make a wild guess, I can, but that’s what it would be, a wild guess. I don’t think I can do as well as Jesus. About 70% of the organizations are openly religiously based, but I have friends who are religious who work with Food Not Bombs and LAVA and Occupy who are not religious organizations. Their involvement is still religiously based, so it is still only Jesus who can sort it out, I’m afraid.” I was crying and shaking. The mayor’s lawyer was still not very happy and visibly angry.

The other thing that I wanted to make clear is that I am not anything special. I am just doing what I was made to do. I get upset when people make a big fuss, because that generally means that they are excusing themselves from whatever it is that they are supposed to be doing unto God. Now the good works that God made for you may look, and probably will look, completely different than the good works that God made for me to do. Somebody has to take care of the aging horses. We need compassionate doctors. We all should appreciate our hardworking postal workers, especially the cheerful ones who go the extra mile. I have worked at many different jobs to be able to keep doing this. Through the years, I have painted houses, landscaped, done roof inspection, run blue prints, managed an office, made icons, sold security systems, photocopied, drafted roof details, designed home improvements, sold advertising, waxed floors, detailed houses, etc., all to be able to support myself and my family with a flexible enough schedule so that I could do this ministry. Why? It’s what God made for me to do. I am not happy unless I get to do it. And I want to be happy. I am just that selfish!

Good Press

I have always been leery of the press. I usually try to avoid them.  Charli Riggle, who really got the ball rolling to do the 12 Days of Almsgiving for me to start the GoFundMe campaign on the day after Christmas, also got the ball rolling to get an article in the Phila. Inquirer. The reporter, Claudia Vargas, came and watched me prepare soup for two and a half hours, then waited for us in the blowing snow and cold in center city. I wasn’t sure what would impress her out of all that. In the end, it is positive. It is available online at www.philly.com.
Here are jpegs of the article:

 

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