Oley Valley Mennonite Church summed it up pretty well in a blog they wrote following Phoenix2013, “We mean well, but we can be pretty stupid.”
Like many people who stayed at the Sheraton hotel, the group from Oley Valley noticed the food some well-meaning group sat out for the homeless.
The blogger made the following observations:
“Perhaps when we seek to be inclusive, we actually demonstrate tokenism.
Perhaps when we seek to combat injustice, we alienate potential allies.
Perhaps when we seek to live charitably, we actually perpetuate economic disparity.
Mennonites are well-meaning, sincere people seeking to live like Jesus and follow the way of the cross. But as we stumble along the way, we would be well-served to walk slowly, gingerly, patiently, always seeking to listen and respond to those most directly impacted by our actions.”
How we engage the homeless at our national convention is always a complicated and sensitive topic. How do we show the love of Christ and help those in need while ensuring the safety and security of our participants? In the past some groups have invited homeless people to worship with them with mixed results. I say mixed results because these groups do not inform the convention planning staff and they often do not maintain contact with their guests. This means that the local security officers often try to remove the person from the premises, leading to embarrassment and confusion. Also many cities, including Kansas City have vagrancy laws which the convention planning staff have no control over. Right or wrong, Kansas City seeks to keep the homeless from tourist areas and out of places like the Kansas City Convention Center (KCCC). So our random acts of kindness can have a negative impact on the very people we seek to help.
The convention planning staff has made contact with local ministries that provide long-term support to the homeless. Our groups will only be around a short-time. The homeless in Kansas will remain long after our generosity returns to our home congregations. Here are a list of suggestions for those wishing to engage the homeless meaningful ways.
- Start in your home community. Before launching out to help the homeless in Kansas City, start with showing love and compassion to the neighbors who you can minister to on an ongoing basis. The first time you feed a homeless person or invite them to worship shouldn’t be at the biennial convention.
- Partner with a local homeless shelter. Kansas City Rescue Mission is a great place to start. This ministry has been helping the homeless since 1950. They have a list of immediate needs on their website. This organization provides over 85,000 meals and 43,000 nights of shelter a year.
- Know your guest. Before deciding to invite someone to a convention gathering ask yourself two questions: Would I invite them home with my family? Would I invite them to church with me? You should be able to yes to one it not both questions. Studies suggest that 20-25% of homeless people in the United States suffer from mental illness. Also abused women and children also make up a large portion of the homeless community. One last question you should ask yourself: By inviting a homeless person to worship are you meeting their needs or satisfying yours?
- Register your guest with the convention planning office. We have many youth and children who attend convention and are trusted to our care. It is important that we know who is in the building and provide as much safety as possible.
- Remain with you guests. First, it is rude to invite a person to worship and then abandon them. Second, you are responsible for anyone you invite to convention.
While I specifically referred to homeless people in this article, the tips apply to any person that you invite to our Mennonite Church USA convention. Our seminars, worship services, and business sessions are geared toward members of Mennonite Church USA. We do have a number of public events and activities that may be well suited to guests and non-Mennonites. You will have to use your best judgement to know what would benefit your guests the most.
We welcome hospitality and the opportunity to engage new people, but true hospitality begins at home.