The Gospel on the Parkway
Will O'Brien from Project HOME's Education and Advocacy Department, was present at the two-day hearing on the City's ban on outdoor food distribution to persons who are homeless. He offers these reflections from the hearing.
It was practically a church service inside Courtroom 14-B at the Federal Building in Center City this week.
U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn Jr., probably hadn’t anticipated two days of Scripture passages and mini-sermons, but after all, this was a case about religion.
Or more specifically, the constitutional right to free practice of religion. Four faith-based organizations were suing the City of Philadelphia for its new policy of banning food service through all of Fairmount Park, a policy clearly directed at the presence of persons who are homeless on the streets along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. These groups – Chosen 300 Ministries, the Welcome Church, the King's Jubilee, and Philly Restart – are arguing that the sharing of food is not just feeding the body, but feeding the soul: They claim that essential to their presence on the streets is building community with those who are hungry, homeless, and poor – many used the phrase “our congregation” – and sharing and living out the Gospel.
All four ministers spoke with eloquence and passion about their ministry, often citing such Gospel texts as Matthew 25, Jesus saying, “I was hungry and you fed me,…” Rev. Brian Jenkins spoke of “going out into the highways and hedges” to bring the Gospel, and recounted his experience of God calling him to that very spot along the Parkway where his ministry meets to share food and prayer with the men and women out there. “No way will I stop – I will die for these people!”
Cranford Coulter of The King’s Jubilee spoke of how the ban was personally painful to him because “these people are my heart.” Echoing his fellow servants, he spoke of seeing Christ in the men and women he had come to know on the Parkway.
Adam Bruckner of Restart spoke about the spiritual journey that led him to relationships with folks on the streets, and how he came to see in them the humanity we all share. His core assertion also came from the mouth of Jesus: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Rev. Violet Little of The Welcome Church, which is an officially recognized “church without walls” by the Lutheran diocese, also noted that by having the meals outside in a public space, it shows the public the face of poverty and homelessness in this city.
While Project HOME is not a plaintiff in the suit, we have been following the issue carefully. And our Executive Director Sister Mary Scullion was asked by the plaintiffs' lawyer Paull Messing of the ACLU to be an “expert witness.” She told the court, in two separate appearances on the stand during the two-day hearing, that at the moment, the City does not have adequate resources to meet either the hunger needs or broader needs of the men and women on the streets. She pointed to the looming state cuts – elimination of the General Assistance program for over 30,000 Philadelphians plus a $21 million cut to the City for behavioral health programs, including outreach.
Consequently, she argued, to enforce the ban right now “would have a devastating impact on the men and women on the streets.” She also told the judge that the ban on feeding fits into a larger pattern of cities around the country passing municipal laws and regulations targeting the homeless population.
Project HOME is not a religious organization, though many of our community members are deeply motivated by our faith. And we root our work in what we call “the spiritual conviction of the dignity of each person” and the centrality of relationships and community as the glue that binds all our work together. So we appreciate and understand what these persons of faith are saying: The meals they share with the men and women on the Parkway do meet vital nutrition needs for those who are without sustenance; but just as importantly, they are nurturing human community and affirming the dignity of all those who gather – the servers and the served. They are proclaiming hope and bearing a light of a just community. We honor their work, and we are nourished by their passion and commitment.
The hearing will conclude on Thursday morning when the Judge hears final arguments from both sides. It is unclear whether he will then rule from the bench, or if he will issue a ruling later. Based on the outcome, we will meet with our allies, including the plaintiffs in this suit and other organizations providing meals to those on the streets, to consider our strategy.
Keep posted to Project HOME’s Facebook page or Twitter accounts for updates.