by Ryan Skove
What does it look when churches in a city that are all at different points on the theological, social, and political spectrums come together at city hall in support of affordable housing for our homeless neighbors? It can be described by one word: powerful. This is what occurred on March 13, 2018 in Riverside, California. It was an honor to be a small voice in this critical mass of Jesus followers.
Here’s what led to this moment: city leaders in Riverside, including Mayor Rusty Bailey (who attends Madison Street Church, a BiC church in Riverside), began calling on churches to contribute to the homeless crisis in 2014. This eventually led to interest in a housing first model.The city proposed a plan and began to hold neighborhood workshops to communicate the plan to the public. Having attended multiple workshops, I can attest that there seemed to be much skepticism and opposition. The understanding of reality for most of us Americans is that homeless people deserve their lot. Or there is fear that our community’s will be damaged by an influx of vagrants. This opposition is built from an understanding that homelessness is an urban problem, not something a middle class, mostly suburban city like Riverside must deal with. But the truth is that homelessness is increasing everywhere. Homelessness in Riverside has increased fifty percent since 2016.In fact, women aged 40-61 are the fastest growing homeless population in Riverside.This perspective unequips cities that are primarily suburban to deal with homelessness. That’s what made this night so interesting. Churches, like Madison Street Church along with another BiC church, Crest Community, were encouraged to attend because there was a ton of expected opposition. Turns out there wasn’t any. Twenty-five individuals spoke during public comment, all in support of the housing first plan and this influenced the city council’s decision. Housing first passed unanimously. It truly felt like God was on our side. We had scored a victory. The community of Riverside had said yes to making a change for the better in helping our neighbors without homes.
But this experience caused a small crisis in me. I was taught implicitly that politics and religion don’t mix at the dinner table or if they do, Jesus was clearly partisan. This mindset would have caused the past me to recoil at this story of government and religion intersecting. I think this is primarily because we in the church don’t know how to deal with power. Most of the Christians I know are uncomfortable with power. Perhaps when we speak of power, especially political power, our minds go to our collective religious history, like the Inquisition or the Crusades, or maybe even more recent displays of Christians using their power to influence public policy. I absolutely agree and find myself pushing back vomit when I think of these atrocities done by, and others that are still being done by, the church. This viewpoint of steering clear from power can be seen when we look at Scripture. When we look at the death of Jesus, we see a forsaking of power. Jesus willingly dies at the hands of his enemies. Jesus is shown as choosing powerlessness. One thinks of John the Baptist in John 3:30: “He must become greater; I must become less.” But does Jesus advocate for forsaking all power? Is submission to God an embrace of complete powerlessness? I do not think so. Because power is a constant reality.
There’s a great TED-Ed lesson about being a good civilian and using civic power.This lesson teaches us that power doesn’t have a moral value attached to it. It’s not inherently bad or good, it simply is. Power is also constantly at war. We are always being overpowered or are overpowering. I truly doubt one can forsake power. One can only choose a different route to power. When Jesus dies on the cross he doesn’t forsake power totally. He refuses to accept that the route to power is through violence and coercion, but that God gives power to overcome death through sacrificial love.
In Jesus’ ministry, he functioned in other realms of power involving ideas and numbers. Ideas have the power to change people’s understandings of reality. Numbers have the power to gather likeminded people to legitimize power and are often used when the other forms of power, like violence or wealth, are overpowered. Jesus also empowered. He walked with the power of God at his fingertips but didn’t horde it for himself. He gave the authority to heal the sick and cast out demons to his disciples. The Holy Spirit was poured out onto the church in Acts 2 and empowers every believer to this day. Why would God empower us with His Spirit? Because we are called to conflict with the way the world is today. The conflict is not with power in and of itself. The conflict is how we use the power we are given, and which forms of power Jesus calls us to. We might run for the hills at this understanding of power; I understand that impulse. We need to have deep reflections about the Church’s misuse of power. But power will not go away. It remains the same.
I hope I am not being misinterpreted. I am not advocating a theocracy or that the church’s calling is to amass more political power. What I mean to propose is that the church needs to pick up its lost vocation of being a prophetic voice to the powers that be. We are meant to participate in the realm of ideas and numbers; we are to showcase a new kingdom reality and we are to invite as many people in as possible. Sometimes this means influencing public policy. We are to argue for the needs of the poor and oppressed, even at city hall. I do not believe that this is participating in coercive power. If it is, Jesus did as well. Here’s a final thought: When we choose to not participate in politics it mostly reveals a failing of the church, that we no longer identify with the oppressed. It becomes very easy to ignore injustice if it doesn’t affect you. And that is a sober thought indeed.
Ryan Skove is a pastoral intern at Madison Street Church, in Riverside, CA. He helps to lead Sunday mornings with worship and preaching. He is also taking theology courses online through Spurgeon’s College. Ryan has a passion for following Jesus, songwriting and helping our neighbors without homes.
Housing First is a model that begins first with attempting to house homeless individuals in permanent, supportive housing. You can find more information here: https://endhomelessness.org/resource/housing-first/