Tent City 4

Brad M. Griffin | Aug 27, 2014

When I saw this recent post by our former FYI team member Cody Charland, I thought, This is a story our friends need to hear.

Today marked the end of a 90-day stay at my church for a homeless camp, Tent City 4. Their time went by with 0 incidents and many blessings.

It seems so long ago that we were fighting just to host the camp. I didn't share the same concerns many of our neighbors did, as I don't have property values, children, or that specific fear of the unknown. I'm thankfully oblivious to much.

But I was terrified of one thing.

What is church for if we ignore our neighbor?

I learned through this experience that we can't keep singing, preaching, and meeting together if we don't get our hands dirty and follow through on loving God and neighbor. It's vanity otherwise. I think our faith community needed this experience as bad as the camp needed a place to stay.

While this isn't that ocean front view I've dreamed of... My office window had front-row seats to the camp. It reminded me daily that good fences don't make good neighbors. Good neighbors make good neighbors.

I got on the phone with Cody to understand a bit more of the backstory and what they learned through the experience.

Cody’s church is in Issaquah, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. Churches fill the gap in homeless services around the city by hosting semi-permanent camps, called “tent cities.” Their church was approached about hosting one of these camps. Initially there was significant pushback from neighbors and from some church members. There’s a preschool connected to the church, which created all kinds of understandable concerns. But ultimately the church voted to do it. Some families did actually leave the church and preschool as a result, causing a financial hit for both.

I probed a bit more, and here’s what Cody shared about the experience:

How does it work?

An external group coordinates the homeless camp and creates the structure for the process. County and local governments require that a camp in any particular location can only extend for ninety days. That means most tent cities have to move every three months to new locations around the city.

Background checks are done before residents can enter the camp. Residents have to be over age 18 and have to provide proper identification. Sometimes local police bring potential residents by to see if the tent city can be a viable alternative for life on the streets or in limited shelters. Many tent city residents work or attempt to work jobs, and the tent city provides a safe place for them to live and keep their belongings while they are at work.

The tent city set up in our parking lot, and we let them use our church building for eating and to keep dry during the heavy spring rains. They have a trailer on site to use as a shower facility.

What was safety like?

Our camp was previously at a local Catholic parish. The last week of their term, a few residents were arrested (and immediately kicked out of the camp) for drugs. This raised all kinds of concerns about safety at our church. We set up a schedule of church volunteers who patrolled during school hours, and put up a fence around the preschool playground. We didn’t have any safety or drug incidents during our term. The only time we heard from the police was when they asked us why the camp was so quiet.

How did your church respond? Did they engage the residents?

Surprisingly, people responded wholeheartedly once the camp was here. There are a lot of retirees in our congregation, and many of them were leaders in their professional careers. They gave a ton of time and resources to this. The church rallied to bring in job coaches, barbers and hair stylists, and other folks who could help residents prepare for and seek out employment.

When it came to Sundays, some of the residents attended worship. The congregation did a great job of reaching out and welcoming them as guests. But none of the residents were invited to pray, read scripture, or help lead the service in any way, which was really disappointing.

In retrospect, our congregation as a whole was probably theologically unprepared to serve this group. When asked why we were hosting the camp, often we responded with a vague answer, like “they needed a place to say” or “we’re supposed to do this.” I wish we had been able to talk as a congregation about how our faith compels us to live out care for the poor and oppressed. According to Jesus, we are feeding him when we feed these brothers and sisters.

What about response from the youth ministry?

Our group responds well to things that are scheduled ahead of time. So in advance we scheduled three times we would intentionally cook and share dinner with the residents while we were hosting the tent city. These went really well, and students jumped right in.

Would you do it again?

Absolutely! We would have kept them longer if their permit hadn’t expired. Our church was really beginning to rally around this community and support them.

Perhaps what’s most surprising is that it was surprising to people that a church would do this. Sometimes I get tired of talking about Jesus and just want to do something that is Jesus. The things we talk, sing, and pray about take on new life when we back them up with our actions.

Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content for the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based training for youth workers and parents. A speaker, writer, and volunteer youth pastor, Brad is the coauthor of over a dozen books, including 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Faith in an Anxious World, Growing Young, several Sticky Faith books, Every Parent’s Guide to Navigating Our Digital World, and Can I Ask That? Brad and his family live in Southern California, where he serves as Pastor of Youth and Family Ministries at Mountainside Communion.

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