--Jim Butcher, “Turn Coat”
Some days…these days? They are strange days. At least for me.
This past weekend I and group of folks from the church I serve drove twenty five miles into Boston to serve dinner at the Pine Street Inn, the largest homeless shelter in the city. On a sticky and sultry spring evening we dished out plates of rice, beans and chili to 225 people, as they made their way through the bread line. Living in the suburbs it’s not very hard for me to forget about the thousands of poor in our state, like those hungry men we fed. They can seem invisible, someone else’s problem, mere statistics, or perhaps worst of all, an accepted norm in the rough and tumble world of economics.
Jesus did say that the poor will always be with us, right?
Yet here’s the strange thing. As we made our way to the Pine Street Inn, we drove by so many high rise luxury apartment buildings under construction, their cranes dotting the city skyline. Boston is undergoing an unprecedented building boom in elite housing. In the next three years 8,000 luxury rental units will go on the market. Those who can afford to pay will have the privilege of calling the Hub their home. How costly?
According to a recent Boston Globe story, “At Avalon Exeter, a tower rising in the Back Bay, one-bedroom units with 800 square feet start at $4,000 a month….A Street in South Boston, slightly smaller apartments…$3,700….Allston [at] the Green District…$2,100 a month….Kensington, a 381-unit apartment tower on Washington Street in downtown Boston…a 578-square-foot one bedroom…$2,700 a month.”
Wow. For a one bedroom abode. Is it just me or does that seem like an awful lot of money? The rule for housing expenses is that your are only supposed to spend 1/3 of your salary on shelter so to make the rent you’d have to be pulling down something like $144,000 a year for the Avalon or $75,000 for that Allston efficiency. All this while rents in Massachusetts are the sixth highest in the United States. Forty-one hundred Bay State families live in shelters or motels every single night. Section 8 housing, which helps poor and working folks pay the rent, has a waiting list of 95,000 Bay State folks.
Then my time in the city last Sunday night got even stranger. As I was serving supper, I looked up at one of the Pine Street Inn guests and came face to face with someone that I know, a funny and smart and sensitive young man. We exchanged smiles and small talk, and then he took his tray and made his way to a table at the back of the vast dining room. I’ve no idea how he ended up there. I didn’t ask. He didn’t say. I hope the meal was good. I wonder where he slept that evening. I worry about where he might be today. At the Boston Common, on a bench. In Harvard Square, hanging out by the “T”. At another city soup kitchen.
To believe in a God of mercy is both a gift for the comfort it brings, and a challenge for the comfort it asks us to give others. God always declares that no matter where we live, in a comfy suburb or on a mean urban street, we cannot turn away from those in need, like my friend. It is always tempting, normative even, to get so caught up in our life dramas, that we forget the world’s forgotten. I’m as guilty of that as anyone.
Yet there “they” are. What will I do to see them? Serve them? Help them? Oh, and that infamous quote about “the poor always being with us”, by Jesus? The full saying actually comes from the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy. “For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother [and sister], to the needy and to the poor, in the land.”