City of Brotherly Shove
One of my favorite passages is where Jesus tells us how to throw a party in Luke 14, only he doesn't actually call it a "party." He's talking to a bunch of religious folks, so he calls it a "banquet," but he's talking about a party. He says, "When you give a banquet do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, and you will be blessed." I had never really been to a party like that. All the parties my friends threw, Christian or not, were ones where you invite people who are like you – friends, relatives, rich neighbors, yep. We must have not highlighted that verse. Here's Jesus telling us not to throw parties like that.
A few years ago, I caught a glimpse of this kind of party, although it got us into some trouble. Philadelphia had begun to pass anti-homeless legislation, making it illegal to sleep in the parks, illegal to ask for money, illegal to lie down on the sidewalks (which they chose to implement on Dr. King's Birthday!). Ironically, the hub for many of these laws was Love Park, which is a historic site in Philly known for its skateboarding (which was also made illegal). Love Park was a place where homeless folks hung out. It was visible, safe, and central. Folks knew they could go there to give out food or clothing to folks on the street. It's where we used to go back in college, and there are some nice steam vents that kept people (and some big rats) warm. One of the boldest moves of the city was passing an ordinance that banned all food from the park. It specifically reads, "All persons must cease and desist from distributing food." And they began fining those of us who continued to share food. We started wondering what in the world it meant to love our neighbor as ourselves, when they were being jailed for sleeping and eating. As St. Augustine said, "An unjust law is no law at all." What did it mean to submit to authority and yet uphold God's law of love? Either we had to invite them into our home (which reached capacity), or we wanted to be out with them, in solidarity. So we threw a party in Love Park.
About a hundred of us gathered in Love Park with homeless friends. We worshiped, sang, and prayed. Then we served communion … which was illegal. With clergy and city officials there in support, and police and media surrounding us, we celebrated communion. Most of the police sat back and watched, not daring to arrest anyone, especially during communion. Then we would continue the "breaking of the bread" bringing in the pizzas. It was a love feast, and we then slept out overnight in the park with our homeless friends. We did that week after week, with police watching over us and media standing by. And then one night after the worship, as we slept under the "Love" sign, which we had covered with a big question mark, the police circled the park and came in and arrested all of us there. Not the best wake up call. We were taken to jail in handcuffs. Many of us continued sleeping out over and over and were arrested over and over. Sometimes the police were very sympathetic and agreed that we should not be arrested for sleeping.
A bunch of big-wig lawyers called offering to represent us. We were very thankful and invited them to come and support us, but we decided to be represented by a homeless friend, who might not have fancy lawyers had he been alone. So our buddy, Fonz agreed to be our spokesperson.
As we stood before the judge, I wore a shirt that read: "Jesus was homeless." The judge asked me to step forward, and I did. He read my shirt aloud, and said, "Hmmm. I didn't know that." I said to him, "Yes sir, in the Scriptures Jesus says that 'foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.'" Then the judge paused pensively and said, "You guys might stand a chance." And we did.
As we went before the court, we read all of the Scriptures where Jesus warns the disciples that they will be dragged before courts and jails and they had new meaning. He warned them not to worry about what to say so we didn't. When the time came for us to testify, Fonz stood up in court and said, "Your Honor, we think these laws are wrong." We said "Amen. What he said."
The prosecutor had her stuff together. In court I accidentally called her the persecutor. She was not amused. The District Attorney was not joking around. We faced numerous charges, jail time, thousands of dollars in fines, and hours and hours of community service (imagine that!). The judge said to the court, "What is in question here is not whether or not these folks broke the law, that is quite clear … what is in question is the constitutionality of the laws." The DA shot back, "The Constitutionality of the law is not before this court." And the DA threw her papers on the table. The judge retorted, "The Constitutionality of the law is before every court. Let me remind the court that if it weren't for people who broke the unjust laws, we wouldn't have the freedom that we do have. We'd still have slavery. That's the story of this country from the Boston Tea Party to the Civil Rights movement. These people are not criminals; they are freedom fighters. I find them all not guilty, on every charge." The papers called it a "Revolutionary Court Decision." And the judge asked us for a "Jesus was homeless" t-shirt.