Sermon preached by Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Easter 6, May 20, 2001, dedicated to the honor of my mentors, Drs. Chuck Green and Cal Roetzel, who are retiring after a lifetime commitment of excellence in teaching students at Macalester College. From these men I learned about the power of people, political systems, and most important, about the power of God to influence all these and more, and as always, I dedicate this sermon to the glory of God!
Acts 16:9-15 and Revelation 21:10,22-2:5
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
Tomorrow night, Monday, May 21st, beginning at 7:00pm, at The Veteran's Memorial Hall, several miles west on our beautiful Broad Street, just on the west bank of the Scioto River, I am going to take a stand. But, I will not stand alone. Coming from east, west, north, and south over 2500 people from 50 congregations of Jewish and Christian households of faith and other concerned citizens and advocates for the poor across central Ohio will also stand with me. I am happy to say that so far, close to 50 people among our congregation have already committed to come and stand with me. It is my most fervent prayer and my deepest hope that each one of you here will come and stand with me.
If you care about housing and homelessness, I invite you to come to the river. If you care about persons who live on the hurting edge of life in this city, I invite you to come to the river. If you care about justice for the working poor, I invite you to come to the river. If you care about the great future of this great city and our downtown church, I invite you to come to the river!
Years ago, a professor of mine said to me, "Mr. Ahrens, you must stand for something, or you will fall for anything." Well, let me tell what I am standing for tomorrow night. In Franklin County today, more than 43,818 low income families pay more than 50% of their income for housing according to the Franklin County and Columbus Consolidated Plan. This same plan found that there is one affordable rental unit in Central Ohio for every two extremely low-income households. At the same time that these numbers of despair are on the rise, the federal government has reduced its share of dollars for low-income families from $85 billion in 1977 to $16 billion in 1997.
Who are these people who are under-housed? Mostly working men and women of our city! 68% of the people who make minimum wage are the sole supporters of their family. In Ohio, a worker earning minimum wage (which is $5.15/hour) has to work 80 hours per week in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment at the area's fair market value. At the Mid-Ohio Food Bank, (where our current City Council President Matt Habash is Executive Director), 27% of those who use the food pantries work full-time! Another 47% of those coming work part-time. Our sister city county to the North, Cuyahoga County, which is home to Cleveland, did a study on housing issues recently and they found that the biggest obstacle of people leaving the welfare roles is severe rental burden. 38% said that they spend over 50% of their income on housing. Another 27% percent spend more than 30% of their income on housing - so 65% are spending more than 30% of their income on housing.
I have served meals in homeless shelters. Every time I walk in a shelter, I experience lots of different feelings. First, I feel good that those present are not on the streets that night - although I know many others are - even on the warm nights of May 2001! Second, I feel angry that shelters exist in our city and in nation. Although some of us have become anesthetized to the presence and existence of shelters, we need to know massive numbers of homeless men, women, and children are a phenomenon of the last 25 years of the 20th Century in America. Homeless shelters, in place of good quality, low-income housing, have become a part of the American landscape.
Many of our First Church neighbors to our west and north are homeless. And 99% or more of them don't show up here asking for money. They are out struggling to work and make ends meet. Many of those who are homeless have had a medical crisis where costs have forced them out of their homes. Some have suffered recent abuse or separation, and having lost their partner's income has sent them over the edge. They are people who are desperately trying to make ends meet. They aren't criminals or bad people but are hurting. They are wounded by the pain of the hand life is dealing them right now. And as I have said, they are mostly working!
They may be the people who are serving you at restaurants, hotels, retail stores, or as vendors on city streets. But, we know for certain - they are our neighbors. They may be single mothers, men struggling between marginal jobs, perhaps recent immigrants to our city (whose immigrant population has more than doubled in the last 10 years!). But, we know for certain - they are our neighbors.
I stand for affordable housing for our neighbors and the people of Columbus. The 2,500 people I am standing with tomorrow night are mostly from the BREAD organization. In January 2000, this congregation, at our Annual Meeting became a member church of BREAD. There are over 50 congregations in the organization today. Three congregations are Jewish. 46 are Christian. One is Unitarian-Universalist. The 46 represent the great diversity of Christian faith. They are Roman Catholic and Protestant. The Protestants are mainline (lots Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and two UCC churches) Pentecostal, free church, come from across the spectrum of race, beliefs, and theological flavor. They come from all over Central Ohio around the common belief that our God, who we call by many and varied names, is a God of justice. Around that common belief, we have stood together for 4 ½ years in areas of concern around public education, crime and drugs, jobs and public transportation, and now, affordable housing.
In the last year, we have met repeatedly with Mayor Coleman and members of City Council. These meetings have proven to be fruitful. The City has now established the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. BREAD has called for the establishment of a Franklin County Affordable Housing Trust Fund bringing the city of Columbus together with County Commissioners to address housing issues on a county-wide scale. On Thursday, thanks in large part to the hard work of BREAD, (which was acknowledged in the press conference) the County and City held a press conference. As an invited guest, I was there when they announced their joint efforts in this direction. That was a significant breakthrough. Of the three County Commissioners, only Commissioner Kilroy has spoken clearly and publicly in support before Thursday. But Arlene Shoemaker has joined Dewey Stokes and Mary Jo on Thursday in supporting this joint effort. This was "an historic event" (as the Mayor noted several times). We take pride in our part of this history! That's the good news. We celebrate this joint effort!
The bad news is that the county committed only $1 million dollars to the fund in 2001. There was no commitment beyond this year. We have been seeking, along with business leaders in the community, to see the entire title transfer fee (which would have been $4.7 million in 2000) for the Trust Fund. It truly will take that kind of commitment to make any real progress toward resolving the housing crisis in our community. Remember, there are over 43,000 low-income families in our county who pay more than half their income for housing. It will take much more than $1,000,000 from the county, added to the $5,000,000 from the city to help these people find safe, decent, affordable housing.
We must also remember that the County ended 2000 with a surplus of $67,000,000 and established a $30,000,000 savings account with those funds for possible renovations of Cooper Stadium and the Franklin County Hall of Justice.
While any money is helpful to end homelessness and the lack of affordable low-income housing, I liken the amount set aside for the trust fund to a member of this church who earns $250,000+ a year giving $1.00 a week as a stewardship gift to the church. On the one hand, you can celebrate any gift. But, on the other hand, you have to wonder if the gift-giver is aware of the needs and the call to give with a generous and fruitful heart!
Throughout holy scripture, the people of God are called to stand for justice. They are called to stand and be counted. Before the fall of the walls of Jericho, Joshua is commanded to take off his sandals, "for he is standing on holy ground." Then with his sandals off, he stands for the battle of justice and righteousness! Jeremiah calls the people to stand against Babylon. Facing the challenge of assault in his time, Ezekiel is commanded by God in Ezekiel 22:30 to "go and stand in the breach." When faced with possible destruction, the Lord commands Joshua and Zerubbabel in the Book of Zechariah to "Stand by the Lord of the whole earth" (Zech. 4:14). In his letter to the Church of Ephesus, Paul calls the Christians in Ephesus to put on the whole armor of God to stand against all evil. He calls them to stand firm in the Lord. He writes, "Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist and put on the breastplate of righteousness" (Ephesians 6:12-14).
The Revelation calls us to a vision for the Holy City of God. I believe the City of God is one in which people stand firm in their convictions. It is a place where there are tears no longer, where the streets are beautiful and people are treated with equality, dignity and justice. It is a place where the urban malaise that too often marks our realities is replaced by distributive justice and peace.
I doubt that a pie-in-the-sky, when we see it by-and-by approach will work. But, I do believe we have the most amazing opportunity to stand for establishment of just, equitable, affordable housing that we have ever had in this city. I believe that tomorrow night is a pivotal moment in the history of Columbus. I am calling all of you to come. Bring your babies. Bring your children. Susan and I are planning to do just that! Come join with thousands of other people of faith to show the world that in this great city, people of faith stand together and stand for the poorest of the poor!
Show your babies and children that you believe in the future of their whole city - not just the folks who are the haves, but also those who have not! Show them that you are apart of a fellowship of faith that stands for justice! Show them we stand together for justice with our sisters and brothers of many races, colors, tongues, beliefs!
Tomorrow night, I will join with Rabbi Berman and Cantor Chomsky of Tiffereth Israel and their 200 people. I will join with Fr. Ron Atwood and his 250 people from St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church; I will join with my brother and friend, the Rev. Dr. Jeffrey P. Key and the 100 people from New Faith Baptist Church of Christ on Oak St. I will join with the 200+ Unitarian-Universalists from First UU and their Pastor Mark Bellatini and 46 other pastors and their 1500+ people!
I am going to take a stand for those who are living on the margins tomorrow night. And it is my fervent prayer and my deepest hope and belief that you will stand with me. Following the deacons collection of this morning's offering, members of the BREAD team will help in passing the clipboards so everyone has an opportunity to sign-up. We only need your name and phone number. And if you would like free parking at Vet Memorial tomorrow night, you need a BREAD button.
Let us all come to the river to stand tomorrow night! Please join me and take a stand for affordable housing, for justice, for this great city, for a future which embraces the kingdom values of the city of God! Amen.
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