Mercer Island United Methodist Church in suburban Seattle learned a difficult lesson: Serving the poor can mean offending your neighbor.
When the church decided to host Tent City—a traveling encampment of homeless people—on church property on a temporary basis, many in the affluent suburb were outraged.
Pastor Leslie Ann Knight recalls how a resident approached one of her church members, pointing aggressively. "Your church should be bombed."
Knight had not anticipated the severity of the backlash. "I was astonished by the sheer volume of complaints," she said.
Angry locals did more than talk. Before Tent City opened, a group of Mercer Island residents filed a lawsuit requesting a restraining order to prevent the encampment. The lawsuit alleged that a temporary-use permit issued by the city was granted illegally, and that the encampment would be an eyesore.
"Neighbors will be forced to look at honey buckets [portable restrooms], temporary shower facilities, tents, and an array of equipment necessary to serve the camp," the lawsuit stated.
A judge denied the request, and Tent City opened on August 13.
Though the encampment has continued to divide the community, it has unified churches on the island, as they have chipped in to provide meals and other supplies to the 100 or so occupants of the encampment.
"The churches were very much in favor of Tent City coming to the island, and they have all supported the camp since it came," said Greg Asimakoupoulos, president of the Mercer Island Clergy Association and senior minister at Mercer Island Covenant Church. "What a wonderful opportunity we have as Christians to befriend these people, care for their needs, and build a bridge to tell them about Christ."
Building that bridge may have cost the churches evangelistic opportunities in their own community, where the average home costs more than $1 million.
"That hurts," he said. "These are the people we're trying to reach. Being compassionate is a piece of cake. It's the price tag that comes with it that's sometimes difficult."
But it's worth it, he said. "The call to care for the needy supersedes the demands of the more selfish voices in the community."
Knight agrees. "Our neighbors are those who need us," she said. "Jesus' teaching about loving your neighbor comes in the context of someone who was beaten and left at the side of the road."
But it's not a simple dispute between Mercer Island residents and the churches. "We've also had a lot of support from the community," Knight said. Tent City "has opened the channels of generosity in our community and exposed a wealth of compassion."
The church plans to host Tent City until November. So far there have been no major legal incidents associated with the camp. Police Chief Ed Holmes said Tent City averaged a mere six arrests during its three-month stays in other communities, a rate he compared with Mercer Island's 350 annual arrests. All members of the encampment are given background checks and are drug free. Police have responded to a few incidents against Tent City occupants, such as people throwing water balloons or garbage from cars.
"[Tent City residents] can sense the animosity," Knight said. But overall, "they conduct themselves with pride and dignity."
Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.