As an associate pastor at Anniston First United Methodist Church west of Quintard Avenue in downtown Anniston, I have become well-acquainted with Anniston’s homelessness crisis due to our location near various social service agencies, such as The Right Place and Interfaith Ministries, which we support financially. Proximity to these organizations as well as our Sunday morning feeding ministry — Shepherd’s Table — has increased my exposure to one of Anniston’s biggest humanitarian, economic and moral crises — homelessness. My exposure to this issue has provided me with a passion for this population as I developed relationships with them, performed funerals for them, learned their actual names, heard their compelling stories, and, yes, discovered their real struggles with mental illnesses.
While the general public became more acutely aware of our homeless crisis with the closing of the Salvation Army, countless nonprofit leaders battling homelessness in Anniston were already aware of an impending crisis bubbling beneath the surface. Thankfully, with the closing of the Salvation Army’s shelter, community awareness of our crisis grew and visibility of our homeless population grew as well. Since closing their emergency shelter, the Salvation Army continues to offer services to their clients, but, despite Councilman Ben Little’s claims, they are not among our best available solutions to our homelessness crisis because even they have acknowledged the unimaginable task of providing an emergency shelter for Anniston’s homeless.
I was cautiously optimistic this week that the proposed solution under consideration at the City Council meeting would be the first step toward a holistic solution for Anniston’s homeless. Three credible, competent and well-equipped agencies – The Right Place, United Way and Interfaith Ministries — in collaboration with Noland Health, city officials planned to procure Beckwood Manor with the hope of transforming it into a homeless shelter. The shelter would offer a holistic approach by providing mental health services, medical services and even transitional housing. Under consideration was a genuine solution to one of our most inhibiting obstacles to progress and it failed as the motion for the city to receive Beckwood Manor from Noland Health did not receive a second. The city failed to accept the gift for multiple reasons: Chief among those include a seemingly calculated misinformation campaign by those in places of power and privilege, and a lack of moral courage to do right by the most vulnerable in our city.
Repeatedly, I heard competing messages. On the one hand, residents shared how beloved our homeless were and how we should care for them. On the other hand, previous advocates for the homeless seemed to have forgotten the neighborliness they once embraced with our homeless as they suddenly became opponents of the most viable solution from some of our excellent social agencies. Despite the rationale, the recurring sentiment I couldn’t help but hear from those who opposed the city accepting Beckwood Manor was “Not in my backyard.”
At times this sentiment seemed couched in fear that a shelter would impede economic growth. Other times this sentiment stood behind assumptions about the structural integrity of Beckwood Manor. Other times the sentiment seemed lurking behind genuine concern for the personal safety of our homeless. Residents seemed genuinely fearful that they would be in danger crossing Quintard to reach the important social services they need; however, as many of us know, our homeless are regularly seen crossing Quintard. Whether conscious or unconscious, the consistent attitude hiding behind our justification for opposing this gracious gift from Noland Health seemed clear — “Not in my back yard.”
As a pastor, I find myself wondering how Jesus might have felt in a situation such as ours. Our recent Christmas celebration reminds us that even infant Jesus was the recipient of at least a minimal amount of generosity as his family was invited to take up residence in an inn keeper’s backyard. No doubt adult Jesus would share this story of an incredibly gracious and morally courageous stranger who allowed his family of strangers a minimal amount of decency by allowing them to take up residence in his own backyard where he could be born. This same Jesus born in a backyard charges those who genuinely follow him with the task of caring for the most vulnerable in our midst as if it were him, even if it’s “in our own backyard.” It’s not surprising that Jesus would suggest as much; after all, Jesus does know a little bit about what it’s like to be the recipient of such generosity.
Perhaps, we should ponder what Jesus might do if he were in our midst?
Rev. Kyle Bryan is one of the associate pastors at Anniston First United Methodist Church. He regularly offers pastoral care to the homeless community during the week and through their Shepherd’s Table feeding program that serves between 40 and 60 underserved or homeless persons every Sunday at 9 a.m.