The following post is an in depth account of my experience being kicked out of the Premier Homeless Church in Lubbock, Texas. It is very lengthy, and tedious. But a reader requested an account of it, and it seems worthwhile to offer it. But unless you are really interested in the answers I provide, this will not be a very exciting post to read. I offer it, not to be vindictive, but to come clean. I am opposed by Christian leadership all over this town, this one church being only one part of that picture. It is I who appear to be in error, at first glance. And so I do not want to hide from the light. The burden is on me to explain myself when asked. This is my side of that story. It is not exhaustive, but it is the single most detailed account I have ever shared in writing.
A reader recently asked for an accounting of how I came to be officially kicked out of Lubbock’s Premier Homeless church, which happened two and a half years ago. Since I reference that event frequently, and since it played a part in shaping this ministry, a detailed account seems to be a reasonable request. I change the names to protect the guilty; I also caution readers to keep in mind that I hold a biased position within the recounting of this narrative. Though I will not lie about anything, there is no way around the fact that I am offering “my side” of the story, and I am happy to acknowledge that limitation. It also comes after the passage of time, which affects accuracy, however, I have many notes jotted down which date back to the time this story unfolded.
What follows is but one chapter in an ongoing saga. In fact, to be honest, my quarrel is a lover’s quarrel – meaning I have no hate in my heart for those I oppose. I am (or was) “a critic from within”, to borrow a phrase from N.T. Wright. Think of Israel’s prophets of old who criticized God’s people, sometimes quite harshly! But they never thought of themselves as “against” Israel. No. They were always FOR Israel in the big picture. I would say the same about my ministry to the church and to this community. There is some deep opposition and some cutting criticism, but that does not mean I am the enemy. It means, I trust, that I speak for God to the dark places in the heart(s) of the people of God.
Ms. Agent X and I became members of the Premier Homeless Church in the winter of 2011-12 after I had become involved with the street homeless at Tent City over the course of the previous year. As I began to realize that Tent City was actually a gated community which had excluded most of Lubbock’s homeless (in many cases for good reason), I began to explore the alleys, parks, and back lots in search of the Lost Sheep of the House of Lubbock. And I found the alley behind the Premier Homeless Church to be one of the main hubs where they gathered. In time, I joined that church to complete my ministry to the people who worshiped there.
The Premier Homeless Church was an off-shoot of one of the large downtown churches, which in recent years had begun to gain a measure of independence from its host church, mostly because it gained 501c3 status and raised funding for itself in that capacity. I had heard of some of the great things this bunch had done in the 2-3 years previous to my joining, largely through the local media – and one of the key things I knew about them was that they took the homeless into their facility on cold winter nights. This had made the news because it was not legal, and so some fancy legal footwork had to be done to accomplish it. And the imaginative minds there had hatched the idea to ask volunteers to host “all night prayer vigils” where the homeless could come in to “pray” all night long. There was no law or zoning ordinance against an all night prayer service, and since they could rest assured that no community leaders would dare police a prayer service, it really did not matter if a bum fell asleep and rested in the meantime! Ha! An end run around a lousy law! A subversive ministry!
I had been watching this from afar, and admired it. But now I sought to play a part. However, when I joined, I learned that the all night prayer service ministry had been discontinued. The reason given at the time was that it had overworked the volunteers.
At that time, the church was led by a partnership of ministers who were funded by separate outside churches. But within just a few months of my joining them, a rift surfaced between these partner-ministers. The church tried to reconcile their differences, going so far as to bring in arbitration experts and counselors. But resolution was not reached, and one of the ministers graciously resigned.
That resignation was quite an emotional upheaval for the church. Many parishioners complained bitterly, and a number of imaginative programs were suddenly dropped (community garden being one of the main ones). Still this young minister bowed out without complaint, though he did find his way to my home where he wept openly and we prayed about it together as he departed. It was a sad development, and it really troubled me that a church cannot be unified in its leadership. They, like so many in this harsh world, settled their differences by splitting up.
And the minister who left was one who had helped get Tent City started, who had launched the (by then) defunct all-night-prayer-vigil ministry. Now, it seemed that the church was evermore focused on fundraising, and within a year the fundraising efforts were raking in tens of thousands of dollars. I have heard rumors in more recent times that they raise hundreds of thousands of dollars now days. And I am inclined to believe that.
In the meantime, the Premier Homeless Church gravitated homeless to their property on a daily and nightly basis year round. The church put up “No Loitering” signs and began enforcing numerous rules, largely forcing the homeless off the property at various times and during the night. This meant that the properties surrounding the church became evermore littered with people and trash. But on the coldest of winter nights, the church did open the doors as an emergency shelter and sought volunteers to chaperone the crowds. That first year, Mrs. Agent X and I volunteered time and again and were used in that capacity about half a dozen times. This is what we were eager to do when we joined!
Allow me to detour from the play-by-play account at this moment briefly and say that I accompanied the homeless in those alleys and empty lots as a fellow sojourner numerous times both prior to joining the church and after. I frequently took a communion service with me and shared it with the homeless in the alley or on the street corner. One night, we held a communion on the steps of The Premier Homeless Church when the executive pastor emerged from his study (or whatever he was doing there), and we invited him to join us. But he quickly, and dismissively, declined stating, “No, thanks, I already ate a big meal.” Think about that. The pastor of this church passing on communion with his own flock because he “already ate a big meal”. What contempt must he have had to think that was acceptable?
Being with the flock was my focus. Still, I did not sleep there every night, but more times than I can count, I did.
I slept across the street from the large church downtown one night in a bitter-cold, howling wind. As I lay there hunkered down in misery looking at those grand sanctuary doors locked up in the dim street light, I began to ponder how that no other church in town opened to “the least of these brothers and sisters” except the Premier Homeless Church, and even they did not do it very often. I felt like, as a Bible-believing Christian, I had something to say to the church about that! A few nights later, I invited a couple of homeless men to join me in a communion service in front of those locked doors where we sang, prayed, ate the meal, and knocked on that locked door in a Proph-O-Drama and quoted Revelation 3:20!
I also paid that church a visit for one of their regular Sunday worship services for the purpose of filling out a prayer request card, which I did. I asked this church to pray specifically for the poor who sleep just outside their doors nightly. And that prayer request prompted a response from one of the shepherds who traded a couple of emails with me after that. In his email response, he expressed an open invitation for me to visit him in his office, which I attempted to do one afternoon. But when the secretary notified him that I had showed up for the visit, he left me to languish in the lobby for almost half an hour before sending her word that he was unavailable after all. I took that as a sign that he was not really serious about seeing me. Thus the tenor of my relationship with these churches was beginning to sadden me greatly.
I had no desire to discourage the Premier Homeless Church from hosting the homeless; instead I put my butt where my mouth was and volunteered to chaperone at every opportunity I could manage. And so did my wife. And we were used several times that first winter, but there seemed to be a resistance to use us as the next winter rolled around. I could not determine it for sure, but looking back on some of my notes now, I see that I was not likely mistaken about that. And I figure my “help” represented a ministry mindset that resembled that of the partner-minister who had recently resigned and graciously and quietly left the church.
That second winter, rather than doubling down on hosting the homeless to have a warm, safe place to sleep in the sheep-fold of the Lord, leadership at The Premier Homeless Church instead began actively running people off the property at night and installed numerous security cameras all over the property with internet accessibility so that the executive pastor could monitor the property from home at any hour and discipline offenders accordingly. It was a disgusting development that resembled every business tactic in the downtown district rather than Christ’s love.
Nevertheless, leadership did host the homeless indoors when the first and second cold snaps of the winter set in. The local media covered the story as these storms led up to the Thanksgiving holiday and as the church promoted a couple of key fundraising efforts. But by the third cold snap, leadership decided not to open the doors, and on December 11th, 2013, with a sub-freezing forecast on the television, Mrs. Agent X contacted a couple of fellow volunteers and street friends to see if she could chaperone for the night. Between them, they made arrangements and then asked leadership for permission, but at the last minute they were denied access.
When I found out, I called the executive pastor and spoke to him on the phone. I asked why we were not opening the doors for the night, and he first told me that it was because of lack of volunteers. I immediately confronted that untrue statement pointing out that my wife had volunteered and had secured fellow volunteers to help as well. And that is when he made the statement, “…it’s a leadership decision that you may not like, but it is necessary anyway.”
I pointed out that the temperature forecast for that night was 16 degrees Fahrenheit and that we did in fact have fresh volunteers, but he insisted that I accept the “leadership decision”. I asked to speak to whomever he answers to up the chain of command, and he told me to speak to one of the board members. The board member he suggested also happened to be a shepherd at the large church downtown (a different one from the one I had previously traded emails with). This gave me the opportunity to “go through proper channels” and seek resolution, which I did enthusiastically. But, my earnest efforts were met with dismissive deflection.
However, in the meantime, it was bedtime and the freezing temperature had already begun to set in. No “shepherds” or board members were available at that hour. So I went down to The Premier Homeless Church to see if there was anyone who would benefit from coming to stay at my home for the night. When I arrived, I found well over two dozen people bedding down under the “No Loitering”/”No Sleeping” signs all around the facility – and all under the watchful eye of the security cameras. I knew I would not be able to accommodate them all at my house, so I put out the word that I was looking for medically fragile people or folks totally unprepared for the cold. And sure enough, I managed to get a man and his wife (the wife was reportedly battling cancer at that time) and a couple others to load up and go to my house for the night.
By now, sadness was turning to anger. This was ridiculous. Any church who honors Jesus’s words in Matthew 25:40 would open the doors to this flock. I would expect a “church” that specifically ministers to the homeless to be without excuse – AND on the contrary to be enthused about the opportunity to serve! Instead, I observed a whole flock of lost sheep turned out by a “leadership decision” that I was supposed to just “accept”.
On two different occasions during this time, I confronted the security camera with Proph-O-Drama. Both times at the front door of The Premier Homeless Church. On one occasion, the minister on duty that day kicked everyone out to the cold except for certain individuals who are part of his program (giving the appearance of playing favorites). I cracked out a communion service of bread and grape juice and prayed in front of that locked door and hosted the Jesus meal with those locked outside. In a matter of minutes, the minister inside changed his mind and opened the door to us all. The second time, I pounded on the door in front of all the homeless wishing to get in and pointed into the watching security camera gaze and said, “Behold! I stand at the door and knock. If you open up, I will come in and eat with you!” No one ever referenced that moment with me, but I presume there is a recording of that moment in church files that will not likely ever see the light of day!
Once I finally made contact with this board member up the chain of command, a couple days later, he reiterated for me that leadership was exhausted on the one hand, but he now added the idea that we need to teach these people to get themselves out of their jam. (You know, just like Jesus does!) He even said they need to learn to work “by the sweat of the brow”. I seized on both points and told him we had fresh volunteers on the one hand, and on the other, the “sweat of the brow” was a curse placed on sinful Adam, not a ministry aim. I could not believe that I need to school this “shepherd” in such elemental Bible, yet even still, before he was done with me he suggested that perhaps I could take these people into my home. At that I unloaded on him telling him that I already had and suggested that perhaps he should take some at his house too since mine was full!
After that, my family played host to homeless people off and on (mostly on) for the rest of the winter! None of the “shepherds” or board members, to my knowledge (and I am certain I would have heard) took in a single lamb for the night. Meanwhile even my Dad was taking in guests.
To be fair and forthright, I should note that there were a handful of cold nights throughout the remainder of the winter when The Premier Homeless Church did in fact open its doors to the homeless. However, they did not include me in those efforts, and there appeared to be a rather fickle nature to their decisions about when or when not to open. No standards were given. The only constant I could see from my vantage point was that their denials of admittance never were covered in the media. But when the media was there, the doors were open. And I noted that a campaign for a particular $10,000 fundraiser which required The Premier Homeless Church to win a popular vote from the community at large was under way at that point too. The community never was told about my concerns, meanwhile, sure enough the church won the contest and obtained the $10,000!
Pointing the last bit out there seems a bit spiteful. I really do not want to begrudge The Premier Homeless Church for obtaining that money. I trust it was used in a manner which the community at large would desire – and in fact I really suspect that if they had come clean and told the community that they kick the homeless out most nights and only house them on an emergency basis when the fickle notion strikes their fancy, there is a really good chance that the community would approve of them all the more. This is not Seattle, Washington or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; it is West Texas where the idea of “teaching these people to work by the sweat of the brow” just sounds wise and biblical. For that matter, I followed a pick up truck down the street yesterday with a bumper sticker on it that said, “God bless our troops, especially our snipers”! I wonder which god that sticker has in mind; it sure ain’t the Father of Jesus who tells us to love our enemies! But I figure it fits nicely in the civil religion that claims the same Bible (without really reading the pesky love-your-enemy parts seriously).
No, I really doubt my contention with The Premier Homeless Church would have made much difference even if it was widely known. And anyway, I actually have the same gripe with the whole of Christendom in this “Christian” town. I would have expected better from this bunch than the others, but really, they all are just as culpable! And honestly, I know that. I do not single this church out as the only one; it is just the most obvious among them all.
On Christmas Eve I received a text message from the afore mentioned board member expressing desire to have an “informal” meeting with me in which another board member or two might “sit down” with me and discuss my “frustration”. So, two days after Christmas I met with three board members at their request! Suddenly it seemed as if I had serious people taking me seriously. I had the ear of leadership! This was a moment pregnant with possibility, but I was no rookie/novice. I prayed on it and decided to take my Dad along with me to participate. It would be too easy for 3 guys on the board of directors to push me around privately, but if I brought witnesses, they would have to engage me with respect.
I brought communion to our meeting and we opened with the Lord’s Supper (just like I feature in this ministry on the streets) and then we discussed matters for the next two hours! If this meeting were going to truly mark a change in our relationship, I wanted to commemorate it with the Presence of the Lord and seek his blessing! They presented a charitable demeanor to my Dad and I, but they characterized my protestation of their leadership decision as “frustration” and “anger” and confronted me about that. My Dad, though, would have none of it. He insisted that my actions and protests were born of “sadness” and should be acknowledged as such instead of characterizing me as a crank, a kook, a jerk who is frustrated and angry and out of control.
I could say a lot more about that meeting, but I will draw it down to this: I purposely honed my case down to one single proposal. I said I would be satisfied and would not pursue any more protests if leadership would adopt and execute a policy of OPENING THE CHURCH DOORS WHENEVER THE NIGHTLY TEMPERATURES DROPPED TO 30 DEGREES OR LOWER AND WHEN VOLUNTEERS ARE AVAILABLE. I would not argue if the temperature was above 30 or if volunteers honestly were not available. This was a simple proposal, but the board could not agree to it for what ever reason.
Instead, I heard all kinds of lame reasons for kicking the homeless out to the cold. One of these guys actually said it was “warm” and not really that cold. Another spoke of how when we let the homeless in repeatedly, they begin to stake claims on this cot or that corner of the room or whatever. The matter of teaching these people a lesson resurfaced. And I refuted all of this garbage while drawing attention to my single, simple proposal over and over again.
By the end of the meeting, it was clear that no compromise could even be offered. I mean, they could have said, “We will open up when it’s 20 degrees or below” or something like that, but no such offer was made. Instead I get they are grieved by the idea that a homeless guy might think one of the cots is his. Hey, they have little old ladies at Vandelia who claim a particular spot on a particular pew each Sunday, and heaven help you if you take that spot before they arrive! It’s not Christian, but I never heard of a church leadership that thought people should be kicked out of the church over it! What a crock!
On January 13, 2014, the board of directors had requested a second meeting with me, and I met with them again. This time they brought the executive pastor with them. I brought my Dad again, but also a mutual friend and colleague from my work who facilitated Narcotics Anonymous meetings at The Premier Homeless Church, since he had a shared interest in these things.
It was clear that my previous simple, single proposal had not been approved at all. No compromises. Nothing. I had met with them once before and here I was a second time meeting, and for all my trouble I had not achieved even one inch of ground. And when I considered how the “shepherd” at the large downtown church had blown me off, I saw that my efforts to get the Matthew 25:40 Jesus in the doors of this church were just falling beneath the contempt of the board and the executive pastor who thought I should just “accept” the “leadership decision” – which of course made me think again of how sad it was when the partner-pastor had resigned with irreconcilable differences early the year before. I was getting nowhere, and God’s people were still left out in the cold!
The chairman of the board did most of the speaking this time. He sited a passage from Romans discussing differences of opinions and went on to warn against dividing the church. The policy of the Premier Homeless Church was that they would now strictly be only a “Day Center” and not a night shelter. But the cherry on the icing was when this Ph.D, Bible professor at the local Bible college, explained to me how they had talked about it among themselves, prayed about it, decided on it, and though they didn’t even know if it was what Jesus wanted, “this is the way it is going to be”.
Wow! What kind of church leadership talks like that???
All through this second meeting, I had yet to say a word by way of engaging the discussion. I only wanted to see what they would say. But finally I spoke up. I pointed out that there had been a lot of stuff discussed here, but I only really cared about a single, simple proposal which it appeared had not been accepted or met with negotiation or compromise. And I wanted to just be clear among all of us there as witnesses. So I said, “You are telling me that this church has considered it and has decided that even when the temperatures drop to 30 degrees or below AND even when you have plenty of fresh volunteers to chaperone, you are telling me ‘NO’ we will not open the doors to the homeless.” I spoke the matter plainly and forcefully. I had been silent, but now I was being direct and leaning into the hostile face of these obstinate “leaders”.
That seemed to shake the conversation. Suddenly the chairman wanted to talk more about it. Suddenly the way I stated it made him sound and look like a jerk, and that was abundantly obvious. But I had him on the hook and I DID NOT CARE IF THAT CAUSED HIM DISCOMFORT! He began trying to rephrase the issue and get me to rephrase it, but I would have none of it. He began to squirm in his seat quite visibly. He even tried to say that I had not said this before at the previous meeting, but I rebutted that, and my Dad who was witness confirmed it. Even my NA friend affirmed to the group that this simple, single proposal was exactly the thing I had reported to him before our second meeting. There just was no denying it.
The chairman seemed very worried – almost afraid to commit to the decision they had already made then. I had to reassure him that I meant what I had said, that I wanted clarity from this leadership that even under the stated conditions they would not open the door. And finally he coughed up his answer – YES that is what the board of directors is saying, that even when there are fresh volunteers and the temperature falls to 30 degrees or below, they will still close the doors.
I lost all respect for the man just then, and all his board members. Where was all that unity talk from Romans when the previous partner-pastor left with irreconcilable differences? Where was Jesus going to be next time it got cold out?
Yeah. Say what you want now, dude, I don’t have any use for it.
Things rocked along until March 8, when the chairman sent me a text message asking for a third meeting for the stated purpose of talking “about some of [my] concerns….”
At that point, I replied saying that I wondered if I should expect a fruitful meeting since none of the meetings I had or attempted to have before that yielded even the slightest negotiation or compromise. At this point, I could only imagine that if they wanted to meet with me it would be designed to get rid of me. I said, I would pray about accepting their invitation and wait for God’s response.
Then that night as I was bedding down in a park illegally with some of his brothers and sisters from church, he sent me another message saying they “join[ed me] in the prayer [I] mention[ed]”. Then he blew a bunch of smoke up my skirt about Dorotheos (whoever that is), assured me the board did not want to be rid of me, and in fact how they sense God wants to draw us closer… so… “As we wait for God’s response together could [I]suggest times when [my]schedule would permit getting together?”
I wanted to say, REALLY DUDE? WAIT FOR GOD TOGETHER WHILE GOING AHEAD WITH YOUR PLANS?
By this time, I not only had no respect for the man, I did not trust him either.
I turned the tables on him then and said, I would not come to their meeting, after all, I have already been and I know how that plays out. Instead, if he really wanted to talk, he should come out on the streets and join me with the flock out there and say whatever it is they had to say in this meeting there instead.
He bickered with me then. He insisted that I should come have a “private meeting” with the board. He sensed that I was not respecting him, and in fact thought I was mocking him (which I did not do). I in turn insisted that if I was so important to warrant more meetings, he knew where to find me. And finally, I quit responding to his urgent messages.
Then on March 12th, I received a very lengthy text message that, though it stated “Our hearts are open to you…” claimed that my words and actions were divisive and so he outlined how I was officially kicked out of the church and would not be allowed on the property again until or unless I relented and came to the private meeting he requested.
Along the way, he also pointed out that the leadership of the church there “oppose [my] efforts to create a ‘prophets’ faction among our members, to encourage brothers and sisters to condemn sisters and brothers over matters of perceived calling, and to backbite at the … board and ministry team. [My] actions, words, and attitudes toward some of [my] brothers and sisters … are not from Christ. [They] destroy the unity we share at the Table….”
And with that, I was out, while they continued to raise ever more money for homeless ministry. I have never been welcomed back. But then I have never changed my position. They, on the other hand, have, on some occasions, allowed people to come in from the cold. But only on a fickle basis – or perhaps when it makes a good photo-op! Not sure which.
So. This is me… the outsider. The deck has been stacked to make it appear that I am a kook, a crank, or whatever. And that is fine. I do not wish The Premier Homeless Church ill at all. And I praise God for every time they actually take folks in off the streets! They are one of the lead organizations in this town for doing that, so why would I oppose it – except for the way I was rejected by them over it? But I did not protest for my benefit but for those whom sometimes they actually minister to. And they do other good things too.
So, in my mind the divisiveness is on that other end, and I wait for leadership there to come find me on the streets among the flock they throw out to the cold anytime the conviction strikes! I will not turn away from them if they but humble themselves and come to the Table of the Lord. I will be happy to meet them there!