The Gazette – By Vince Bzdek
Shortly after the wall came down in Berlin in 1989 and Eastern Europe shook off communism, I visited the citadel city of Krakow, Poland, which had been hidden away behind the Iron Curtain for generations. The minute I stepped through its 1,000-year old gates, the sound of hosannas and hymns engulfed me, carried on the breeze. I soon found the source – street gangs of nuns roaming the cobblestone streets. Singing.
I followed one squadron as they floated around the old city, all smiles and habits, and saw them light here and there upon the needy. In their flowing robes, they looked like packs of angels swarming the poor, administering attention and medicine, taking them off the streets to churches, shelters and missions around the city, providing comfort and care.
If only every city had street nuns, I thought, the streets would be a gentler place.
I’ve often wondered why Colorado Springs doesn’t have its own SEAL teams of compassion roaming the streets, helping the homeless and the down and out. We are, after all, an epicenter of do-gooders. Colorado Springs is home to Focus on the Family, New Life Church, the Navigators and more than 100 evangelical organizations and multiple megachurches and nearly 200 nonprofits dedicated to service. Why hasn’t the force of all those organizations been brought to bear on our homeless problem here and wiped it out?
Well, it turns out, they have begun to try.
Last fall, more than a hundred pastors met with Mayor John Suthers to talk about what they could do – together – to help serve the city and address some of its social ills.
Suthers challenged Colorado Springs’ churches to help the city in four ways:
1. Offer dignity and hope to the homeless
2. Address the breakdown of families and the foster care system throughout the city
3. Promote an increase in volunteerism
4. Take on the negative impacts of marijuana
Shortly after, more than 20 churches came together to launch a project called City Serve. On Oct. 6, 1,200 people donated time to do more than 50 service projects around the city. Their motto: “Seeking the peace and prosperity of Colorado Springs through tangible acts of service.”
“It was one of the greatest service experiences I’ve ever been part of,” said Tim McConnell, pastor of First Presbyterian downtown, whose church helped convene the event.
And that was just the beginning.
After the success of City Serve, the pastors who met with the mayor decided, “Let’s make the mayor’s agenda our agenda,” said Jason Perkins, pastor of Redrock Church. “And let’s tackle one thing for now.” Homelessness.
Many of the same churches that participated in City Serve have now joined a campaign begun 18 months ago by Perkins called COS I Love You. The plan: Bring the resources and goodwill of churches from across the city, including megachurches far out in the burbs, to the fight against homelessness in the core of the city.
“Our hope is that if there is a brand or an umbrella and we could do things under a common theme then we would have a bigger splash,” said Perkins. “It just seems like the city was kind of longing for a rallying cry that everybody could band around.”
New Life Church, Pulpit Rock, Discovery Church. Redrock Church, Care and Share, Springs Rescue Mission, Woodmen Valley Chapel, Mountain Springs Church, Vanguard Church and New Life Downtown are some of the churches that have joined forces.
They’ve started running food trucks to feed the homeless. They are dispatching volunteers and financial support to the Springs Rescue Mission downtown, to Catholic Charities, to The Family Mentor Alliance, which helps mentor the homeless into housing. They have a goal of raising a quarter million dollars over Easter to help expand the Rescue Mission so that it can build a dining room capable of feeding 200,000 meals per year and a day center full of agencies that will help the homeless find a pathway out.
Rather than start their own programs, the churches have decided they can best serve the city by turbocharging programs already in place.
“We want to find those organizations in our city that are doing a tremendous job of helping the homeless, and then we say, how can we partner with them?” said Perkins. “We’re not the experts in how to serve the homeless, but we can rally the troops.”
I can’t help but wonder, if these churches are committed and serious, whether this coming together might not begin to erase the less-than-positive perception that has clung to the faith community in Colorado Springs for far too long.
“Churches haven’t always had the greatest reputation with the city,” said Thomas Thompson, pastor of Pulpit Rock Church. “We want to change that reputation.”
“There was a belief a long time ago that if we could just change laws, elect the right people, the churches would make a difference,” said Thompson. “There’s a new humility among churches that we do have the opportunity to offer hope, but through listening, serving and coming together. Power rests in our service.”
Pope Francis has sounded a similar note of late, that churches should be the MASH units tending to the victims of the culture wars, not the combatants.
“We want to see flourishing happen,” Thompson said. “We can’t flourish on our own. We have to look outward and partner.”
In a season when divisiveness is running rampant, the spiritual centers of a city have a special responsibility, Thompson believes. Churches have been instrumental in helping other communities weather disruptive events like the riots in Ferguson, Mo., or the killings of blacks in South Carolina.
“What seems to be key is have the churches develop relationships among each other prior to these events,” Thomspson said. “Racially, denominationally, so we are a close-knit community so we can weather those rough times together.”
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Christianity experienced some of its greatest growth in the early life of the church because of similar approaches. During the plagues of the third century, Christians stayed in stricken cities ministering to the sick and helping the poor, the widowed, the crippled, the blind and the orphaned while others fled. The people of the Roman Empire were forced to admire their death-defying dedication to helping the less fortunate. “Look how they love one another,” was heard on the streets.
You want to attract millennials here? Give them jobs, sure, but what if they began to think of Colorado Springs as a place they could come to find purpose?
Wouldn’t it be extraordinary if our city right now, with its unique combination of a strong, popular mayor and a juggernaut of religious organizations, came to be known as the City that Solved Homelessness?
That would be something to truly inspire hosannas in the streets.