I did not plan to make my stand there – in the bathroom. Like some of you, I had dreams for my personal social-isolation. A marathon. A novel. A sonata (played, not written). For my ministry, I imagined a YouTube channel. An online framework of spiritual reflection. A how-to manual for progressive Christian activism.
Then, there was a conversation in the church parking lot. Since COVID-19, in-person worship services at both of my churches have ceased, but FUMC has continued to distribute brown bag meals on Tuesday nights. Along with many new visitors, scores of our frequent guests have shown up, week after week, happy to chat as they gather extra bags to distribute in their encampments.
In those conversations, I’ve heard one concern voiced over and over again: Unsheltered folks’ access to bathrooms was always touch-and-go, but now, with so many downtown businesses closed, the situation is even more dire.
We’re supposed to be “sheltering” in place, an overheating woman said with air quotes on a sunny afternoon. I led her to the shade to continue. How can I stay in one place when I have to walk seven blocks to take a shit? And washing my hands? Forget it.
The need was clear, and the solution was simple. Even if some in the wider community have not demonstrated concern for unsheltered folks in the past, surely now, when it was a matter of public health, there could be no real opposition. I said as much to a local community health advocate.
Well…. she said.
Well, she was right.
As the days turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into however long we have been holed up now, I became aware that my hours were slipping away. Certainly, much of the time has been spent creating new systems and keeping my congregation connected and engaged. But also, more and more of my time was spent on Zoom call after Zoom call with local elected officials – always asking about more port-a-potties and portable hand washing stations for unsheltered people in Santa Rosa.
Of course, they agreed. But where?
I repeated the placement ideas I heard from unsheltered folks I know from Tuesday night. Downtown, under the freeways, by the parks
A new station went to under the freeway, but the parks, I learned from county staff, were a no-go. At least not that one park in the northwest part of town. There may be a large encampment there full of people who have nowhere else to go, but “the neighborhood” has spoken. They forwarded a petition against the placement of temporary facilities there.
It bears mentioning that this could be happening an any neighborhood. Housed folks all over Santa Rosa have demanded that police disperse homeless people – it’s a inhumane game of hot potato played all over this county.
I have tried to be patient, even though the patience on this matter is not mine to practice. I understand the petitioner’s concerns there is a school nearby, and that neighbors have been impacted by the side effects of an encampment (ie trash, needles, etc) for some time. But the petition offers no ideas or commitment to work for other places for these people to go. It only opposes the placement of portable facilities, because this “perpetuates a problem” and “encourages” encampments.
And this is not true.
Bathrooms, portable or not, do not perpetuate homelessness. Bathrooms do not encourage encampments. The only thing that bathrooms perpetuate is dignity. They only thing that hand washing stations encourage is public health.
In Matthew 25, Jesus commends those who care for the least among them. Whenever you (fed, clothed, visited, or hosted) the least of these, you did so for me. He doesn’t mention offering a bathroom. Perhaps he thought that to be a no-brainer – even the Roman Empire, by which his original readers were oppressed, offered public plumbing. Or perhaps it was because, as someone who lived in a collective society, he could not imagine the highly individualistic reality in which we find ourselves presently.
It was true before, but it is even more true in this time of COVID-19: It is not enough to have our own toilets, sinks, and soap. We need everyone to have access to such facilities, because it is only in keeping all of us safe that any of us are safe from contagion. And so, there are two very important bathrooms: Yours. And the one that your unsheltered neighbor cannot access.
Early on in the pandemic, I was talking to an acquaintance who said, I see the hand of God in all of this.
Yesterday, in a conversation with her, she lamented, Where’s God now?
I told her that I did not presume to know the exact coordinates of the divine, and that, honestly, some days, I experienced it more profoundly than others. But now, I wonder. I wonder if God, while not causing this trial, is to be found in what we learn by going through it. And now, I wonder if what we are to learn together is to be found in the most base and mundane of places: In the space between the “ours” and “theirs” in which the public good resides.