A tale of two bathrooms

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.

6 thoughts on “A tale of two bathrooms

  1. I never visited a FUMC that didn’t have four or five bathrooms in the church house. And nearly ever FUMC I ever visited was located across the from a Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Mormon, Catholic, and Pentecostal church too.

    It would be wonderful if FUMC were to be the first, the leader of all the others, in opening her doors for bathroom usage – and maybe more.

    I pray for as much practically every day.

    Just imagine all the bathrooms that could be shared, and in the sharing, all the light that would shine in the Covid Darkness.


    1. I’d encourage you to visit the FUMC (and the other UMC) in Santa Rosa. Like other UMC’s, they reflect the town, more than the denomination (think more breezeways, less palatial.) So while they’re very much in the fight for expanded homeless services and affordable housing, they’re bogged down in all the hurdles faced by other people of goodwill. At some point I’ll write about the social ills of the wine industry and California property values, and how both of those things make It near impossible to leverage elected’s to do the right thing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanx for posting this to begin with, and thanx for responding to my comment.

        This is such an important issue and yet so easy to overlook.

        I don’t happen to be Methodist, but Methodists, if denominations were merely ice cream flavors, would be my favorite. I have worshipped with Free Methodists, FUMC’s and probably others many, many times. But the response to cultural/social issues among Methodists almost always take the lead and almost always reflect the heart of Jesus. (Well, in MY experience anyway)

        I don’t live in California and have not visited in many years (used to live there a long, long time ago). It is unlikely that I will return anytime soon. But I am thrilled with your report and hope to see it encouraged and blessed.


    1. Thanks for this! I love the image of Jesus coming to a church to use the bathroom.

      I have been thinking of this as a both/and. If Jesus came to use the church bathroom, he’d be welcome, just like the unsheltered folks (or anyone) who come by any given week. But in my reading of the Gospel, Jesus doesn’t stay in one place, and wait for people to come to him. He goes to where people are in need. So, I’m order to follow Jesus, a church must offer hospitality where they gather, and also be present in the wider community to better serve the people there.

      In light of precautionary building closures due to Covid-19, this latter part is even more essential.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. … no… thank YOU for this… It is such an encouragement to me and I am blessed.

        Yes, I love the image of Jesus in the John too. (If I were a musician, I would write the song!).

        I think of Jesus too. I normally think of him walking dusty Galilean trails with mobs of needy people thronging to him. However, when I read critically (esp Mark) I find he is constantly crossing the sea… in a boat. Probably a metaphor for baptism, Noah, creation… and more. But still, he always has needy people thronging to him. When he withdraws to pray, they go nuts searching for him, running ahead to the place they think he is headed… that kind of thing.

        The church is the BODY of THIS Christ. So I am always troubled by the incongruent image of so many nice, middle-class, white people taking a latte and a sermon (sermons are so often REALLY GOOD too, but the seem powerless to change this dynamic) arriving in comfort, enjoying the retreat of worship, and then returning to comfort all as a matter of routine. If this were the SAME body of Christ I find in the Gospels, wouldn’t the needy folx be mobbing us?

        It is not necessary that we all be on the dusty trails, at least not all the time, but we have invested millions of dollars into each sanctuary and church complex and billions collectively. I am not against that, actually, but it’s NOT ours to utilize exclusively.

        I began studying HOSPITALITY a little more that n a year ago and found some very important work on this done by Christine D. Pohl, from Asbury Theological Seminary and Joshua Jipp and John Koenig and OTHERS too. Pohl’s work is so important, I think, and I am finding that the whole Bible depicts lives of faith expressed in HOSPITALITY which seems to be a matter of humans welcoming God into our living space (Abe & Sarah, Gen 18) and thus God moves into our hearts (the REAL temple) where he truly belongs.

        But I am starting to yap now.

        I will quit before I bog it down.

        I just want to acknowledge the connection and encourage it!

        Thanx to YOU for this.

        And God bless….



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