Food For The Soul Two Shelters Diverge On Delivering Religious Message With A Meal
Spokane’s two shelters for the destitute and homeless operate just a half-mile apart.
The House of Charity, 9 W. Main, is located in a condemned building that will be torn down as soon as a new shelter is found. The walls are scarred, the floors chipped. The building smells of smoke and dirty hair.
The Union Gospel Mission, 1224 E. Trent, is in a warehouse remodeled in 1990 for $3.5 million. The inside is clean and smells of industrial-strength antiseptic. Everything from the clothing room to the dinner line is neat and orderly.
Both of the shelters are operated by devout Christians. But their differences go far beyond appearance.
Their core philosophies grow from distinct Christian traditions in American history.
The House of Charity tries to follow Jesus’ instructions to “welcome the least among you.” To that end, workers and volunteers carefully avoid preaching religious doctrine to the homeless seeking food and shelter. By doing so, the shelter can accept taxpayer money to help pay the bills.
The Union Gospel Mission follows the example of Jesus as one who “gives sight to the blind, heals the sick and preaches the good news to the poor.” The mission, which operates solely on private donations, weaves a heavy religious message throughout the shelter.
When Washington’s welfare reform law takes effect July 1, it opens the door for more religious charities to operate with government money, regardless of the religious content mixed in with the services to the poor.
Critics fear the needy will be taken advantage of by religious charities seeking to proselytize. Advocates say they are willing to allow some preaching to take advantage of successful organizations like the Union Gospel Mission.
The mission was founded in 1951 to feed men both physically and spiritually. Director Phil Altmeyer says both purposes are equally important.
“The power is in the Gospel. And we’ve been called to proclaim it,” Altmeyer said. “The more we proclaim, the more opportunity God has to work in people’s lives.”
As a result, nightly chapel services are mandatory for anyone spending the night. Christian counselors are available for the men who come through the doors looking for food, clothes and a bed in which to sleep. Workers conduct random breathalizer tests and check those who appear to be drunk. That way staff can ensure no one inside the building has been drinking.
The House of Charity was founded by Roman Catholic Bishop Bernard Topel, who sold the bishop’s mansion, gave the money to charity and lived in a four-room house. In feeding and clothing the homeless, Topel believed he and other Catholics were reaching out to Christ himself.
“We provide them a social service for their dignity as a child of God,” said Mike Ryan, director of Catholic Charities, which runs the House of Charity.
Christian charities are part of America’s foundation, said Warren Vinz, Boise State University history professor. His book, “American Religious History: Pulpit Politics,” will be published this fall.
Churches were the first institutions European settlers created, and almost all churches ran charitable programs.
“Traditionally, Roman Catholics didn’t buy the idea of punishing people afflicted by poverty,” Vinz said. “They believed poverty was something that gives the giver an opportunity.”
Colonial Protestants, however, saw poverty as “a kind of weakness, a character flaw,” he said.
Since the 1600s, the lines distinguishing the Catholic and Protestant approach to charity have been blurred, crossed and erased.
These days, neither approach is condemnatory. Rather, the more Catholic approach, as seen at the House of Charity, is one of simply providing goods or “loving your neighbor,” Vinz said.
The more Protestant view, such as at the Union Gospel Mission, believes the needy could improve their lives and save their souls by embracing Christian values, Vinz said.
“One group believes in a sense that what they have to say speaks for itself, the other believes that you have to explicitly say it,” he said.
House of Charity Director Ed McCarron said he is doing God’s work simply by participating in a community where most of the members are outcasts. He models his approach on the parable of the Good Samaritan, a Gentile who rescued a Jew who had been beaten, robbed and left to die.
McCarron said he often sits in meetings where social workers discuss the problems afflicting some of the transients in downtown Spokane.
“They talk about mental illness and double or triple diagnoses. I just think, sometimes he drinks, sometimes he doesn’t and sometimes he’s just crazy,” McCarron said. “We help these folks because they need us. We don’t try and change them, we just try to love them.”
Altmeyer said knowing McCarron and the House of Charity are just down the street is a relief. Altmeyer and his staff are firm about their no0drug and no-alcohol policies, “out of love.”
“Homeless people a lot of times are here because of the condition of their heart,” Altmeyer said. “Unless those heart changes are made, they don’t change the lifestyle patterns that cause them to be homeless.”
Altmeyer believes that continuing to provide food and beds for chronic alcoholics, the primary affliction of many homeless men, can enable them to continue their self-destructive lifestyle.
Although they have different approaches, Ryan points out that the two shelters have a symbiotic relationship. One couldn’t operate without the other.
If the Union Gospel Mission didn’t have a no-alcohol policy, men who want to avoid booze wouldn’t have a place to go, Ryan said.
If the House of Charity didn’t welcome everyone, no matter what their condition, men would routinely freeze or starve to death in the streets.
“Are we as a society willing to tolerate that? I don’t think so,” he said. “There’s not a lot of answers to the questions about how a Christian charity should behave. There’s just a lot of challenges.”
Perhaps the biggest difference is the ability to measure their effect. For the Union Gospel Mission, it’s easy. Along with meals served and overnight guests, their monthly newsletter reports the number of “conversions to Christ.”
On top of that, dozens of men are enrolled in an intense recovery program that involves daily counseling, Bible study and volunteer work.
One of them is Will Smith, 26, who is returning to school with the help of the mission staff after a decade of drug and alcohol abuse.
He’s lived in a tiny room at the mission for 15 months putting his life back together.
“It’s not like you just wake up and change your life,” he said. “They’ve given me the space and encouragement to change.”
Quantifying the impact of the House of Charity is more a task of measuring what doesn’t happen. No one starves to death on the streets of Spokane. Very few ever freeze to death.
Earlier this year, a man who had been homeless for decades moved into a low-income apartment. He may have starved or frozen if the House of Charity had not fed him and given him a bed in the winter.
“I wouldn’t go to the mission if I was dying,” said the man, who didn’t want his name published. “They won’t let you drink, they look at you like you’re the devil himself if you try and get a meal there after you’ve been drinking.”
Recently the House of Charity took a step that on the surface made it look more like the Union Gospel Mission: It began offering worship services.
Still, there are drastic differences. Nightly services at the mission are compulsory for men spending the night. In Altmeyer’s eyes there would be no point to any charitable action without also providing a worship service.
“If I said, ‘Let’s not have services,’ I’d be saying the word of God has no power,” he said. “If you have a cure for a disease, are you going to offer it or are you going to withhold it? We have the cure - it’s the Gospel of Christ.”
The Sunday afternoon Mass at the House of Charity has a different flavor. It’s the one day of the week no meal is served there. No one is required to attend. Sometimes no one does; sometimes as many as 30 men show up.
Ryan explained his philosophy behind the service.
“I would never want to say that because they are homeless they are not spiritual people who have deep feelings of faith,” he said. “They are spiritual people and they have the need to express that and celebrate it, just like we all do.”
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