Steadfast in the City — City Hall Opposition: A Response

While hanging rafters in a Chicago suburb seven years ago, I decided I would go to seminary to be a pastor in the LCMS. I never thought much of my work in my first call would be illegal. I serve food to the homeless every Saturday night in Love Park, and often throughout the week while on foot—something that will be illegal in a few short weeks.

In a statement from Philadelphia’s Mayor Michael Nutter delivered Wednesday, giving food to the homeless in public will be illegal, punishable by fines. The rationale the mayor gave us for the ban is that he wants safer food conditions for the poor, increased dignity for the homeless, better access to public programs for those who need them, improved coordination between aid agencies, and cleaner streets. I think those are great goals. I want those things. I hope those things become a reality. I work for those things every day.

However, Mayor Nutter’s words sound great on paper because the homeless have no voice. Those who smell bad, act strange and live odd lives don’t get much say compared to us who shower, speak appropriately and can face up well to the world around us. The homeless are unwanted, and their voices aren’t heard. They die and little amounts to their passing. Yes, a homeless man can have an off-putting way about him. But he is still a man; I see him as a person who should be cared for as I would care for my son. So, in opposition to the mayor’s ban and his rhetoric to enforce it, allow me to speak for those whose only means of communication are letters scrawled on a scrap piece of cardboard.

First, the mayor says I rob my homeless people of their dignity. This bothers me the most. I talk to the homeless. I pray with them and visit with them. I don’t give them food only to salve my own conscience and pat my organization on the back. How a parish pastor makes shut-in calls, I make street calls where I read scriptures, offer a devotion, pray for the person and follow up to check their progress. Sometimes I just chat. They know I love them because I tell them.

Not only do I treat the homeless as real people, I give them a means to do what gives them purpose in life. For example, my events on Saturday night in Love Park are staffed by four homeless people who put in more hours into the project than I do. They speak of how contributing to this project has changed their lives and their self-esteem has grown. I give them a forum to work alongside my volunteers who have homes, and in the process we all learn and grow.

And while my homeless and homed volunteers work together, my family also joins in to serve. My wife brings my five year old daughter and two year old son to help. The homeless have quite a reaction to the fact that my group doesn’t treat them as a worthless group to be feared. And I do this even if they’re not appreciative, or if they’re lazy, or if they have given up on life. I don’t seek to serve the deserving and the appreciative. If someone is hungry, they get food. If they are cold, they get clothes. All get love formed by Christ who loved us. I believe in preemptive love that serves first and asks questions later.

So, dignity? I think we dignify the homeless just fine.

Second, the mayor’s statement implies our work amounts to (his actual words): “opening a car trunk, handing out a bunch of sandwiches, and then driving off into the dark and rainy night.” I think I have covered this enough in my above point. Living down to the mayor’s caricature of my work would be un-Christian.

Third, the mayor says we don’t work hard enough to attach the homeless to needed services. Actually, I have to work quite hard at this, and I work harder week after week as the mayor closes and defunds more of the programs the homeless need. But of the slim options this city has left us, though they have added some others, I network all week to get people to those who know where they can go. If someone needs drug counseling in addition to my spiritual care, I know to whom he should speak. If a woman is in need of prenatal care, I know where to send her for that. In short, I think it’s the mayor and his policies that are keeping the homeless from care, not my street outreach.

Fourth, it seems like such an easy thing for us to move indoors. This is the usual retort of people naive to the realities of intensely urban ministry. One of the largest indoor kitchens has been defunded and closed by the city, eliminating hundreds of daily meals, nurses, counselors and beds. The places that I know of who come in anyway close to matching this program I can count on one hand, and a few of those are dilapidated buildings infested with rats and bugs (I’ve seen this with my own eyes, by the way).

Most of the places that serve food in a cafeteria do so once or twice a week due to the high cost and difficulty in finding volunteers. The comment that it should be easy to find a place for me to serve inside sounds reasonable to someone who doesn’t know the cost of space in downtown Philadelphia. Even if we rent from an existing church or agency, the cost would be pretty high to cover our portion of that organization’s insurance, utilities and staff people to manage our work. And even if we did find somewhere, the sheer lack of such options would eliminate a major food source for the hungry.

If we were to hypothetically raise the funds to start our own kitchen, something that could cost millions, we have a year of bureaucratic red tape to manage. Even if we could afford it, and let’s say we could satisfy the city, to be eligible for the license we have to have a petition signed by the residents within a four block radius of the proposed location. In downtown Philadelphia, that petition could require tens of thousands of names of people who are likely opposed to a kitchen moving into their neighborhood.

To bring this all together, I’ll make a few closing remarks to put the day-to-day reality into perspective.

As of the date of my writing this article, we have 1,544 beds in shelters for around 6,000 homeless people (the number is our best guess). By the end of spring, one more city-funded shelter will close, bringing the number of beds down to 1,244 as the population of the homeless community here continues to rise. After someone is lucky enough to grab a bed, or find a space in a building or with someone else, the number of people sleeping on the streets is anywhere between 500-1000 every night. I can name less than five indoor cafeterias who can handle 500 people for food only, not to mention the sheer food cost associated with the operation.

Not only is the homeless population underserved, but I also work with the tens of thousands of people who have homes, but no food in the cupboard. I know of children who receive free lunch at school, only to go hungry at home if we (and those like us) didn’t feed them from the parks. Women and their children show us a particularly sad reality of homeless life—a woman can find a place to stay easier than a man. She can shack up with some guy she doesn’t know, exchanging sex for a roof over her children’s heads, water for their baths and heat during the winter. This is common as she waits for years on the list for subsidized housing.

In conclusion, I oppose Mayor Nutter’s ban on feeding the homeless in public. I provide a necessary service in accordance with the privileges of my religion to serve the poor. Do I think serving in Love Park is ideal? No. I want better, but I also have to work with what I have been given. I also want the relief workers to band together and think strategically about serving the needs of the poor. I want safe food handling procedures to be followed by everyone who serves. What I don’t want is a set of policies that seek to solve homelessness by starving the poor out of our city so they won’t be seen by tourists. We can do better than that.

I have one standard question I ask myself in establishing what I consider to be my best practices in regards to the poor: What would I do if they were my own children? I answer the question and act accordingly. I hope the mayor will do the same.

About Pastor Joshua Gale

Pastor Joshua Gale was born in Danville, IL, and later studied at Illinois State University, graduating with a degree in Philosophy in 2007. He then began his studies toward ordination into the Office of the Holy Ministry at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, IN. Pastor Gale served a summer vicarage at a rural church plant in Hartford City, IN, and later a vicarage in Gary, IN, as an urban missionary to the city. Upon graduation from the seminary, Pastor Gale served as a missionary pastor with Philadelphia Lutheran Ministries, developing urban mission plans for mercy work and church planting in Philadelphia. In 2013, he accepted the call to serve in Lima, Peru, as a mission developer and church planter, focusing on the neighborhood of La Victoria through the recently opened Castillo Fuerte Mercy Center. He and his wife Amanda have two children, Zechariah and Katharina. View his blog here.


Steadfast in the City — City Hall Opposition: A Response — 42 Comments

  1. FYI, my next post will outline my plan to work legally within the confines of the new ban, keeping everything kosher with the city.

  2. “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and He will reward him for what he has done.” Proverbs 19:17

  3. While I’m not in the ministry, I am a resident of the urban Northeast. So I’m not necessarily naive about the realities of urban life.

    Land and facilities are very expensive, especially in the city. In New York City I paid $1,900 dollars a month for a very modest one-room apartment on the fifth floor of an aging building in some danger of collapse. Fortunately, I had a job that enabled me to pay that expense. Unfortunately, that job was suddenly taken away one day. I know that many others have been through similar trials, especially in the last few years.

    Everyone in the city needs public spaces for exercise, rest, play, etc., especially those who are working hard to make ends meet. Public parks were never intended to be public cafeterias. Feeding the homeless in public parks attracts large numbers of people with habits that drive away other users. By doing so, you are appropriating public property to do your thing without paying for it. You and the other taxpayers of Philadelphia are paying dearly to have public spaces for recreation. When one group takes over that space for their own ends, they are effectively stealing from the community. I think I see where Mayor Nutter is coming from.

    Now you think that your ministry is a noble and selfless undertaking. I agree, and I think it is well within the vocations of Christian and pastor. Unfortunately, finding land and space to help those who cannot help themselves is a difficult and expensive undertaking. But I think appropriating this space from the people of Philadelphia is not right or fair.

  4. Pasor Gale-You are facing a fact of life–There is a segement of the governing class that does NOT want ANY private assistance to be handled by private agencies. These in the governing class want Government run systems ONLY, or those that they call “private-public ‘partnerships'”, where the government part of the partnership is overruling. If private entites step into any social services, they are to run under government mandates, even those the private entity finds morally objectionable.

    That is the heart of the debate in forcing church related entites like schools and hospitals to provide birth control/abortion coverage. That is the heart of forcing your feeding efforts to meet these mandates. The government thinks that they know best, and that anyone who disagrees with them is stupid and/or evil. To them, the state IS the religion, anmd you must worship the state in word and action. May God have mercy on us all….

  5. What is next? Is Philadelphia going to outlaw dinner parties and picnics and potlucks? Because that is where I give away food to folks who are friends, acquaintances and even some who don’t know me. Are we no longer free? How can this possibly be legal?

  6. Josh,

    This is so heartbreaking; I cannot comprehend how this law can be enforced? If I see a homeless person, and give them food, I am breaking the law? How can this be? Isn’t Philadelphia the city of brotherly love? Well…maybe not anymore…

    What can we do to help?

  7. I hope he doesn’t mind me posting this, but it might take some heat off him. Matt Jamison just called me to chat about his opinion, and he is volunteering to come down and see my work first-hand. So, he’s cool, even though we disagree.

  8. The dignity aspect was what struck me about this. How is it undignified to bring someone food and meet them where they are? Thank you for the crucial work you do. You and PLM continue to be in our prayers.

  9. I am praying for you. I am going to search for your ministry address to send a small donation. Keep up your faithful work!

  10. #10 Gary,

    Good idea, so Pastor Gale, is there some way those of us in the great midwest can help support you financially?

  11. I am glad that Mr. Jamison and Pr. Gale are getting together. I pray God blesses that meeting and all may be to His glory.

    One thought on Mr. Jamison’s response, however. Are the homeless in the park because the food is served there, or is the food served there because the homeless are in the park? I know that it can turn into a chicken and egg thing, but this all started because those who desire to serve go to where the people already are. Meals-On-Wheels delivers meals to people in the homes where they live. If the homeless are living in the park already, is it stealing to give them the same honor, respect and dignity by delivering meals to where they live?

  12. A great way you can support the ministry is by praying for us and our work; consider asking your pastor to include us in the prayers this Sunday as we deliberate on the new ordinances and work at preparing our new set property in Northeast Philly for a church plant and mercy center. If you would like to make a financial gift, we have a donate button on our website ( ), or you can find the PO Box address in the “Give Now!” section. You’ll find new content on the website here soon, but I manage the Facebook page regularly to keep everyone updated (search for: Philadelphia Lutheran Ministries).

    Thanks for all the kind words and support! I see situations like this as a chance to do more and serve the poor even better than we did before. We just have to wait and see how that will look.

  13. PPPadre:

    Good question.

    I was talking with one of the Franciscans who work with a fantastic program called St John’s Hospice in downtown Philly. The guy has been associated with the mission for some time, and I asked him the same question. He said that when the deinstitutionalization of the displaced mentally ill kicked in decades ago (60s or 70s?), they started to live in a few of the parks in the city near where relief agencies were, such as the VA and the YMCA. In order to serve that population, relief workers started street outreach to supplement the limited number of resources remaining. We’re in a similar situation now: street outreach is necessary because the current structure of care is underfunded and limited.

  14. ” But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. ”

    I guess the city named for brotherly love can scratch kindness off of that list.

  15. @Rahn Hasbargen #4
    Its a very popular argument to try and make these days – government wants to take over your life and run it – but it simply doesn’t hold any weight. The anti-government movement is an unsuccessful platform. And this particular issue has nothing to do with birth control. I suspect there is a reason (well beyond the Mayor wanting to dictate people’s behavior) why the local government is saying the homeless are being treated in an undignified way. I applaud Pastor Gale for his consistent work in difficult circumstances and pray that his example will resonate loudly with the Mayor. Stay strong Pastor!!

  16. Lutherans are a different breed. Since we don’t believe in good works for the sake of good works we then feel villified in writing a check to our favorite charity. Therefore we can justify not getting our hands dirty in a soup kitchen. We avoid the good works “thingy” but then we miss out on the most important thing of all ——– LOVE to our neighbor. “If ye have done it to the least of these you have done it to me….”

  17. @Paul #17

    I suggest you read the CPH book “Modern Fascism-The Threat to the Judeo Christian World View” by Gene Edward Veith, Jr. (it’s available as an e-book, so you can get it fairly quickly if you have the means). After you read it, we can discuss this from a Confessional Lutheran perspective. It was recommended to me a few weeks ago, and was very enlightening on the perspective of paople who place so much value in what the kingdom of the left does. The perspective may not be popular (“doen’t hold weight” and “unsuccessful platform”, as you put it), but nobody ever said the Confessional perspective was popular.

  18. @Rahn Hasbargen #4
    Where’s the “Like” button for this post?

    Don’t feed the homeless. By the way, the city, county, and state are broke. “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”

    Oh, the irony!

  19. > As of the date of my writing this article, we have 1,544 beds in shelters for around 6,000 homeless people

    The fact is that services for homeless and mentally ill people are rationed by terminating or never providing services to those who are not mentally fit to navigate application processes and requirements, or who simply prefer their idea of freedom to having to cooperate and be cooped up with others like them. So, they end up wandering around the streets and camping out on vacant lots and in abandoned buildings.

    It is also somewhat inexplicable that church members typically think that it is the government’s job to take care of such people – and they assume that this is happening.

    A reactionary response to the “social gospel” is unacceptable. The Lutheran church should not only excel in theology but in all good works, including DOMESTIC human care.

  20. Paul :
    @Rahn Hasbargen #4
    Its a very popular argument to try and make these days – government wants to take over your life and run it – but it simply doesn’t hold any weight. The anti-government movement is an unsuccessful platform. And this particular issue has nothing to do with birth control. I suspect there is a reason (well beyond the Mayor wanting to dictate people’s behavior) why the local government is saying the homeless are being treated in an undignified way. I applaud Pastor Gale for his consistent work in difficult circumstances and pray that his example will resonate loudly with the Mayor. Stay strong Pastor!!

    The political left essentially does not believe in private charity. This is often evidenced in the tax returns of democrat politicians. The political left believes in the government running all charity. This is not the same thing as what the church does (or SHOULD be doing). It is not love. It is self justification and an attempt to salve guilt. This new law in Philadelphia appears despicable.

  21. @mbw #23
    The new law APPEARs despicable but my point was there is likely background we don’t have that might have contributed to the law.

    And I couldn’t disagree more with you about the democrat politicians. I worked closely with President Jimmy Carter (pretty far to the left) at Habitat for Humanity and The Carter Center. Show me a conservative that has done more for those in need in US and abroad.

  22. @Paul #24

    > there is likely background we don’t have that might have contributed to the law.

    This is conceivable, but if any facts support this idea, it would e a good idea to get those facts out soon.

  23. I would guess that the “nice people” want a clean park to let their dogs poop in.
    The homeless have gotten there first and nobody is providing “pooper scoopers” for them.
    Or public lavatories, either….

  24. @Rahn Hasbargen #4
    @Lumpenkönig #21

    I remember “sending people out of institutions back to be cared for in their home communities”.
    Except, a “strange” thing happened: nobody in the “home communities” cared for a lot of them.
    Those “more humane” group homes only materialized for a relative few.
    [Then, too, given a choice, some people chafe under the rules of any group home.]

    Mostly, IMO, it was about saving the state money, even back then.

    One man’s cardboard “gimme card” here said, “Why have a $200,000 mortgage when you can sleep under a $2,000,000 bridge? [I gave him a dollar and “thanks for the sense of humor.”]

  25. @Paul #24
    “Show me a conservative that has done more for those in need in US and abroad.”

    Here’s a few:

    Excerpts from Ann’s stinging sarcasm:

    Elected Democrats crow about how much they love the poor by demanding overburdened taxpayers fund government redistribution schemes, but can never seem to open their own wallets.

    He also dropped a $5 bill in the Salvation Army pail and almost didn’t ask for change.

    The Obamas’ charitable giving is equally divided between “hope” and “change.”

  26. @Ted Crandall #30
    I must admit to being shocked when anyone quotes that woman, she is a disgrace.

    The truth is social issues need a cooperation of both private and public interests. Neither can effectively do it alone on the scale of a 300 million-person country and 7 billion-person world. As great as some private organizations are (and there are many doing very important work with deep impact) it requires effective practice but also scale. Habitat for Humanity has a great model for low-income housing but, on its own, loses ground to the issue on a scale of 10-1 or more.

    I’m torn on the issue of anonymous giving as public giving has inspired many others to get engaged. Just read a book called The Touch by Randall Wallace that had anonymous giving as a central theme. Very quick but engaging read.

  27. Yeah I think she does make false statements – all the time. Again, I’ll stack Jimmy Carter against anyone the conservatives would like to nominate.

    And being right isn’t the only litmus test. Her language, tone, accusations, arrogance, etc. contributes to the erosion of our society. She’s in the business of hate and division. I have not seen her contribute anything positive since she came on the scene.

  28. @John Rixe #37
    Well, I must admit, some of those comments are a bit off the mark. But much of it is good as well. That he has tried to emulate in his life and practice what we know of Christ is admirable and he has been a great example. What I appreciate most about him (post-presidency of course) is he is about “the doing” and doesn’t get too bogged down in the theoretical.

  29. @Paul #36

    Yeah I think she does make false statements – all the time.

    Such as? Can you give one example?

    It is one thing to say you think she says stuff that isn’t true. It is another to say what exactly it is. I mean I could say I don’t like your tone, and I think you say things that are wrong all the time. It means nothing. Hey, maybe she does say stuff that is wrong. I have only read a few short things by her, so I wouldn’t know. You say you know, so can you name somethng?

    I’m torn on the issue of anonymous giving as public giving has inspired many others to get engaged.

    If someone gives money to Habitat for Humanity without any real feeling but just wants to look good and get his reward now in the form of people thinking he is good, well, it still helps people. This is just a hypothetical, I am not saying people who give publicly are just doing it for selfish reasons, but if they were, it would still help people. In fact creating a climate that rewards selfish jerks for helping the poor may be a good thing. The truly pure in heart don’t need an incentive, but how many fall in that category?

  30. @Mrs. Hume #40
    But you didn’t ask me what she said was false, your question was does she say false things. There are plenty of site dedicated to her false statements.

    My experience in regard to philanthropic giving is that 99% of people like to be recognized in some way. Name on a building, in an annual report, in a letter, any number of ways. Donors have a wide variety of motivations and it shouldnt be an organizations concern what their motivation is (unless is is contrary to their mission or immoral). At the end of the day their job to to execute their mission and it requires funding. providing some recognition seems a small thing to me.

  31. I worked with the homeless in Seattle, WA for the past 3 years and this law is appalling. I understand politicians whats better for the area they serve but I have a problem when they start destroying the social fabric of a community to help themselves. This has nothing to do with the safety of the homeless. He wants to get them off the streets so they don’t bother tourists. Seattle has the same thing. Its pathetic and its concentrating poverty, which is a bigger problem.

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