By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
We do what’s possible and God does what’s impossible. That is the actual title of my sermon, it was just too long for the bulletin.
One of my favorite places these days is the Faith in Action office located at the corner of Folsom and Cesar Chavez. I walk in the door saying “Hola, como esta?” and giving hugs and kisses all around the table. I’m usually one of the only people in the room that doesn’t speak Spanish but that hasn’t gotten in the way of getting to know these neighbors. And thankfully someone is always gracious enough to translate for me.
At a Faith in Action meeting this week we began by answering the question: Where have you sensed the Spirit of God in our work together?
A high schooler said she experiences the Spirit as we meet across generations. An elder reflected that she was nervous before she spoke at our recent action, but once she started talking God gave her the words. Another high schooler said he encounters the Spirit when he feels he has nothing and then God gives him the faith to go forward.
As I considered my response, I thought back to a recent meeting with my spiritual director when she asked me to try to think of the places and times when I experience a connection to the Divine. The first thought that jumped to mind was the work with Faith in Action around affordable housing for seniors.
So I said that I experience the Spirit of God every time we meet together, in the energy we bring to the work, in our connection across lines of difference, and with our vision that we can actually bring about transformation in this city.
The response that really stuck out to me that day was shared by Brenda, one of the leaders in our effort. She said, “we do what’s possible and God does what’s impossible.” Yes, we all heartily agreed! That’s exactly what it’s felt like in these recent months.
It felt impossible to convince city leaders to come alongside us, acknowledge the problem, and to find more subsidies for seniors who can’t afford “affordable” housing. In meeting after meeting this spring we were told that there just isn’t money. That the city can’t do anything. That they hadn’t heard this was a problem among seniors before. That we should look to the state for help.
The reason the subsidies are necessary is because the median income used to determine the cost of affordable housing does not take into account that many seniors are only receiving social security income. Whereas the area median income for one person is around $7,000/month, a low-income senior is receiving $600-900 in social security. So ironically, a large percentage of seniors don’t even qualify for “affordable” units because they don’t make enough money.
Our organizing effort began when seniors who had helped advocate for affordable housing in the Mission realized the cheapest units in the new complex would be $1,100/month.
As I reflected on the Amos text for today, I thought of the courageous and spirited leaders I am getting to know through Faith in Action. They are speaking the truth about the injustice done to seniors who have built this city and now are getting kicked to the streets. The words from the book of Amos are clear and cutting.
Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
Amos was one of the oracular prophets and deeply rooted in the Mosaic covenant. He is commonly dated in the middle of the 8th century BCE, during the prosperous reign of Jeroboam II in the northern kingdom and the prosperous reign of Uzziah in the southern kingdom. Prior to having kings the Mosaic covenant constituted the social policy for Israel. So oracular prophets were also known as “messengers of the covenant” who brought “covenant lawsuits” against those perpetuating injustice. In these lawsuits YHWH was the prosecutor and judge.
Biblical scholar Richard Horsley puts it this way, “They were spokespersons for the peasantry and the covenantal social-economic policy that served to protect them. Because of the blatant exploitation of the peasantry, these prophets felt compelled to oppose the ruling class, which was failing to observe the covenantal order.”
In this text Amos is naming exploitative economic practices of those who will stop at nothing to turn a profit. They do not like anything getting in the way of their markets. Then they sell too little for too high a price. They also have a disregard for human dignity, buying humans into servitude for next to nothing (foreseeably because they couldn’t pay debts). Lastly they make everything a commodity. The sweepings of wheat were supposed to be left for the poor to glean but now they come at a price.
Another scholar reflects, “In prophetic perspective, it was clear that this immense prosperity enjoyed in both kingdoms was based on disastrous practices of the rich against the poor that was sure to be unsustainable. It is the burden of the prophet to assert the illegitimacy of such social practice and to anticipate a coming judgement from YHWH.”
There was a great wealth disparity… people being displaced, made into slaves while others had multiple homes, expensive ivory and lavish parties. It is not hard to connect the dots to our reality today.
On June 23 Faith in Action held a community hearing called, “An Action of Faith for our Grandparents” where seniors told their stories of the struggle for safe and affordable housing. Like Amos they were speaking the prophetic truth of their experience as an underclass barely scraping by in the wealthiest city in the world. Pat, from our pastoral staff, who was also present wrote this summary:
“We heard testimony from people who are closest to the pain: retired women who are worried about being evicted, with no place to go. Women who thought they would be able to move into a new affordable housing complex that has just been completed, but who cannot – on a fixed income – afford even the lowest rent. We witnessed the betrayal the community felt after having backed the construction of this building, assuming it would truly benefit their community. We reviewed a couple of charts that illustrate the breadth and depth of the problem – how the mean income in San Francisco, which is used to set the baseline for rents, even in subsidized housing, makes it impossible for anyone living on a fixed income to afford to live there. One elderly woman broke down as she shared her fear of ending up on the streets. I knew all this already. And, it is still horrifying. I felt my heart breaking anew.”
During the event I was honored to share a clergy perspective on this question: What is your vision for how all seniors in San Francisco can live with dignity in truly affordable housing?
Nearly 300 people attended the event at St. Anthony’s, including people from 25 different congregations. It was a Spirit-filled gathering and communicated to public officials (those who were present and those who heard about it afterwards) that we are serious about our demand for affordable housing and capable of building power.
To these ends, as the event was coming to a close, the developer for the affordable housing project we’ve been discussing, came to the mic. Pat articulates it thus: “He had been moved by all he had heard. Speaking in Spanish he said, ‘I have a proposal. What if we take a stand? What if we don’t let anyone move into the complex, until there are truly affordable units for everyone?’ It is a bold and daring proposal. We learn later that as he sat down, this gentleman looked at those around him and said, ‘I just did something crazy!'”
We do what’s possible and God does what’s impossible.
Following the event, the tables turned and we were getting calls from supervisors, proposals from the mayor, and inquires from affordable housing developers who want our support. One supervisor, who prior to the action had said she couldn’t meet with us until September, miraculously found time just last week to sit down with us for an hour. And two weeks ago the president of the board of supervisors publicly expressed his support for our proposal that all seniors should pay no more than 30% of their income in rent.
We do what’s possible and God does what’s impossible.
This week Faith in Action got a call from another supervisor to see if clergy could show up at a Budget and Finance hearing at City Hall to speak to from a faith perspective about wealth inequality in San Francisco.
I was able to go and offered these words:
My name is Rev. Joanna Lawrence Shenk. I am a pastor at First Mennonite Church of San Francisco and live in the Mission. I am also a leader with Faith in Action. This Sunday I’m preaching from the book of Amos, where the prophet gives warning to those who trample on the needy, and bring to ruin to the poor. He’s mad because the wealthy are turning everything into a commodity and using false measures to turn a profit.
As a pastor in San Francisco it’s sadly quite easy to make the connections to what’s happening today. And in a way, it’s what’s been happening here since the 1700s to those who are not in the owning class… first in the name of the Spanish Missions to exploit the Ohlone people and land, then in the name of the United State’s lust for gold, later in the name of Urban Renewal and ridding the city of blight, and now in the name of tech-fueled hyper capitalism.
You do not need to believe in God to see that the market-forces of capitalism are destroying this city at an alarming rate. You do not need to be a person of faith to recognize it is immoral to allow market forces to determine our future. And the warning from the prophet Amos is not just for Jews and Christians to heed. It’s for any group seeking to create a just society, where the vulnerable are treated with dignity and unbridled wealth accumulation is seen for the evil it is.
I believe that even in this place, steeped in centuries of exploitation and displacement, that the Spirit of Life can still bring about transformation. The question has always been there for leaders in San Francisco, will they bow to the evils of death and displacement or will they be on the side of dignity, life and spirit?
We do what’s possible. [ask them to respond] And God does what’s impossible.
Now I’m not saying that getting the attention of city officials solves all our problems. No, rather it’s only a first step toward larger goals of affordable housing and a San Francisco that can stand up to the evils of death and displacement. Those do seem like impossible goals, but the impossible is not our department. That’s in the department of Divine power.
Our work, taking cues from the prophet Amos, is to clearly see what’s going on and name it boldly. Our work is to do what’s possible, following the lead of those who are closest to the pain (and sometimes that might be you or me). Our work is live into a vision of dignity, life and Spirit and to not lose hope even when it seems the odds stacked against us are too great.
We do what’s possible and God does what’s impossible. May it be so and amen.
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