This week has been quite exciting. My dad and I have been meeting with homeless men and women at the New Life Free Store on Commercial Street in Springfield Missouri. Far from being an official church service or Bible study, we sit on old chairs or the carpet and just talk about what’s been going on in our lives. We ask to hear their stories about just making it day to day on the streets. The openness and eagerness is so refreshing. Since the spring I’ve been repeatedly listening to about twenty songs by Johnny Cash, many old folk songs like “Palms of Victory” and “Kneeling Drunkards Plea,” some new like “The Beast in Me” and “Unchained.” What I’ve been hearing is the universal human experience of failure and desperation, of confession and forgiveness, of hope and healing and a future. Before heading down to Springfield I gathered the lyrics to many of these songs. I didn’t really know what for. I dug them out and sang them with my new friends at this meeting. The effect on me personally to share these songs was staggering. I’ve shared here before that I’ve been involved in twelve step recovery for a few years now. These songs speak to so much of what I’ve learned from my group. During the last meeting I met a man, Eddie, who had played lead guitar in a band sometime ago. Eddie was honest that he’d had a few drinks before the meeting. He wanted to get sober, we talked about it several times. Eddie sprung right into “I Saw the Light” and he knew more of the lyrics than I did.
I get so much out of these kind of friendships. Its hard to believe that a place like this, a shelter from the extreme cold, could be illegal. Its even harder to believe that its illegal in a small city that has so many Bible colleges, churches, and church headquarters such as the Assemblies of God and the Baptist Bible Fellowship. But its true. The only way we meet in this warm place and then let these folks sleep overnight is in direct violation of a city ordinance that says that emergency shelters may not be within a certain number of feet from one another. The city argues that it doesn’t need any more homeless shelters and that this ordinance helps keep the homeless population under control. So in essence, if someone is slightly intoxicated or without ID they’re just SOL. They can’t be on the street but they can’t be “illegally” housed either. In addition, police have been harassing the homeless, trying to catch them jay walking, threatening arrest just for walking around. Many folks have stories of their camps in the woods being discovered and their belonging destroyed. The other night staff at the Free Store were visited three times by policemen and finally threatened with arrest for taking in homeless people. So, my dad (Rev. Larry Rice) had had enough. The next day (yesterday) he called a press conference to admit that they were indeed sheltering the homeless (it had been an open secret) and that they would continue it. Further, after the Press Conference he and the homeless marched down to the police station and he met with the highest ranking officer on duty to turn himself in. “Don’t arrest the staff,” he said, “arrest me.”
Frank Lockwood of Bible Belt Blogger covers the story in his post: “Pastor: I’ll help the homeless ’til police arrest me.” He wasn’t arrested at the station, they were very kind and helpful. An officer with internal affairs said to forward any more reports of harassment to him personally. This was far better than expected. A reporter from the Springfield NewsLeader was there taking notes. But of course, this isn’t the end. The zoning law remains the same. In truth this battle has been on in different ways for the last five years. New Life was recently given the Social Security Building in Springfield by the federal government. It just so happens to be located within 2000 feet of another emergency shelter. Here’s the Press Release as issued yesterday. I’ll try to keep you posted on the situation as it develops.
TODAY, DECEMBER 6TH AT 2PM
209 W. COMMERCIAL
Larry Rice is willing to be arrested by Springfield police for sheltering the Springfield homeless during the extreme cold temperatures. At the press conference he will explain how New Life Evangelistic Center Free Store and Church has been providing sanctuary to the homeless who would otherwise sleep outside.
Yesterday, the NLEC staff on location were visited three times by Springfield Police Officer Steve Miller, who told them they could not operate a shelter due to zoning ordinances (but at night it is the Springfield Police who call NLEC to give shelter to the homeless, including a 70 year old veteran). On his third visit to NLEC, Officer Miller threatened to arrest any of the NLEC staff who were providing shelter.
Rev. Rice will explain how and where he has been hiding the Springfield homeless during the severe cold weather. Because of Springfield’s repressive law requiring services for the homeless to be 2000 feet away from each other, Rev. Rice’s activities to help them at 209 W. Commercial have been declared illegal.
Following the Press Conference, Larry Rice will march with the homeless to the Police Station to turn himself in. If he is arrested, he promises that once he is released, he will be right back at 209 W. Commercial, sheltering the homeless in obedience to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25. If he is not arrested, he will be sleeping at the shelter with the homeless tonight.
Also during the Press Conference, Rev. Rice will be calling on the clergy of Springfield to join him in taking a stand this Christmas and open their churches to help the homeless as Jesus taught. In addition, an update will be given on the use of the Social Security Building, which has been given to NLEC to help homeless veterans in 2007.