Dr. Jill Shook’s sermon on housing justice at Knox Presbyterian Church

22 Jun


Jill preaching at KnoxMy husband Anthony and I love to sing “Everyone “neath their vine and fig tree” to guests when they visit our home as we dine under our grape arbor, which is next to a fig tree. This motif is a repeated symbol in Scripture of a secure home. So, imagine this peaceful setting as I share with you today, but let’s also imagine how God shakes us out of our false security when we ignore God’s mandate to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8).

It is my prayer this morning that God would use me and these words as his vessel of love and justice.

After reading the seven chapters of Micah in one setting, I felt like I had just been on a roller coaster, with God’s severe judgment and severe mercy swinging back and forth throughout the book. Some find it hard to mix judgment with God’s love, but Micah has gifted us with a message in how to do this.

Micah was from Moresheth-Gath, a small town in southwest Judah, where Goliath was slain by David.  Micah’s father’s name is not given, which suggests that Micah was a descendent of the common people. Growing up in a small rural town, Micah likely took courage from the story of Goliath when he boldly called out God’s message of severe judgement on Judah and Jerusalem and 11 cities in chapter 2. It struck me that he was not calling out individuals by name, but cities. Micah championed the poor by condemning oppressors who gobbled up the land of peasants.   

Repeatedly God tells Israel that if she fails to keep God’s law, she will lose her land. They had unjustly taken land, now theirs was being taken. With severe mercy, God was now pushing people from their homes and their land. By calling out the cities in advance, they would know that God is just, going to any length to wake them up. And God is using humans, common people like Micah to announce this news.

Micah was the first prophet to predict the downfall of Jerusalem and told them to get ready to grieve the loss of their land. Most of the Hebrew prophets spoke to cities and nations, not to individuals. And so should we. Like Moses who spoke to Pharaoh, and Esther who spoke to the King, we speak to decision makers, to elected officials, to bring about justice and redemption.

Because our American culture is so individualistic, we often read the Bible in a personal way, as if it is only about personal sin, and we miss the sin of cities and nations—of cultures of violence supported by unjust structures, unjust allocations of land and funds, and un-just policies and priorities.

For example, Pasadena was beginning to experience a growing homeless crisis in the 90s but didn’t have a housing department to address this. We advocated for a housing department, and we got one. We now have Bill Huang as our Housing Director, who is deeply respected and committed to house our unhoused neighbors. Thanks to him, and a shift in thinking toward ending homelessness, as opposed to managing homelessness, and thanks to our advocacy efforts, the work of homeless service providers, and concerned churches and citizens, the homeless count in Pasadena declined by 56 % from 1,216 in 2011 to 527 in 2020.  To me, this is astounding considering how most other cities are seeing dramatic increases.

This process of cultural and structural change around well-researched best practices is what I call the redemption of the city.

But the cities that Micah called out were beyond redemption.

So, what was the sin and rebellion of the cities of Israel and Judah that Micah outlines as meriting such severe judgement?

It had to do with believing in false prophets more interested in money than in truth telling. It had to do with taking land and homes from the poor. Jerusalem was doomed because its beautification was financed by dishonest business practices, which impoverished the city’s citizens. 

In Micah Chapter 2: 2 is says:

When you want a piece of land,
    you find a way to seize it.
When you want someone’s house,
    you take it by fraud and violence.
You cheat a man of his property,
    stealing his family’s inheritance.

What does this remind you of?  Of homes of our brothers and sisters being bulldozed in Palestine? …“You take homes by fraud and violence” What about Bruce’s Beach taken from African Americans by eminent domain 100 year ago by the city of Manhattan Beach? … “You cheat a man out of his property and find a way to steal it.” It has been so hopeful for me to learn this may become the first time in the US that land taken may actually be returned to Blacks as a form of reparations.

What about closer to home where thousands of homes were taken from African Americans where the 210 Freeway and Parson’s engineering now sits? …“When you want a piece of land, you find a way to seize it.” What about when the city refuses to allow the proper zoning, so a church’s dream is possible of having affordable housing on its underutilized land?  This is the case on N. Fair Oaks.  

Micah also lists eviction as one of the other sins that God abhors:

Verse 2:9 says, you have evicted women from their pleasant homes
    and forever stripped their children of all that God would give them.

This verse reminds me of all the migrant children fleeing violence and seeking peace, who have been stripped of all God would give them. It also reminds me of those who are hanging on for dear life to their homes, having to choose between eating or paying rent. It’s very hard to imagine what it’s like for 66,000 people—almost half the size of Pasadena—who now make sidewalks and encampments their home in LA County …reminiscent of Calcutta. “People stripped of all that God has for them.”

In his powerful, award-winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in America, Matthew Desmond has helped us to imagine how it’s possible that folks can spiral down into homelessness, and also to imagine the systemic factors at play. Desmond reminds us that once an eviction is on your record you have little chance of finding another place to live. He estimates 1 million evictions a year take place in the US. Matthew Desmond sums this injustice up by saying that “Black women are locked out, and Black men are locked up.” 

There are probably few if any members of Knox who have been evicted (or locked up), but if you go to some the African American Churches in town, too many are them are emptying out, in a sense evited from our city, because of skyrocketing housing costs, and being locked out of better paying jobs. 

Let me bring this closer to home, it is estimated that 1 in 5 students at PCC across the street are homeless, that is 19%! I spoke to a collage professor two weeks ago who said the there was at least one homeless student in every one of her classes. Could a vision be fostered whereby PCC’s large parking lots could have stacked parking with low-income apartments? This is not impossible.

Many in our city are “over-housed,” according to Pasadena Housing Director, Bill Huang. He says that many homeowners, especially older ones whose children have left for college, have more bedrooms than they need.

Here, I want to tell you a story of what happened when I was on staff at Lake Avenue Church, and director of the STARS after school tutoring program. Most of the low-income kids we served were living in overcrowded conditions. Several of our youth lived in a home with 10 families!!

I was driving some of these kids in my 8 passenger green Ford Taurus up toward Sierra Madre. Their eyes got bigger as the homes got bigger, and one said, “There must be a lot of families who live there!!” When I explained that it was probably just one couple, they said, “They must feel really lonely!” They may well be right.

Home sharing programs across the US are addressing both over-crowding, over-housed communities, and student homelessness and loneliness—reweaving society, changing cultures, and creating life-giving structures that reflect God’s justice and mercy. Perhaps such a program could take hold here if there is a vision for this.

For the past 7 years, my husband Anthony and I have housed a brilliant formerly homeless man in our back house. He has become like family. Each Wednesday we enjoy a meal, a time of prayer and Bible study. I wish you could all be part of these delightful discussions from a formerly homeless perspective. We have been humbled and transformed.

If you live in a single-family home, I want you to imagine what is in your back yard. Let’s consider how we might be better stewards what God has given us and how we might be blessed to house a student or an unhoused neighbor.

I believe Micah’s message to us is one of hope. Hope is fostered as we participate in action and see results. From Micah we see that God is real, that God does what he says. Micah foretells the destruction of Jerusalem, which was subsequently destroyed three times, the first one being the fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy. About 150 years later, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC.

Micah also tells us of an ideal that could be made real. God does not settle but give us an ideal to strive for with the mandate and means to do accomplish this ideal.  The heart of this message is in Micah chapter 4, the focus of my sermon today.

Listen to chapter 4: verses 2-4:  

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the house of Jacob’s God.
There he will teach us his ways,
    and we will walk in his paths.”
The Lord will mediate between peoples
    and will settle disputes between strong nations far away.
They will hammer their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will no longer fight against nation,
    nor train for war anymore.
Everyone will live in peace and prosperity,
    enjoying their own grapevines and fig trees,
    for there will be nothing to fear.
The Lord of Heaven’s Armies
    has made this promise!

Here settling disputes without implements of war, is interlinked with peasant farmers freed from military oppression. Due to conflict and war, in 2020 alone, 82.4 million people in the world were displaced—all in just one year!! I thank God for the example of Knox to help house some of those displaced. I believe that God is telling us if we ended war, we’d keep people in their homes and we could live in peace, and secure, everyone under their own vine and fig tree.

Is ending war possible? Are there alternatives that work?  One of my favorite authors, Walter Wink in his book, Engaging the Powers, lists a sample of 73 significant conflicts resolved without a gunshot. I also love to point to Costa Rica, a county that chose to have no military, but instead invest in education and environmental initiatives. Compared to other Latin America countries, Costa Rica is thriving!

Is ending homelessness possible? A resounding yes! We know what ends homelessness, and its homes. Just one policy we helped get passed in 2001—and again we strengthened in 2019, requires that 20% of all new housing be set aside as affordable. This inclusionary policy has produced over 1,000 affordable units spread throughout the city, at no cost to the city.

In the past two years, our ASHA team has been able to build hope with multiple prayer vigils and implements of change to create multiple wins, gaining approval of 149 PSH—permanent supportive housing units, which ends chronic homeless.  They won the approval of another 112 affordable senior housing units with 10% for those experiencing homelessness right in the city center by the city hall.  

When one has their own vine and fig tree, a secure place to call home, with the support to thrive, not just survive, we end homeless for that one person.

Cynthia Kirby was homeless for 10 years in E. Pasadena and thanks to permanent supportive housing and the grace of God her life has turned around.  Today she is employed by the Baptist Church, reunited with her husband and daughter and is getting straight As in her college classes!

Dorothy Edwards was also homeless here in Pasadena for 17 years and is now in her secure apartment, and on the national board for the corporation of supportive housing speaking around the US.

Marv’s place, which looks like a Mediterranean villa and is not far from here, on the corner of Union and Mar Vista houses 19 formerly homeless families, none of whom worked and today all are thriving, going back to school or are fully employed. The stability of a home changed everything.

Even though most of our Bible translations may entitle Micah 4 as “God’s future reign”, I believe that this not about the future, but rather as Jesus said, the kingdom of God is at hand, present now, today. And that this passage is more about setting a standard of God’s ideal today. “Thy will be done on earth… in Pasadena, at Knox… as it is in heaven.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word”.

To change our world and our cities, we need to change our thinking—to see housing as a right, not a commodity. I was delighted to see that a recent LA Times editorial promoted housing is right. The United Nations has recognized a right to housing for decades, but this document authored largely by Eleanor Roosevelt was never ratified by the US.  Micah is saying that it is God’s intention for everyone to have a right to housing, to live under their vine and fig tree, at peace and unafraid.  

Micah’s beautiful vision came out of a time when people were being ravaged by injustice and losing their homes and going into exile. Micah said that he ‘howled like a jackal and moaned like an owl” as he grieved over the destruction of these cities. Grieving is an important part of justice work.  

Do we let ourselves feel the pain of our unhoused neighbors and immigrants fleeing violence and fear? When we get to know our homeless neighbors by name and hear the stories of people forced into exile by war, we are forever changed.

In 7:8 Micah said, “Though I sit in darkness, I will rise again” and in 5:1 Micah challenged those called to destroy Jerusalem to “Mobilize!! Marshall your troops!”

With the love of Christ in our hearts we need to mobilize and marshal people of faith and conscience “to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).

Our seemingly humble actions really do make a difference. When we go to the City Hall, I often see our elected officials’ heads bobbing as they count the number of people mobilized who are taking a stand. They need to borrow our courage and belief that God’s vision for cities is possible, today.  They need to know we have their back so they can be courageous and stand against the status quo.

It will take a holy army to change our policies. It has taken an army to get people like Cynthia Kirby and Dorothy Edwards housed. Not just the service providers, but changed policies, changed thinking, secured apartments, secured land, financing, architects, volunteers, and generous donors.  But each human being made in God’s image is worth it. These women are secure in their own apartments, where they pay only a third of their income on rent.

But most renters don’t have this security. Half of Pasadena pays more than 50% of their income on rents or mortgages and there is nothing that prevents a landlord from increasing rents as much as they can. Rent control is a great policy, but it has been given a very bad rap. We desperately need this in place.

It will take an army of committed people to institute this policy and debunk all the misconceptions about it. Anthony and I spent hours having a blast getting to know our neighbors and asking them to sign the official petitions a few years ago. It was a delight to see how many were eager to sign, even landlords. But we were just shy of the 13,000 signatures needed!

Micah has inspired my Quaker husband as well as many others to work to end war. And it has inspired us both to work so that everyone can have decent and secure homes that everyone can afford. This makes for a healthy mixed-income city, lowers traffic, brings investment and all kinds of local benefits. CA recognizes this as a best practice, requiring that every city plan for enough housing for all income levels. But the key word here is “plan.” …it doesn’t require implementation. No laws require that affordable housing be built, but today it is one of the biggest needs. All affordable housing is built due to advocacy.

Each year Anthony goes to Washington DC, to join hundreds of other Quakers who lobby elected officials to end war and poverty. Their vision is to seek a world free of war and the threat of war, a society with equity and justice for all. They haven’t reached that goal yet, but have had many victories along the way, such as this week’s passage in the House of the Repeal of the Authorization of the Use of Military Force in Iraq. This authorization has been used as a “blank check” by Presidents to justify military interventions.  Recently Anthony helped to orchestrate powerful coalitions of folks to meet with Feinstein and Padilla that helped to push this forward.

Our nonprofit, Making Housing and Community Happen, is seeking to end poverty by ending housing insecurity and homelessness. We are doing this with an amazing network of churches and volunteers and partners. Our seven teams do research, show up, speak with courage and truth and the love of Christ. We are creating the world we seek.  

We chose the vine and fig tree as a motif on the logo of our nonprofit as a reminder that God’s intention is for everyone to be housed in peace.  

We know this is possible. When Congress passed the Housing Act of 1968, it committed the nation to the goal of producing 2.6 million units of affordable housing a year. As a result, in the early 1970s we were close to meeting the need for affordable housing, but since then HUD and other programs for housing have been cut every year, even though the need has increased. At the time, half of the US budget is for our military, squeezing out domestic spending. Funding priorities are one of factors leading to today’s housing crisis.

It takes faith to imagine a world as it should be, especially with 66,000 people experiencing homelessness in LA County, but it was not always so. And other counties have figured out how to adequately house their population.

Examples give us hope. The vision of the vine and fig tree give us hope.Ending war and poverty is not an impossible dream because we know it is God’s intention.

Great things can happen in small cities and towns. Micah predicted that messiah would be born in Bethlehem, Micah 5:2 says, 

But you, O Bethlehem
    are only a small village among all the people of Judah.
Yet a ruler of Israel,
    whose origins are in the distant past,
    will come from you on my behalf.”

I John 15 Jesus is referred to himself as the vine, the true vine and we the branches. Let us cling to this vine as we lift God’s intentions for a world in which everyone is housed, and lives at peace and unafraid.   

Dr. Shook’s Sermon at Knox Presbyterian

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