Text: Acts 5:27-32
[Preached at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Longview WA]
“The Holy Obedience of Outlaws”
Good morning! Thank you all for having us with you today. My name is Aaron Scott. I’m the Missioner for Anti-Poverty Organizing in the Diocese of Olympia. I’m also the organizer at Chaplains on the Harbor, which is a mission station of this diocese located out on the coast in rural Grays Harbor County. Chaplains on the Harbor is a congregation of around 500 poor and homeless people, scattered across the county’s homeless encampments, trailer parks, slums, back alleys and jails. We run free meal programs, a community center, a cold weather shelter, Narcan distribution, popular education, supportive employment for millennials with criminal records on our four-acre vegetable farm, and we even manage to make a little bit of time each week for worship. I’ll share more about all that in a bit but first I want to talk about what we do through the lens of this reading from the Book of Acts.
How do we know when the law of God and the law of human authorities are at odds? What are the signs? How do we discern our own responsibilities, as people of faith, when confronted with these contradictions? Is God’s law revealed to us by respectable people? By people with graduate degrees and stable finances? Or is God’s law revealed to us by outcasts? By the very people who find themselves on the wrong side of the laws of the powers and principalities of this world?
Knowing who the apostles were helps us think through these questions a bit. The apostles were not wealthy or powerful people. The apostles, like Jesus, were poor. Most of them did backbreaking manual labor, holding down the kinds of jobs they didn’t much seem to mind walking off of the moment Jesus invited them to follow him. We find them in places like Bethany, which literally translates as “house of the poor.” And we know that Jesus, in keeping their company, said himself that he “was counted among the lawless.”
Maybe it is among the lawless where God’s law is most clearly revealed. In scripture, politicians and the wealthy are chronically running afoul of God’s law– they are accused again and again by God and the prophets of rewriting the laws of this world to serve themselves. The people who are always the first ones to stumble into the truth of God, the higher law of God, are outlaws—those whose very survival is made criminal by the rulers of this world.
Why would God reveal things to us this way?
I have one guess, based on our work at Chaplains on the Harbor and from the witness of scripture—from readings like this one we find in Acts 5 today. My guess is that God chooses to show up among scapegoated people to expose injustices where they are inherent in our legal, political, and economic structures. I believe that God does this in deeply loving effort to get us, as collective human societies, to take a long hard look in the mirror at ourselves and then invites us to be transformed from the bottom up.
Some of you may have heard a few months ago about our federal lawsuit against the City of Aberdeen. Rev. Sarah Monroe, my cofounder at Chaplains on the Harbor, was a plaintiff alongside two others when the city attempted to force homeless people to register themselves and receive permits to sleep rough at the county’s largest encampment where, up to that point, the city had provided no support services. On top of this the city also required all social service providers, advocates, clergy, and family members to apply to City Hall for permission to visit people living at the camp, or face criminal trespassing charges. Rev. Sarah applied for the permit and was denied. This was her public statement when we undertook the suit:
We have not undertaken this lawsuit lightly. The recent actions of the City of Aberdeen regarding the encampment along the Chehalis River pose a threat to our deepest moral and constitutional values. It seems unprecedented, in this country, for a local government to bar advocates, clergy, service providers, family members — basically anyone trying to assist vulnerable people in getting out of homelessness — from meeting them where they are staying. We do not believe that this is a good or safe place to live; we simply acknowledge that, for many people, there is little other choice and, while they are in those circumstances, they need pastoral care and support. It is troubling that the City Engineer has been tasked with leading this process, as opposed to someone whose expertise is in health and human services. This signals to us that the City of Aberdeen is not primarily concerned with the 100+ human beings living in crisis on this site, but rather concerned with aesthetic appearances and “cleaning up the town.”
Mayor Larson himself has agreed, on public record, that the process of registering encampment residents and requiring all third party visitors to be approved by the city is comparable to the process of visiting incarcerated people — and that the key difference is these encampment residents can come and go as they please. Combat veterans living with acute agoraphobia cannot easily come and go as they please. Disabled people living with severe chronic pain, amputations, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress cannot easily come and go as they please. People who look visibly poor, in this city, often cannot come and go as they please due to frequent incidents of harassment and vigilante violence on the basis of their housing status.
My permit to visit this encampment was denied by the city on the grounds that I did not provide enough detail, or a schedule, or a clear list of what I intend to do during my visits. I am a priest. I have been pastoring the people in this camp for five years. I do everything from drive people to the hospital, to prayer, to taking people to social service appointments, to performing last rites when people die here. These essential pastoral duties do not happen on a schedule, as any member of the clergy can attest. I have continued to visit people, even though I have been denied a permit, and am petitioning the court to prevent the city from arresting me.
Homeless people have a constitutionally protected right to freedom of religious expression. I have a constitutionally protected right to my freedom of religious expression, which includes serving the poor and the sick and the hungry. The city’s actions are a clear attempt to isolate, marginalize, and further criminalize people who have already been pushed to the edge of existence in this community. I consider it my duty as an American citizen and my vocation as a priest to stand against this.
We won that case. A federal judge ordered the city to scrap its permit system for both residents of the camp and visitors, and the highly restricted visiting hours were loosened. Rev. Sarah no longer had to be worried about being arrested for pastoring our congregation. And yet: In Aberdeen, a town of just 16,000 people, there are still 1,000 people homeless and only around 80 shelter beds available. There are still over 100 people living in this one encampment, which the city is pushing to sweep on May 8th, while offering no alternative place for people to move. Meanwhile, the city has passed ordinance after ordinance specifically targeting unhoused people. It is illegal to sit or lie down anywhere outside in downtown Aberdeen from 6am-11pm. It is illegal to haul your belongings around in a shopping cart. The city council is currently considering banning any social service offices from opening up downtown. And all of this, of course, is happening in the richest country in the history of the world.
“We must obey God rather than any human authority,” the apostles tell the temple police and the council. Those words can sound pretty high and mighty if they are coming from people who are already comfortable. But when those same words come from the bottom—from the streets, from the jails—that is the voice of God calling us to step back and look at the cruel absurdities our systems of human authority have created. Because we are to be, in the words of the apostles, “witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”