Tending the Flock

January 31, 2016
by Tonya Brownlow
Executive Director, Emma Norton Services

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Ezekial 34:1-10

The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them. Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep; therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.

Good morning, and thank you so much for inviting me to speak and be with you this Sunday morning. It is such an honor to be here – I do treasure these moments as a gift to be with people who understand and hold compassion for those we serve at Emma Norton Services.

For those of you who don’t know what we do – let me give you a brief overview. WE are a formal mission of the United Methodist women, being named after Emma Norton who was a United Methodist woman from Winona, MN. She had the vision of creating housing for young women from rural areas of Minnesota and Wisconsin to access more opportunities of education and work in St. Paul. We are so grateful for the legacy of the women and congregations that have supported us over the years.

Now nearly 100 years later this is still the basis of our work. Emma Norton Services has two locations – Emma Norton Residence in St. Paul, Minn has individual or shared rooms that 50 single women stay in and Emma’s Place in Maplewood, Minn. is a community of townhomes that 13 families – all of whom are single parents with 3 or more kids.  Every year over 200 women and children live in either our downtown residence for single women or our family permanent supportive housing in Maplewood. Out of those 200 people almost half of them are children.

Our mission statement is that we provide “Transformational housing for women and families on their journey of recovery.” What that means is we offer safe housing for people so they have the foundation needed to recover and heal from whatever life has dealt them…and having this foundation allows them to move forward as a transformed person with tools and skills needed to be successful in the future.

Who we are and the people we serve become important when considering the words of the scripture this morning. In the passage, God describes what happens when the shepherds of the world, those with power and resources, forget their responsibility of looking out for the sheep. As surely as I live, without a shepherd, my flock became prey. My flock became food for all the wild animals.

The reality of those words is what we see at Emma Norton Services every day. We see what happens to people when they are at the mercy of today’s wild animals – wild animals that take the form of oppressive structures in our society designed to suppress people instead of supporting them.

Every person that comes to our doors has a different story of why they are in need of housing. For some of our women and families maybe it is because they have a mental health issue that created a crisis in their lives, maybe for some of them it is that they are chemically dependent, and maybe for some it is that they are new to this country and have no safety net of family or community, or maybe they found themselves in a violent relationship and lost everything trying to escape. For many of our women and families it isn’t ONE thing, but a dangerous combination of 2 or more factors….it is the result of a life time of living in crisis ending in losing everything except their ability to survive.

I can tell you though that homelessness is not caused by these factors…homelessness is caused by poverty. Poverty creates the barrier to people not getting adequate health care, or the same educational opportunities, it often creates the stress in people’s lives that leads to survival thinking – that requires a person to live so in the moment that the bigger picture we all strive for as humans gets harder to see and achieve. I want to share with some statistics about homeless children as an example of what I mean when I talk about how people are pushed into survival thinking:

Homeless children are more likely to go hungry – with a third of them reporting that they skip meals;

Children in poor families are twice as likely not to receive preventative medical and dental care, which leads to them being twice as likely to have moderate or severe chronic health problems.   They are 3 times more likely to be obese due to the lack of quality nutritional food.

Homeless children are more than twice as likely to repeat a grade in school, be expelled or suspended or drop out of high school.  Also children from poor or homeless families are twice as likely to be at a high risk for developmental, behavioral or social delays as children.

For example – studies have increasingly shown that children living in poverty may suffer from development issues from the amount of stress they experience as a young child.  Researchers know that stress has a huge impact on brain development – especially on the executive functions of the human brain…meaning the ability to problem solve, manage emotions, complex thought processes, attention span….all of these are qualities that children need to succeed in school.  And children experiencing the stress of living in a shelter or a parent that is distracted by merely surviving to have a roof or the next meal on the table as a 2 year olds or 3 year 3 old…or possibly 5 or 6…enters school with a clear disadvantage than a child that hasn’t had those life experiences.

And, unfortunately, the reality that we know is that the adult women in our programs were often children who were raised in stressful conditions. They may have been homeless as children, or have suffered from emotional or verbal abuse, or had a parent that was chemically dependent or mentally ill.

But unlike the scripture reading of today, humans are not like sheep. One thing that continues to amaze me as I hear the stories of the women and families is their sheer ability to survive. It truly is a testament to their strength.

Lets reflect on a passage from Chapter 23 in the book We Make the Road by Walking. There are always multitudes at the bottom being marginalized, scapegoated, shunned, ignored and forgotten by elites at the top. And there are always those in the middle torn between the two. To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to stand with the multitudes, even if doing so means being marginalized, criticized, and misunderstood right along with them.

Now take a moment and reflect on the importance of your own home. Think about this morning…and preparing to come here. How did it feel to wake up in your bed, make your breakfast in your kitchen, hopefully enjoying some quiet moments even in the rush to get out the door. How does it feel to know that when you leave here…you know where you are going…that at the end of a busy day you can count on having a home to go HOME to. I know that we all have life to juggle sometimes, but how many of us take for granted every day that our home gives us an advantage over those that don’t have basic human shelter.

As you are thinking about that I want to tell you what one woman recently shared with me about being homeless – she said this “When I didn’t have a place to live, I began to fear the ending of each day and knowing that night was coming.” Can you imagine that? She said “My thoughts were consumed by preparing for the night – where could I go? Could I sleep in my car? If I could sleep in my car – where would be a safe place to park it? Where would I go to the bathroom? Where would I take a shower and be ready for the next day?” You see what happens to people when you don’t have your basic needs, is that you spend all of your time and mental energy figuring out how to meet those needs – this again is survival thinking. Essentially the choices you make on a day to day basis are not about long term needs, but just true survival from moment to moement.   Yet how often do we think people could just end their homelessness if they tried harder, if they would just take medications, or stop drinking…but is that what Jesus would say?

Just as the chapter in the book repeatedly pointed out, when Jesus encountered people who needed healing on his journey, he never judged them or questioned whether or not he should heal them. Instead Jesus acted…because they all mattered!

If we are to be a people who bring change in this world, then each of us has to recognize our own ability to give and be in community with those that are in need. It is through this ACTION that everyone has a chance to recognize their full potential as human beings. This is how we heal one another, this is how we tend one another, this is how we become the shepherds in the world for people who are treated like sheep.

Bringing about a new world means that we need all of you. And I don’t just mean that Emma Norton Services needs you…I mean that the people in this world that don’t have enough need you. They need you to stand up and say no more…no more people without homes because having a place to live is a basic human right.

And not only is it a basic human right, but it is the right decision for our world. The cost to house a person is three times less than the cost for people to use emergency services like shelter, hospitals stays, jail, detox and all the other “safety nets” that manage homelessness versus ending it.

I am here to inform you that ending homelessness is a reality. Nationally, there are 18.4 million empty housing units in our country, a country with 131 million total units (which is 14 percent, or 1 in 7). And there are between 700,000 and 800,000 homeless Americans. Which translates to approximately one homeless person for every 24 vacant housing units available.

And if we look at the state of MN – consider these numbers. The total membership of the United Methodist Church is 66,342 people with over 30,000 attending weekly services. In 2012, there were approximately 10,000 people homeless on any given night. It is obvious that in our communities, those that HAVE greatly outnumber those that do not HAVE. Ending homelessness becomes an issue for those WITH homes to stand up and advocate for those that don’t. If we want to change our current reality – it requires us to end our acceptance that homelessness is just part of who we are – and even more importantly stop letting those that are homeless be invisible.

Yet to bring forth this healing, then we must act – we must be willing to stretch out our hands and create a space in this world for those who don’t have enough. And over time when any one of you engages with the action of creating a just world for people, then we all begin to bring forth a new world where people aren’t hungry when there is more than enough to feed them, where people aren’t homeless when there are homes that stand empty in our communities, and where everyone really does have the same access and opportunities to education as the next person.

So I invite all of you to join with us, and take that first step towards building an even greater legacy for Emma Norton Services and ensuring that no woman or child in Minnesota has to face homelessness, mental illness or addiction alone.

Blessings to you all!