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Welcome to Homelessness

The worst thing about homelessness, I sensed, would have nothing to do with bad weather, hunger or sleep deprivation. It would be the way I soon would be cast out like a leper, as though one would contract a deadly disease just from being in my presence.

by Andy Pope

I make a point of remembering important dates in my life. One would think that the first night I slept outdoors, inaugurating 12 long years of homelessness, would be a very important date. That I don’t know the date is telling. Who wants to recall a date like that?

I do know that I was prescribed the psychiatric drug Klonopin on the morning that my mother was to die (unbeknownst to me) on October 9, 2003. I do know I was asked to resign my teaching job on February 17, 2004. I know that I was illegally evicted from my place of residence on April 1, 2004. Though I became legally homeless on that date, I still had enough money for motel rooms to keep me afloat for another month or so.

The day when I stopped using Klonopin was certainly one that I remember. I went off of 4 mg of Klonopin cold turkey on May 10, 2004. I never even had the seizure they told me I would have, as they tried to convince me to keep taking that God-awful drug that had lost me my shirt. I was so relieved to finally be free of that stuff. My short-term memory returned, I began to speak coherently again, and I started to remember the names of the people with whom I was conversing.

Though my living situation by that time was sketchy — an illegally parked motor home in the back yard of a friend of mine — at least I was still indoors. But then, by May 20, 2004, I had lost my reading glasses after sleeping in Golden Gate Park. It was that day that inspired the first piece of literature I ever had published on the subject of homelessness: “A New Pair of Glasses.”

So it was at some point between May 10 and May 20 that I sat on a bench at a CalTrain station all night long, sometimes nodding off, sometimes waking with a start — to the sound of a roaring engine, or laughter from late-night carousers, or some other noise in the night.

Cops would drive by, and I feared interrogation. But they never stopped me. Eventually, the sky grew light. I grabbed a coffee at a nearby doughnut shop, then walked up to the church where for several years, I had been the Director of Music.

Pete, the pastor of the church, had known of some of my recent struggles, and we seemed to be on good terms. I had visited with him more than once in the past few months, and I figured he might be able to help me get up to San Francisco, where my friend Tony had promised to help.

As I strolled to the church on that bright sunny morning, I pondered how easily I had made it through the night. So far, there was nothing about homelessness that seemed intolerable.

When I arrived at the church, I saw that another minister was there, along with two friends. He did not recognize me from the 1990s, where he had seen me at the church organ many times. Walking up to shake his hand, I told him that I remembered him from all of those joint preaching sessions, where he and Pete would take turns behind the pulpit on days when the Spanish-speaking congregation joined in with us English-speaking folks.

But he eyed me cautiously, as though I were somehow suspect. The others looked at me strangely, too. It seemed they did not believe me. I could understand if the Hispanic pastor would not have recognized me. But I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t being believed. That seemed strange. I had provided at least enough information for him to have made the connection.

“Pastor Peter will not be in today,” he said, in a guarded fashion. “This is his day off.”

“Oh that’s right,” I said. “He takes Mondays off after preaching on Sundays. Well, I’ll just come back tomorrow again at eight. Just let him know that Andy stopped by.”

“He won’t be in at eight tomorrow. He never comes in before noon, you know.”

“He doesn’t?” I asked, perplexed. “I just saw him a couple months ago. He was in at eight as usual, the same way he always came in at eight every morning for years, when I worked here before.”

“Please, no more, sir,” he said. “I cannot help you, and Peter will not help you. Please go back to wherever you came from.”

At that, a strange mix of fear and anger ripped through my body. The man had not only lied to me about Pete’s schedule, but he blatantly refused to even consider that I might have been telling the truth. Moreover, I had recognized him; I knew exactly who he was, and I could not possibly have changed my appearance so hugely in the past seven years, that he would think I was anyone other than who I said I was.

“And you call yourself a Christian pastor?” I said, outraged.” I’ll have you know I’m a decent guy who’s down on his luck, and you’re treating me like a scumbag.”

“Go!” he shouted, as his friends joined in. “Go! Go! Go away!!”

Talk about your Monday morning!

I stormed away in torment. Somehow I knew at that moment that the worst was yet to come. The worst thing about homelessness, I somehow sensed, would have nothing to do with weather conditions, or malnutrition, or even sleep deprivation — or any of the other things that people always ask about when they find out that one is homeless.It would have to do with something they never ask about: the way I would be treated. I would be cast out like a leper, as though one would contract a deadly disease just from being in my presence.

But if nothing else comes of my recounting this horrible memory, at least I have finally learned the exact date. After all, it was Monday. There is only one Monday between May 10, 2004, and May 20, 2004. So the first night I slept outdoors was May 17, 2004.

How could I forget?

***   ***   ***   ***   ***   ***

“Dave.” Art by Jonathan Burstein. The artist said of his painting, “The subject is a person that is often disparaged or downtrodden. If something is in a gold frame on a wall, you should pay attention to it because it’s important. So here’s the situation and the people we often try to avoid paying attention to, but I’m going to draw attention to it.”


The Prosperity Gospel and the Deception of Wealth

by Andy Pope

As a Christian and a formerly homeless person, I have seen how classism seems to run rampant in American Christianity. This is especially evident in what is often called the Prosperity Gospel.

The Prosperity Gospel, in short, is a particularly inviting deception that equates spiritual blessings with material success. Of course, it is entirely conceivable that once a person decides to live according to spiritual wisdom rather than careless foolishness, one might find oneself advancing in material gain.

If someone, for example, has been blowing their money on drugs, hookers and other forms of escape, the person would naturally notice a pleasant increase in their financial status once such expenses have ceased. The Proverbs of Solomon are all about that distinction. However, we find such wisdom in many sources other than in the Bible. And I would submit that most of the Proverbs are merely common sense.

Besides, it is also quite plausible that a person can be extremely happy living a minimalistic lifestyle with very few possessions at all. In fact, in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, we read of a young man who had “great possessions” who walked away from Jesus in sorrow when advised that he should give up all he owned in order to inherit eternal life. Does such denial of worldly goods equate spiritual blessing with prosperity? Obviously, the opposite is the case.

Consider also these very famous Scriptures: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:24) “The love of money is the root of all evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10). And passages such as James 5:1-11 and Luke 16:19-31 hurl severe warnings in the direction of the wealthy. But where in the Bible are such warnings thrown in the direction of the poor? Nowhere.

To the contrary, Luke 6:20 includes the words: “Blessed are you who are poor.” Where in the Bible do we find the words, “Blessed are you who are rich?” Again, they appear nowhere.

A proponent of the Prosperity Gospel will almost always cite Jeremiah 29:11 from the New International Version of the Bible, as follows: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Although it is true that the word “prosper” figures in this translation, a quick scan of several other popular translations will reveal nothing of the kind. In the English Standard Version, for example, the phrase “plans to prosper you” reads “plans for welfare.” The same phrase in the time-honored King James reads “thoughts of peace.” So this single verse, taken completely out of context in a modern American translation, is hardly a valid rationale for a deception as extreme as the so-called Prosperity Gospel.

In the Bible, where exactly are material acquisitions equated with the kind of provision that brings real fulfillment, inner peace, personal happiness and eternal security? Nowhere, really.

The only time when material gain is cited as a blessing from God is in a context where the greater blessing would be the evidence of God’s love. For example, the last chapter of the Book of Job.

Love, according to 1 Corinthians 13, abides forever. Material blessings vanish at the grave. And the Prosperity Gospel and the classism from which it was forged need to vanish from American Christianity.

Andy Pope is a lifelong musician and piano teacher who became homeless in 2004 as a result of a costly medical misdiagnosis. In 2016, he escaped 12 years of homelessness in the Bay Area by moving to a low-rent district in Northern Idaho. He is involved with the music ministry at Moscow First Presbyterian Church and is a volunteer at the Latah Recovery Center in Moscow, Idaho.

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