Like all of us, Thomas Keinath felt the need to spend some time away from the office. In Keinath’s case, the “office” is Calvary Temple in Wayne, New Jersey, a “mega-church” with a 2,000-plus seat sanctuary in an affluent suburb.
So when Keinath spent a week away from the office in January, you might have expected him to go someplace warm and attend a conference or play golf.
Instead, Keinath spent that week living with the homeless in nearby Paterson, New Jersey. By “with,” I mean on the streets. During the day, he wandered through the streets, indistinguishable from the homeless.
At night, he joined the homeless as they built fires to keep warm as temperatures dropped into the teens and slept surrounded by discarded hypodermic needles under an interstate overpass. He wrote “mini-biographies” of the people he met so as to remember them and their life stories.
Why? In his words, “I needed to understand what they were experiencing, and I needed to feel their pain; how could I bring help or healing to the streets if I did not know what their needs are?”
Now, as a colleague of mine who grew up in Paterson tells me, people in Wayne usually avoid Paterson like the plague. They are only slightly more likely to visit Baghdad than they are Paterson’s Fourth Ward where Keinath spent a week on the streets: it represents everything they seek to avoid by living in a place like Wayne.
Yet, Keinath and the folks at Calvary Temple are reaching out to those their neighbors left behind and not in a “take-this-sandwich-and-blanket-but-please-don’t-get-too-close” way. They are not only going to those in need, they are bringing them home: vans from the church bring the homeless to services at the church on Sundays.
This is all the beginning of what Keinath calls “a long-term solution” that includes building a center that will “shelter the homeless while helping them recover from problems including substance abuse.”
Efforts like this one are the Church at its best. It’s in keeping with the example set by the Christians of Caesarea. In the early fourth century, the city was hit by a plague. While everyone was fleeing the city, the Christians stayed to minister to the sick and dying.
As the church historian Eusebius wrote, “All day long some of [the Christians] tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them.” Other Christians took it upon themselves to feed the rest.
This is how Christianity prevailed over Rome. And it’s our best chance of influencing the broader society. In the book of Acts, the apostles are accused of “turning the world upside-down.”
And Christians are still turning the world on its head. People can argue with our words and reject our ideas out of hand, but our acts of love and compassion can’t be dismissed.
Whether it’s the fourth century or the twenty-first century, whether the plague is biological or social, this is where the Church belongs. Three cheers to pastor Keinath for so vividly reminding us of that.