January 31, 2021 by Dean and Susi Wight
(Susi) When Kathy first asked us to bring our testimonies of healing, stories of a metaphorical casting out of unclean spirits from peoples’ lives, we thought we could rise to the task with some ease. But I must say that, in light of recent events that have occupied our thoughts and our hearts, it has become a struggle to dwell on those testimonies.
I have asked Dean to speak on both of our behalf this morning. and he’ll say more about that struggle in a few minutes. Certainly, Dean & I have many testimonies of working both with people and with organizations, where dysfunction and toxicity and trauma have taken their lives in directions that were at odds with a healing and loving spirit.
For many years I worked with young people convicted of serious crimes — crimes of violence against family, against strangers. For many years after that, I worked with youth who had been thrown away by family, rejected by school programs whose purpose was to help them overcome behavioral and developmental challenges, but that had also given up on them. In my work I took the stance of never giving up on any young person, and I didn’t. I never equated the “unclean spirits” that oppressed them with being the young people themselves. 35 and more years later, I continues to hear from those now not-so-young people whose lives have become blessings to themselves and others. I have shared some of those stories in the past with many of you in this congregation.
(Dean) In my experiences of non-profit agency leadership, I’ve been called on to help bring healing to organizational cultures, where conflicts had destroyed trust among peers, and created suspicion about the motives of managers and leaders. I have been called onto to “cast out” the “unclean spirits” of hierarchical authority unjustly wielded, of male privilege and white privilege overshadowing the contributions of all. But our thoughts of those testimonies have been crowded out in recent days.
No doubt some of you have seen news stories recently about the plight of those in Bellingham who are experiencing homelessness. The story is really about the experience of living outdoors in the cold with few comforts and possessions, and about those people and their story coming out of the shadows, hidden in wooded encampments, and into a bright light shined on their plight.
(November – sweep of small camp on banks of Whatcom Creek across the street from City Hall, halted by a group of young people – college students and young workers – who put themselves in between the campers and the City police and workers come to remove them.)
(Move to City Hall lawn) – within hours, the camp grew as other homeless folk joined them, and within a few days the camp surrounded City Hall with dozens of tents and over a hundred people without homes who emerged from hidden spaces throughout the City.
The story has been chronicled in the news, including the protest a week ago Friday as protesters from other communities were asked to come support the camp…the vandalism and invasion of City Hall by a handful of the protesters… and then a surprise sweep this past Thursday with armed officers, city workers with back hoes and dump trucks pushing the campers out and discarding possessions that couldn’t be quickly gathered by their owners. Many of the campers moved to the local shelter run by a religious agency, which was what our civic leaders were pressing to have them do.
But more than half did not, or could not, take that option. They were the most throw-away people among this camp of throw-away people – suffering from mental illnesses, addicted to drugs and alcohol, or simply with behaviors deemed too disruptive to the controlled shelter environment, too uncooperative or independent to be willing to obey the rules. They were the ones possessed, in the eyes of many, of unclean spirits, too intransigent or too resistant to or incapable of change for others to even try to “cast out those unclean spirits”. They were the remnant “others” who didn’t belong.
That morning, Susi and I joined a steady convoy of volunteers with vehicles, loading up the meager possessions of these outcast folk and carrying them to the parking lot of city ballfields where those campers went about again setting up their fragile dwellings. And those students and young professionals who helped support the City Hall camp in the first place? They are now at the new ball field site, organizing meals, collecting and distributing supplies, offering emotional support.
The city now regards this new site as illegal, refuses to allow portable toilets to be brought in, and signals that this camp too is on their radar to be swept and shut down. To be sure, some more predatory folks infiltrate these camps, seeking to take advantage of more vulnerable people, and use it as a base for petty criminal activity and drug dealing. And to the City’s credit, they are working hard in a very difficult time to create housing options for unsheltered people. But it has become politically unpopular, even in progressive Bellingham, for the city to sanction this camp.
These people have become throwaway people, labelled unclean and written off for now.(Susi) So, in place of sharing a testimony of unclean spirits already healed through love, we ask for your prayers, for these people, and that we may be guided to know how we may help to “cast out the unclean spirits” that surround and envelop and oppress them.