Their names are Robert Royster, Will Franklin, and Frank. They cause me a great deal of trouble, and lots of anger from our neighbors, and I do wish they would go away, but, whatever else, they remain human beings, images of God, and they need to be treated with respect.
People keep asking why don't we get rid of them. We can't. We've tried. Believe me, we have tried. They have abused our hospitality, they piss on our building, they leave food around, they leave garbage all over, they play their radio at great volumes (God forgive me, I have had to resort to theft against them to deal with that one). They are a pain in the neck. But we will not treat them as less than human beings.
We have tried to get rid of them. We've discovered the hard way that we can't do it, we can't beat them. Whenever I chase them away, they just wait an hour, two hours, and they come back. I go home at night, and they come back. No matter what we do or say, they come back.
I will confess a strong desire inside myself to just let them be. It's Jesus' church, not mine, not ours, and the New Testament is very clear about our hospitality to the poor. "The poor you will always have with you." The parable of Lazarus. Etc. You get the point. And there is no asterix pointing to a codicil that says, "the nice poor."
But at the same time I recognize we belong to a community, and the church has the responsiblity to be a good neighbor, and if the guys scare the kids, and make lewd comments at women and passersby, and if they leave food scraps around for vermin to get at, etc. etc., then, well, I know that the church has to be a good neighbor. So we decided this last July that they absolutely had to go. We tried to get rid of them. As I said, we couldn't.
We chased them away every morning. They came back every night. We threw out their stuff. They found new stuff. Only now they started getting even more hostile, to us and to other passersby. We finally found that we couldn't beat them, and the only thing was to try to control it. Yes, they beat us.
The cops can't do anything either, apparently. If you call them, you have to wait there, on the spot for about half an hour till the cops come, and all they can say is "Scram," and they give you dirty looks for taking up their time, and half an hour later the guys are back.
The cops have to catch them in the act of public urination or public consumption of liquor, which are misdemeanors, and mean nothing to anyone, or catch them inside the building, which is trespassing, and might mean a trip to Rikers Island, but Rikers is already over-crowded and they don't want to put vagrants there.
Why are they there at Old First? Easy. The money is good on Seventh Avenue. The money dries up, the guys go. Where I grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant there are no panhandlers. Up at Ethical Culture the front porch is deeper and drier, but people don't give out money on PPW.
Old First is the only church on Seventh Avenue without a fence. That's important to us, we love it that people sit on our steps and that kids run on the top of our little wall. And that's also why they are at Old First.
Today, again, I cleaned up their garbage. Waddayagonnado. But I will not remove their sleeping bags. Some of our neighbors think I should do that. But that's a moral line I will not cross. The Torah is very clear, that you should not take from a poor man what keeps him warm at night. Leaving their filthy sleeping bags there is my little attempt to be moral in this whole thing, and honor the basic dignity the Torah assigns them.
I used to talk to them and pray with them. I used to be able to reason with them. That's no longer possible. They're drinking 24/7 lately. They are nasty to me too. How long this will go on I do not know. In the short term, it's people giving them money that keeps it going. In the long term, they are killing themselves. If they manage to get arrested, they will get cleaned up at Rikers, and we'll have them back in February!
Before Robert had descended to his current condition, and when he had sober moments, he used to pray very moving prayers for certain people in the area. for poor children, for illiterates (such as himself), for soldiers, for forgiveness of his sins. I hate what has become of him. I always knew it would be coming.
It's a grief, and we're at our wits end. We have been unable to find any solution. In a strange way, the three of them are in control. Robert, Will, and Franklin.
They have names. They have souls. They belong to our community. They tell us something about ourselves.