(A Peek inside the 2010 St Petersburg’s Mayors Prayer Breakfast)
“Each year the YMCA of Greater St.Petersburg hosts the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, an event that welcomes hundreds of community, civic and business leaders to a morning of thought provoking prayer and music. The Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast was initiated after the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001. The YMCA and Mayor Rick Baker of St.Petersburg came together to provide an opportunity for all community members to gather and reflect on important issues, challenges and commonalities. This unique event provides a venue for the community to share a meal and develop stronger, more unified relationships. The event hosts a diverse group of religious denominations and faiths, each with the desire to reflect on and pray for our armed forces, children, families and communities.”
Or so begins the preamble of the YMCA in announcing its annual Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast. I got up at five thirty in the morning, per arrangement, so I could either participate and or record, a homeless protest that was planned to coincide with the breakfast. Dave Shepard, a local blues musician who owns The Rock and Blues Academy here in St Petersburg, Florida had bought a 180 dollar table for the event. The plan was to have a ten top table occupied by half clergy and half homeless people, while the rest of the homeless and other protesters would be outside with signs ,coffee, and egg mcmuffins .
Here’s the rub. St Petersburg Florida is one of the leading municipalities in the nation for enacting ordinances which criminalize homelessness. The criminalization of homelessness is when cities make it a crime for homeless people to engage in activities, such as lying and reclining in public areas, store property in public areas, loiter, drink a beer in public, trespass on private property, panhandle, solicit money at the roadsides, and more importantly go to the bathroom when no bathrooms are available.
Most area churches refuse to get involved with the lives of the homeless. There are over seven hundred churches in St Petersburg. When these ordinances were being debated the silence from churches was, well, silent. If churches spoke out at all it was to be in favor of these criminalization procedures. So we as good Christians got up early to thought provoke some of our brothers and sisters and remind them of our obligations to the poor, per God’s word. We were going to put the YMCA motto to the test which is: to put Judeo Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit mind and body for all.
I’m a pastor so I thought the best place for me to be was inside at the table. I left the Reverend Bruce Wright and the homeless outside with signs and the coffee. I went inside and found the table and looked for Dave. He was busy handing out a booklet which said on its cover Please Pray for the Poor of our City. The inside contained relevant biblical verses and stories about the homeless, as well as a list of the local anti homeless ordinances. Pretty cool. I took a pile of booklets and began distributing them to the people who were seated at tables. I gave out about twenty books then sat down to talk to Dave’s wife, Angela.
I had just seated myself when a woman appeared suddenly with an armful of the booklets I had just handed out.”Unauthorized literature!” she said breathlessly. The wild look in her eyes made me chuckle. She looked like a homemaker who had stumbled upon a colony of roaches. There were about ten books in a chair. She scooped those up too. “Unauthorized literature at the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast is not allowed”, she reminded us.
I turned and focused on the figures that had been approaching from the corner of my eye. Two cops. She had called the cops. Dave Shepard was returning to the table too. “Unauthorized literature,” she told the cops,” At the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast.” I shook my head in disgust. “Snitch”. I said this under my breath.
One of the cops looked at the cover. He turned red” How did you get in here?” Dave explained that he had bought a table. He walked off to talk to the cops. The woman continued on her search for unauthorized literature. I went to get a plate. The line was long, the food was uninspired. For the first time I noticed the non denominational choir singly sweetly from the balcony. They reminded us that heaven was within our grasp. I was about done in. I just wanted to get something to eat before I was thrown out.
When I returned to the table, I asked Dave what happened. “Well I came close to getting arrested” he said. “But I had paid for the table. They’re going to give me the books back when we leave and I can pass them out outside.” You’ve got to admire Dave Shepard. I would have probably went to jail. I know the Reverend Bruce Wright would have. God teaches me something everyday. Humble Purposefulness, I’ll call that sermon.
By now they were speaking on the stage, but I was through with them. Don’t get me wrong. The food was pedestrian but I ate twice. I just couldn’t reconcile the people there with people of God. Most of the tables were reserved for businesses, not churches. Most of the conversations I overheard were conversations about business. If I didn’t speak to a person, I was unspoken to. The only person who shook my hand and spoke is former Mayor Rick Baker. And when he’s my biggest fan in any room, it’s time to find the exit.
I had my back turned to the stage. When Mayor Bill Foster came on, I got up and walked towards the door without looking back. He was saying something about being born again, and that he thought the Bible was the infallible word of God. As I walked out, I was thinking that what’s mind boggling to some is child’s play to others. Take the over two thousand references to the poor, the widow, and the orphan in the Bible. Nowhere does it say to harm them, turn your back on them put them in jail for being poor or to tear down their houses to build houses for the wealthy, or houses for the holy. As a matter of fact the Bible warns against such conduct. But people, who consider themselves Christians, engage in such behavior everyday. If one claims the Bible is the infallible word of God and all through the Bible God says to love the poor, and he sent His son to Earth as a poor homeless man, why is justice for homeless people so mind boggling to what seems to be majority of Christians? There are over seven hundred churches between Ulmerton road and Tampa Bay off Beach Drive. One collection plate a month directed at housing people and there would be no homeless among us. What seems like child’s play boggles the mind. Or as God said,” I have set a stumbling block before you.” Anyone can get it. Years of study make people biblical experts. That’s why God introduces stumbling blocks on the path to salvation (Whatever that is). For St Petersburg, Florida, the homeless seem to be a huge stumbling block.
In Luke Chapter Four, The devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness. Command these stones to be bread. Bow down to me and I’ll give you the world. Throw yourself from the top of the temple. We find out that Jesus could have done all of that quite easily, and garnered for himself a reputation which early on, maybe would have made his ministry wildly popular. But Jesus didn’t seek the crowded path. He sought the reverse. He sought to enter our lives organically, not by crowd consensus.
So I turned my back on the thousand or so people who had gathered for the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast. I went outside with the homeless, and carried a sign for a little while. When the thousand or so people came out, they treated the homeless as though they weren’t there. Dave and Angela went out and handed out the booklet. The cops made sure that the breakfast goers and the protesters were separated, creating another false dichotomy.
I heard a preacher recently in Williams Park talking about the homeless. I know this preacher to be a good man. He was saying that the homeless make a choice when they drink and when they hang around objectionable people.
I think Jesus drank, and hung around objectionable people. If He comes to St Petersburg, He’d better be careful. There is an ordinance against that.