Emily Goldthwaite Fries, Senior Congregational Organizer with Beacon and an ordained minister in the UCC, reflects on a recent visit she and other clergy took to the Wall of Forgotten Natives.
It was one of those sunny but cold fall mornings, the leaves crunching under our feet as we walked at a quick pace. After gathering at All Nations Indian Church for prayer and centering, this small group of Beacon clergy and religious leaders walked together to visit our neighbors who have been camped together along Franklin Street and Hiawatha Avenue since the spring, and some of the people working to provide care to them on a daily basis.
Our steps slowed as we arrived at the edge of the encampment, matching the pace of people just waking up, and kids out of school during MEA break.
The first thing I noticed was how different it felt to walk between the tents than driving by them on the way to our St Paul office each morning. Amidst the colors of fall and the chill in the air, other sensations began to wash over me. I smelled the aroma of a campfire burning nearby. I stepped around some milk and cereal spilled on the sidewalk. And then, I heard a baby crying in a tent – it was morning and breakfast time, after all. I noticed the tent this family was sleeping in was pitched on steeply graded ground beside the bike path, and tried to imagine getting my young daughter to sleep here, not always an easy task under the best circumstances. And these were not the best circumstances, but a necessity.
The Wall of Forgotten Natives provides community and cultural sharing, a sense of safety in numbers, and a central place to receive food, blankets, health care and other services. The visibility and size of this encampment in Minneapolis has prompted the city and county to respond with a public health approach and mobilize many resources toward finding people housing.
People of the Native community who are experiencing homelessness have chosen to gather and camp together in the middle of the city, but we should not take that to mean that people want to be here. While many of us simply didn’t see them before, many of the encampment’s residents have been in homelessness a long time – and there are another 800 adults on Hennepin County’s waiting list for housing, primarily African Americans. A recent survey of individuals and families camped at the Wall of Forgotten Natives confirmed that most residents want desperately to have a home – and a home that meets their needs for connection with culture and family, health care, addiction recovery support, and more. Listening to stories of people living outside as the Minnesota winter approaches, my colleagues and I began to wonder how anyone achieves sobriety, furthers their education, or provides for their children when they have no place to sleep? There is a huge need for housing for people in recovery from addiction. But there is also a need for housing that welcomes people no matter where they are on their journey with addiction – or mental illness, incarceration, evictions or other barriers to having a home.
Seeing my clerical collar, one man caught my attention and asked me the theological question that had been on his mind. “I still believe in God, and I know that God is love,” he said, the struggle for answers written deeply into his face. He continued to wonder aloud, “But where is God now? Where is God when children are sleeping by the side of the road?”
His question touched my heart – yet I felt clearly the presence of love amidst the campfires and volunteers and people reaching out to lift one another up. God is surely in this place. The questions that stay with me are, “Where are God’s people? How will we respond to the reality of life for so many without homes?”