As the two groups of people stood there, they both asked the same question: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison” (Matthew 25:37).When? Bewilderment must have begun to set in as every person in the room tried to take stock of their lives and questioned amongst themselves when they could have possibly seen the King, Jesus Himself. When did they see Him and help; when did they see Him and choose not to help?
As I stood in Fort Lauderdale’s Stranahan Park on Friday, May 19, the scene was one of shocking bewilderment. The little community of homeless, including the ebb and flow of others of less repute, have called Stranahan Park home for the last few years. It was not a glorious place to visit and even less glorious a place to call home. Yet, that was the situation. It was a dilemma that has grown over the years; one our community has been struggling to address.
After years of working toward solutions that helped those in most need, while respecting and understanding the general needs of a growing city, that progress was suddenly ripped right out of our hands. Years of planning and meeting and talking and wishing for more help, all seemed to come crashing down as I watched a bulldozer scrape up the belongings of people who called Stranahan Park home and throw them into a dumpster.
People of all walks of life have sought to address the growing number of people using the park in a way not meant for community parks. It was no longer a place that all, including the homeless, could use for enjoyment, and because of this there were many vocal voices that called for something to be done. And something needed to be done. No one, not even the most caring advocate for equal rights and services would call this a good thing. Something needed to be done, but which side were you on?
On that day, there will be two groups of people — those whom Jesus calls blessed by His Father, the righteous, and those who are cursed — those whom Jesus will gently usher to his right hand and call to eternal life, and those Jesus sternly tells depart from me and separates to the left side.
When you looked upon the very least of these, you were looking upon Jesus Himself. Jesus aligned Himself with the very poorest in the world, the outcast, the poor, the hungry, the homeless. Neither group understood, beforehand, that they were looking into the very heart of Christ every time they bore witness to the marginalized. While both failed to recognize that Jesus has a solidarity with poor, both had very different responses.
As dust settled at Stranahan Park, I found out that a health warning had been issued because of a rat infestation. This citation, presumably by the State Health Department, provided the reasoning, some would say justification, to close off the park for a month, effectively relocating the homeless. The police and city staff came in force, gave everyone 45 minutes to collect what they wanted and move on. As a part of moving on, the city provided one garbage can for each person as storage, a weeklong hotel stay and a bus pass. Many felt like this was a conciliation prize, something to make what was happening a bit more palatable. After those who were there claimed their belongings, and many who were not there later discovered, whatever was unclaimed was unceremoniously picked up in a mass and thrown into a dumpster. Once full, the dumpster drove away with the garbage, which some called a part of all they owned on this planet.
The sheep, blessed sheep,reached out a caring hand and chose to help those in need, while the goats, cursed goats, turned a blind eye to those in need. As every person there stared upon the King ready to do His commands and serve as called, it was only a portion of them who had lived a life that followed His command to serve. “When,” they asked. Jesus answered them, “Whatever you did [or did not do] to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did [or did not do] for me.”
Where will the jury rest on what occurred at Stranahan Park? Many are saying it was necessary. Not only was this something that had to be done to bring safety and sanity back to the park, but this was actually a benefit for the people there. They were living in a place that was a health risk and infested with rats. For the homeless, it was just another day I guess. When you are homeless, it is only a matter of time before you have to find another temporary home, ushered to move along. There is also a small voice calling for better treatment, for a more caring approach to solving very complex problems in our community.
I struggle with the best solutions, ones in which we all are treated fairly and equitably, treated as humans that have an inherent worth and value. I wonder, if we had all walked into that park and saw a beggar who was a King, would we have done things differently?
Robin Martin is a follower of Christ, a homeless advocate and executive director of Rebuilding Borward Together Broward. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.