Tuesday, February 19, 2008

I've come to save your soul!

Two men of indeterminate age sit along the bank of the river, under a bridge. Their cardboard lean-to is propped up against the place where the bank meets the bridge. The men, both with unkempt gray beards, are dressed in shabby long coats. One wears a blaze orange knit cap, and the other has an old wool cap with earmuffs that he has pulled down. They both have cloth mittens and old, cracked boots. It's cold; the men sit huddled together under a dirty blanket in front of a dying fire. They contemplate bedding down for the night behind the cardboard shelter; neither one is cheered by the prospect.

Just then, a cadaverous figure, dressed in black, looms in the darkness.

One fellow spots the phantasm first. He exclaims, "Frank, it's the Grim Reaper! I think he's come for us!." The man crosses himself and starts to intone "Hail Mary . . .  ."

Suddenly, the specter speaks, "Oh yoo hoo, homeless persons! It is I, Katherine Kersten, the famous newspaper columnist. I have come to deliver you from the cold, for tonight anyway. And I'll save your soul, too, if you let me. Well, not me, exactly, but the One in whose name I come to you this night."

The other man turns to his companion and says, "No, Vince; it isn't the Grim Reaper. It's much worse."

Yesterday, Katie gave us her gripping first-person account of cruising the streets for freezing sinners in Searching the streets, offering help and hope. At first blush, other than Katie's annoying habit of placing herself in the middle of the story (contrast with Nick Coleman's column on the same subject the day before), it was innocuous enough. But as Charlie observes, the column wasn't so much about rescuing the homeless from the cold as it was about rescuing souls for Jesus.

Katie's column was about the Salvation Army's Harbor Light shelter. By all accounts, it's an admirable outfit. Katie opens by saying:

During a recent subzero cold snap, I spent my Saturday evening in an unusual way -- driving through the back alleys of downtown Minneapolis, searching for homeless people to invite to the Salvation Army's Harbor Light shelter.

I rode in the van with Brian Robertson, Harbor Light's head of security, and Sgt. Maj. Robert Strawberry, a chaplain. They told me that Harbor Light houses between 400 and 500 people a night and serves as many as 2,000 free meals a day.

As we prowled through the dark, peering under overpasses and scouting out footprints in the snow, I asked, "How do you know where to go to find these homeless people?" Strawberry's matter-of-fact answer: "Because I used to be there myself."

Eighty percent of Harbor Light's staff -- from food service workers to "advocates" who counsel clients and "provide a shoulder to cry on" -- are former drug addicts or alcoholics, according to Envoy Bill Miller, the facility's executive director. "I try to fill the ranks as much as possible with people who've been through the war themselves," he said.

And, by the way, the Salvation Army receives money for this from the evil, secular Hennepin County:

Harbor Light's goal is to prepare people for employment and independent living. It is the state's largest social-service provider, and offers a homeless shelter, chemical dependency treatment, and transitional and permanent housing, according to Miller.

The Salvation Army contracts with Hennepin County for many nonreligious aspects of its programs. It also offers services like BOLT (Basics of Life Training), which teaches the rudiments of financial management, healthy living and spiritual life.

Those "non-religious aspects" must include food, shelter, and chemical dependency training, right Katie?

But then Katie veers into attributing Harbor Light's "success" to its religious orientation:

The fruit of [Harbor Light's] philosophy is on display at the 10 a.m. Sunday service at Harbor Light's chapel. The standing-room-only congregation ranges from homeless people sleeping it off in the corners to professionals in coats and ties. Most have struggled with addiction or have family members who have, says Miller.

It is undeniable - and undenied by Spot - that many people find solace and hope in religion. People with addictions seem especially suited to the concept of submission to a Higher Power who is powerful in the face of their own powerlessness over alcohol or drugs. It is also undeniable that religion motivates many people, including the employees of Harbor Light, to do good and help others. But here's how Katie ends the story:

There are many sinners at Harbor Light on Sunday morning. But the message they hear is transforming: "A saint is just a sinner who gets back up again."

Just get up! Dust yourself off! The question Katie doesn't ask is why in heaven's name we have four to five hundred people show up every night at Harbor Light, only one of the shelters in town?

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