December 3, 2008

The Buddhist at the Baptist Rescue Mission

The Primordial Buddha statue on the grounds of the Sacramento Convention Center. That yellow thing in the background is a statue titled Walking the Dogs. Photo © Tom Armstrong
The person referenced in the title of this blogpost is me.

In Ryan Garou's book On Homelessness in America [for sale in softcover here; downloadable in doc format here], Ryan writes [Emphases mine] ...
In America, Christianity is the dominant belief system and therefore the one to expect when showing up at a mission's doors - there may be Buddhist, Muslim, etc. shelters but I've never personally heard of any. ... This should raise at least one obvious question - if a Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, etc., or even a Christian of a flavor at odds with that of the shelter provider is in need of shelter and has no other options, what happens? How is it handled? And what about the Satanists, Wiccans, agnostics and outright atheists? It entirely depends on the mission's policy. If they rigidly require an hour's devotion to Christianity, a homeless person of a different faith either has to grin and fake it or turn away.
Since I've been at the Union Gospel Mission in Sacramento over six months now, I figure it’s about time I address the elephant in the room: How do I handle being Buddhist in the midst of this Christian conclave?

As I wrote in my third post to this blog, when I returned to Sacramento late last April, I was desperate for a place to stay and ended up at the mission. While I have been out on the street many days, I’ve yet to try to stay at any other shelter, though the Salvation Army shelter, and, now, the Winter Shelter are likely to be a better fit for my requirements.

Why do I continue to stay at UGM? For starters, the Union Gospel Mission has a lot of appeal. Foremost are many of the guys who are so-called guests, like me [that is, the sheltered homeless], and other guys, most of whom were recently sheltered at the mission and who had substance-abuse problems, but are now part of The Program, and pretty much run the joint. Among the guests and in The Program are a lot of fully nice guys who are interesting, colorful and friendly. And a few of the guys in The Program are downright magnificent people who have adapted a Christ-like love of their brothers. Others of my homeless brethren have evident [and sometimes not so evident and sometimes downright mysterious] problems, but seem to do a rather splendid job managing their lives under the difficult, frustrating circumstance of being homeless.

Like what Ryan writes in his book, UGM does rigidly require its sheltered men to attend an hour-long gospel service every night. Generally, in the first half-hour there is singing, by the congregation using the chapel hymnals and/or by a choir or musicians from a church. Generally, during the second half hour a pastor will preach to us.

The music half-hour goes by pretty fast for me. Even though I have a terrible voice and a narrow range of notes I can hit, I usually sing along. While most of the hymnal songs are cornpone, written a century ago, with lyrics that talk about blood a lot or joyously dream of the Rapture, by UGM tradition, many of the hymns are augmented with interesting or strange or comical or wonderful little inserts into the lyrics. These inserts generally come from The Program guys, pretty much all of whom sing robustly. This fun sensibility keeps the hymns from growing stale.

The preachers, on the other hand, are mostly pretty awful – but there are some who are quite talented! Many of the awful ones come wholly unprepared and just ramble on, saying pretty much the same nonsense every month. From those preachers you will get one or some or all of the following messages, usually delivered rather simplistically:
  • Repent or you will roast in hell [The fact that the Bible tells us doing good works is important (Book of James, chapter 2) and that love is superior to faith (1 Corinthians, chapter 13) is, always, overlooked – as is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mound which I have only heard mentioned in passing!]
  • God/Jesus loves you [But never ever “Love thy neighbor,” with mention of the importance Jesus attributes to having us “love the least of mankind.”]
  • End Times are near! [Any bad news, from fires in the state or the economic downturn, is hailed as evidence of the End, coming any day now.]
  • Well-established science and reputable scientists are repudiated and mocked. [Evolution and earth science and The Big Bang get special condemnation, though one preacher is a notable exception in that he cites The Big Bang as evidence of the existence of God.]
About ten of the preachers each month are very talented and very passionate and come well prepared to convince congregants of the Good News of salvation. Jimmy Roughton and the mission's in-house pastor, Rev Tom Mooney, are two in this group.

Here is something I believe -- though my believing it or not doesn't make any difference. [Believing the True Thing about The Cosmos, God and Everything almost certainly doesn't affect my future ... I don't believe. Though finding the Source is the goal in cosmic hide-and-seek.] What I believe is that consciousness is all One Thing and that we are all in the Game of Life, "a grand game of cosmic checkers," together. Here, a snippet from a Ken Wilber interview known as "A Ticket to Athens" which explains things:
Spirit is not good versus evil, or pleasure versus pain, or light versus dark, or life versus death, or whole versus part, or holistic versus analytic. Spirit is the great Player that gives rise to all those opposites equally -- “I the Lord make the Light to fall on the good and the bad alike; I the Lord do all these things” -- and the mystics the world over agree. Spirit is not the good half of the opposites, but the ground of all the opposites, and our “salvation,” as it were, is not to find the good half of the dualism but to find the Source of both halves of the dualism, for that is what we are in truth. We are both sides in the great Game of Life, because we -- you and I, in the deepest recesses of our very Self -- have created both of these opposites in order to have a grand game of cosmic checkers.

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