You can always tell the importance of a biblical story or principle by how often it shows up in Holy Scripture. At Mountain of Faith, we talk a lot about how Scripture interprets Scripture. The more often you see a biblical principle at work, the more foundational it is to our faith. An excellent example of this is how Jesus ministered to both the spiritual and physical needs of those around him. He ministered to the spiritual needs of the people through his preaching and teaching while ministering to their physical needs by healing and feeding them.
The story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish shows up in all four gospels. St. Mark even includes a similar story where Jesus fed 4,000 with seven loaves and a few small fish. As Matthew, Mark and Luke tell the story of the feeding of the 5,000, each of them includes an important statement of Jesus just before the miracle takes place. In each case, as his followers are wondering how they are ever going to feed so many people, Jesus tells them rather strongly, “You give them something to eat.”
In Mark’s telling of the feeding of the 4,000, Jesus calls on his followers to feed the people with the bread and fish they had brought along for themselves. In all the cases, Jesus takes the seemingly meager provisions available, blesses them, and then miraculously multiplies them. We can take two very important lessons from these stories. First, Jesus instructs his followers (then and now) to care about and to minister to the physical needs of those around them. Second, Jesus will take what might seem to be insufficient provisions and multiply them to the benefit of many.
Let’s take these lessons and apply them to a critical situation here in Tooele Valley — homelessness. I began my ministry over 10 years ago in this valley and have seen it grow tremendously during that time. Sadly, as we grew, we began to develop some of the same problems that plague larger communities, including homelessness. At Mountain of Faith, as most churches do, we get calls from time to time from people whose car breaks down and who end up stranded here for a night or two.
We try to help when we can by putting them up for a night in a local motel. But, as a congregation, we are not equipped to deal with the much larger problem of families or individuals who for one reason or another, find themselves without shelter for an extended period of time. When people call who have lost their home because they can no longer pay the mortgage, we don’t have the resources to help. If someone, because of illness or injury can’t make their rent payments and loses their apartment, there is simply not much we can do.
What makes matters worse is that I cannot even refer them to a local homeless shelter, because as far as I know, no such shelter exists in Tooele Valley. If that is not the case and there is some local homeless shelter resource available, please let me know at Mountain of Faith so I can pass that information along. In the meantime, Jesus’ words, “You give them something to eat,” keep playing over and over in my head.
Add to that, my sure knowledge that Jesus does multiply even seemingly meager resources to the benefit of many and I’m convinced there is hope. I have been blessed in recent months to become associated with two different groups that have the capacity to make meaningful contributions to addressing the homeless issue in the valley. Some months ago, several concerned faith leaders came together to form what we have been calling The Tooele Valley Community Faith Council.
This is an inter-faith group that originally gathered in order to get to know each other better and address issues in this ministry area that cross denominational lines. The first issue we talked about was homelessness. I had this in mind when by the hand of providence I was invited to represent Tooele at a Faith Leaders Luncheon hosted by Gov. Gary Herbert and Pamela Atkinson at the Governor’s mansion in Salt Lake City. I was seated at a table that included Herbert’s chief of staff.
I took that opportunity to talk to him about the homelessness situation and our lack of resources in this valley. He immediately introduced me to the state head of Workforce Services, Jon Pierpont. Jon told me the state had been working on a “Homelessness Toolkit” that he thought might be of help to us, and offered to have someone from his office present it to us at the Tooele Valley Community Faith Council.
Last month, three representatives from the state of Utah addressed our group and gave us some important insight into the complexity of the homelessness issue. Perhaps my biggest take-away from that meeting is that there is no coordinated state-wide or county-wide governmental program to address unsheltered homelessness. The state and county will sometimes get involved and offer financial help, but it is up to local non-profits to start the ball rolling. “You get them something to eat,” rings loudly in my ears.
With that in mind, I want to challenge the entire faith community in this valley to participate in addressing this issue. While any one local congregation may feel unable to address such a complex issue, working together might be a way for Jesus to multiply our resources. So whether you are a lay person or paid clergy, we welcome your participation in this effort. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will be happy to give you details of our next faith council meeting. All who have a heart for helping our brothers and sisters in Christ are welcome.
Rick Ehrheart is pastor of Mountain of Faith Lutheran Church in Tooele.