“When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” -Matthew 14:14
When The Well was temporarily closed for sixty-five days, the city stated the reason was that our ministry is a magnet that draws crowds of people who are homeless, which creates a nuisance for the city.
Wherever Jesus went, he drew crowds, and they did not just follow him into the countryside but into cities as well (see Matthew 8). In the exceptional series, “The Chosen,” Jesus had drawn such a following that the crowds following Jesus to be blessed by his words and deeds began to encamp around the city of Capernaum. Quintus, the Praetor of Galilee and Roman Magistrate of the city, grew increasingly concerned about “the homeless camp.”
While Quintus is a fictional character, he represents well the Roman position on the Jewish people of the first century, over which Rome ruled. They thought of the Jewish people as backward at best, vermin at worst. He began to have his soldiers patrol the city and tried to enact new ordinances to disperse the fledgling community.
The Scriptures attest to Rome’s displeasure of the crowds and their response to Jesus, as the chief priests and the Pharisees worry over Rome’s response if they allow Jesus’ ministry to continue: “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation” (John 11:48).
Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor who sentenced Jesus to death, for his part, had a long history of disliking Jewish crowds. History outside of Scripture records his horrific violence towards Jewish crowds. At least on one occasion, he had his soldiers draw swords on a crowd, but when they stuck their necks out in defiance, daring the soldiers to spill their blood, he realized a public massacre might cause riots, and Rome did not like uprisings. From then on, he kept his antisemitism more discrete.
On one occasion, it is recorded that instead of publicly dispersing the crowds, he sent soldiers dressed as citizens into a crowd with clubs under their garments. In unison, they drew their clubs and began to beat others in the crowd to disperse them. His reputation got him in trouble with the Emperor, Tiberius, who told Pilate he was in danger of being deposed if he caused another riot, hence Pilate’s acquiescing to the crowds at Jesus’ trial. Regardless of his efforts to no longer cause such stirs, Pilate was eventually removed from his office. Likewise, Herod feared the crowds, as the Romans had (see Matt 14:5-14). Crowds represented the fear of the unknown, and prejudice guided the government in all its actions.
Likewise, religious officials were scandalized by the crowds as well. Certainly, as already pointed out by John 11:48, they, too, were concerned about an uprising (see also 21:45-46, 26:5, 27:11), but, for the most part, their complaints of the people following Jesus differed from the complaints of Rome. They thought that Jesus surrounded himself with the unworthy: “ …the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’” (Matthew 11:19). Matthew recorded these words not as his own description of the crowds but as they were seen by the elite.
When Matthew described the crowds, he spoke of them as vulnerable and in need: “So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, people possessed by demons or having epilepsy or afflicted with paralysis, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan” (Matthew 4:24-25).
Even the most undesirables, who put whole cities in jeopardy by their illnesses (think of the leaper that rushed into the crowd in Matthew 8:1-4 or the hemorrhaging woman who rushed into the crowd to touch Jesus’ garment in Mark 5:25-34), were welcomed by Christ. First-century Israel was under the thumb of Rome, overtaxed and suffering. So, the least of these among them were desperate, indeed.
This crowd that was drawn to Jesus wherever he went sounds awfully familiar to me. The sick, the displaced, the unwanted, the outcast, the sick, the mentally ill, and the lame. I have seen this crowd myself, and it is the crowd at The Well. Not all are as broken as these named in Scripture, but all who come to The Well have need. Like the Romans and the religious elite, many fear the gathering of the needy crowd for various reasons, and many want to do whatever it takes to disperse the crowd.
Let me be careful not to suggest that our officials are Romanesque in their response. Surely, their new ordinances and actions are heavy-handed, and I think those who feel their actions unfair should speak truth to power and demand better. I think our leaders, unlike the mad Herod or the brutal Pilate, are reasonable, compassionate people. Much of what they are doing is responding to the overwhelming demands of a citizenry who is upset. What if instead of demanding the city drive out the homeless, the people cried out to the city to come alongside The Well to provide a place for those left out in the elements at night? What good could we have done together? What if, instead of putting the city officials’ feet to the fire of harsh demands, we put the wind in their sails to offer meaningful, life-changing solutions?
Let me also be careful not to suggest that our concerned citizens have no reason to be upset. The violent spree that took place in Brunswick recently must be addressed. What I am suggesting is that the wrong folks were punished. What we should have demanded is that the state and city help us with our mental health crisis. There is still an opportunity for that now. Despite what some officials have said, nonprofits are not inundated with money to tackle the crisis. Citizens can still direct their concerns to our officials and give them thoughtful suggestions instead of vengeful ones.
Is The Well the magnet for vagrants and nuisances that we have been accused of being by the news media, social media, and those who accuse us from afar? The statistics do not seem to suggest so. I will not rehash all I have said in previous posts, but suffice it to say we are not drawing busloads of people from other states. We are not idling, as criminals come in to do as they will. We do see transient persons who make their way to us from other counties that kick them out, but those transients are just that, transient. They move on after a short while of receiving our hospitality. The average numbers of The Well have not changed over the years. Many, if not most, of our guests, are locals who fell on hard times. These people belong to our community, and we have no right to tell them they do not belong as our neighbors. In fact, we have a responsibility to them. They are ours.
So, why does it seem that all of a sudden, we have so many more persons experiencing homelessness on our streets? Why, all of a sudden, did numbers of people begin showing up to congregate and sleep outside The Well? The cause might surprise some, and it might be even more surprising to hear that it is something that we at FaitWorks celebrate, even while we regret this community had no place to go other than our doorstep. Downtown Brunswick has been in the midst of a renaissance. Once empty buildings, storefronts, and homes have been revived, as the city improves with each and every day. We should have nothing but gratitude for the extraordinary efforts of our local officials, investors, and local business owners in this regard. I love working downtown. I love bringing my wife and children downtown for church, to eat, and to experience all sorts of wonderful activities. I can only hope we continue to grow.
Yet, as with all things beneficial, save the grace of God, there is a price for us. As vacant properties began to be occupied, those places where persons experiencing homelessness stayed out of view of the public disappeared. Most of those in the crowds we now see on the streets are not new. They have always been here, but they cannot hide away anymore. They have always been our neighbors.
Jesus obviously placed heavy burdens on the cities and regions he visited by welcoming the crowds to come. I think he did this so that the public might see their neighbor in need, the neighbors the Scriptures commanded them to serve. Sure, at times, Jesus was able to take care of them on his own. He did feed the five thousand, after all, but he did not put a roof or tent over each of their heads. He did not always control the crowds. There were plenty of officials, as we have already noted, that blamed them for being a nuisance. There were even times when Christ, for his own sake, had to withdraw from the crowds so that he could rest, pray, and prepare himself for what was ahead (see Matthew 5:1, 8:18, 14:22, 15:39).
He did not snap his fingers and fix all their problems. Surely, he was calling on The People of God to do their part as well, just as they had been commanded for thousands of years, just as we are called today. Just as Jesus did not solve all the issues for those who followed him, at least in terms of their earthly needs, The Well has not either. Like Jesus, we, too, await others to come alongside us and help. What if passers-by saw the crowds outside The Well as Christ saw the crowds that surrounded him? What if there was not just one Christ to serve them but many Christs? What if we, those who call ourselves Christians, "little Christs,” put our hands and feet into action?
We may come up with a million and one excuses not to help. Time and again, The Well has been accused of serving the wrong sort of people. Many tend to lump people experiencing homelessness into two camps: Those who need help but do not want anything but a handout and those who need help and will receive it when it is offered. People tell us we should refuse the former and receive the latter.
Christ never turned anyone away. There were some in the crowds who heard what Jesus had to offer and left on their own. Even the magnet of love has two poles, some will be attracted to respond, and others will be repelled by what love has to offer. Christ did not say, “You saw me naked, hungry, and thirsty, then you psychoanalyzed me to see if I was worthy of help.” Christ taught grace. Pure grace is “unmerited favor.” Love and grace do not have to be earned by the other. Love and grace are to be offered freely by the giver. It is God who will work in that grace to bring healing to those ready to receive.
There are wonderful ministries that work on the model of helping those ready to move on. We cannot do without those ministries. But, we at The Well understand our calling to serve even those at ground zero, rock bottom. There are some in the crowd who will never be “ready” to move on. There are some without the mental capacity to do so. There are some so imprisoned by addiction that they cannot even muster the strength to become willing. Many have traumas that limit their capacity to think clearly about the next steps. We will not refuse them. Instead, we will await miracles. If that makes us wrong, so be it.
No one is without hope, but our community has a long way to go before we see a systemic effort to bring about the capacity to help the severely mentally ill and traumatized. The Well, of course, helps those who are ready. We see success all the time. We are also a life raft for those who cannot seem to escape the chaotic sea of trauma. For some, the helicopter is not yet coming. Many of our guests apply to receive assistance, and it is denied for bureaucratic reasons that I do not understand. Some apply for help, such as housing, and are approved but placed on years-long waiting lists. Our goal is to be there for them, to be that life raft as we pray for rescue. That life raft has been pulled out of the waters by the powers that be for now, but we are not giving up.
We can and have done a lot, but we cannot do it all. We can do what we are called to do, be a hospitality center for all in need. Sure, if someone commits a crime or is violent, we have to ask them not to return, but otherwise, we will have some in our midst who seem stuck, and that is okay. We have seen some of our guests show no interest in moving forward for months, but after much love, something switches, and they are off to a better life. We are not there to judge, just serve. Ministries with other models are not being judgmental, but they are doing what they are called to do. Yet, even with all the organizations working to help those in need, there are still many suffering.
I know we should not dwell on the “what ifs,” but sometimes I wonder, what if, when people who felt disgusted saw the crowds outside our facility, they instead thought, “How can I be the hands and feet of Christ to them?” Maybe it is too late for that, at least for right now, but our friends are still out there, scattered, but out there. Let us love, and may our love draw those in need to light and life.
The Well is not the sort of magnet we have been accused of being, but perhaps, I hope, it is a sort of magnet. Perhaps many gathered around because Christ’s love for them was present. Crowds should come to Christ. When they do, they need a lot of help, a lot of grace, a lot of mercy, a lot of healing, and a lot of love. Jesus did not do it all alone. He assigned his disciples to the care of the crowds as well. Go, therefore, and serve.