Retired pastor says city falls short helping the homeless

Bellingham pastor Dick Christensen played a leading role in social-justice issues the past decade, and was never afraid to speak his mind in defense of those who need help.

"You're known by the enemies you make and the friends you keep," he said with a smile, a few days into retirement.

Christensen spent 28 years at Faith Lutheran Church.

"I became semi-retired two years ago when Sharon Swanson took over as pastor and now I'm fully retired," he said.

Question: How did you become so intensely involved helping the homeless?

Answer: It started about 10 years ago with an article in The Bellingham Herald about homeless teenagers and what I thought could be our response. I was involved in the Interfaith Coalition and we came up with the CAST program, which stands for Coffee and Sandwiches on Tuesday, although now it has been expanded to four nights, Mondays through Thursday. It's held from 6 to 7 p.m. on the patio of the Interfaith Coalition on Unity Street.

Q: How did it go at the start?

A: I remember serving our first meal out of the back of my hatchback. I told someone, "Gee, we served only 28 people," and I was told, "That's 28 more than would have eaten otherwise."

Q: How did you create the severe-weather sanctuary at Faith Lutheran for homeless people?

A: A few years ago, Laura DeRose, the director of the Interfaith Coalition, pointed out we didn't really have anything in place to respond to severe weather for homeless who needed help, so we set up something at Faith Lutheran. The women were then at Garden Street Methodist, but this winter they are at Faith Lutheran. It's more efficient from the standpoint of the volunteer help we need.

Q: How did Faith Lutheran become a welcoming church for anyone with differences, especially for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people?

A: The impetus came a few years ago when people studied an ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) document on human sexuality. A suggestion was made to become what's known as a "Reconciling in Christ Congregation." We engaged in conversations as a congregation for a year. At a special meeting, the congregation voted 62-39 in favor.

Q: Did you lose any members?

A: We lost five family units who identified this vote as their reason for leaving. They left because of a principle, and I respected them for that.

Q: What does your congregation think of your involvement in social issues?

A: A large number of people have been extremely supportive. Some people didn't like what I thought, but they liked me. A small group didn't like me or what I thought. Would I do it all again? I would, in a heartbeat!

Q: How do you see the community's approach to the homeless?

A: I believe city government folks would like to give the homeless bus tickets to Mount Vernon. There are good people trying to make a living in downtown businesses; they basically want the homeless to go away. For some people, the homeless represent a speed bump in a comfortable place.

Q: What can be done?

A: The difficulty is that there are no options for the homeless during the day. One idea would be to create a place where homeless people could come in out of rainy, ugly weather. Every city that has developed a no-questions-asked housing unit for the homeless has experienced a decline in 911 calls.

There are ways the city could make significant contributions to the health and wholeness of homeless people. The city has a responsibility to those who need help. I don't believe the city is meeting that responsibility.

Michelle Nolan is a freelance writer.