union gospel

Homelessness is not, per se, a religious issue. But, time and again, faith-based organizations have stepped up to help provide services to deal with a societal problem that is the scourge of many cash-strapped cities.

And, for that, they should be praised.

For too long, though, privately-run and funded religiously-affiliated homeless shelters, such as Yakima’s Union Gospel Mission on North First Street, had essentially (or, at least, tacitly) turned away some of the very homeless people they hoped to help. They had done so by requiring those seeking help to attend mandatory chapel services before getting food or shelter for the night.

They meant well, we know. They wanted to spread the gospel, the “good word,” on which their religion is based. But, at the same time, the practice alienated homeless people who hold different beliefs — or no beliefs at all. It smacked of a quid-pro-quo – a bowl of soup for a bow of the head. It wasn’t right to force worship upon another, certainly not “the Christian thing to do,” as critics argued.

So it was heartening to see that, shortly after taking control of the Yakima Union Gospel Mission last month, the faith-based nonprofit’s new executive director, Mike Johnson, did away with the mandatory chapel requirement. This was a big deal; the mission was founded in 1936, and you don’t change 82 years of precedent on a whim.

But it is a move we heartily endorse. You might even say that we give it some hosannas — secularly, of course.

It’s worth noting that the mission was not forced to change policy. Unlike Transform Yakima Together, the faith-based group that has teammed with the city to provide services and thus is required not to proselytize, Union Gospel Mission has no such restrictions. In explaining the policy change to a Herald-Republic reporter, Johnson made certain to note that “it’s not a softening of our spiritual identity.” But he added that chapel service is “not going to be inflicted upon (the homeless.)”

Johnson’s verb choice, “inflicted,” is telling. Many homeless people have problems enough — money worries, health concerns, often mental-health issues — without having their spiritual decisions dictated to them. Many feel helpless, adrift, bereft of hope and identity save whatever personal belongings they can tote. To make a person of Hindu or Muslim faith — or an atheist — worship a particular dogma before filling his belly can be disenfranchising.

Besides, as Johnson noted, it’s not as if the Union Gospel Mission is losing its religion. Those chapel services still are being held, the teachings of a loving, caring God are still being imparted. And many homeless people still attend. In fact, when Johnson changed chapel attendance from mandatory to voluntary at his last Union Gospel outpost, in downtown Seattle, he found that the pews were still full.

“The ministry was way more effective,” he told the Herald-Republic.

Johnson’s ascension to executive director, replacing the mission’s longtime heads, Rick and Debbie Phillips, who retired, is part of a broader initiative to improve outreach.

He has spoken passionately about a renewed focus on clients’ mental health and dealing with lingering effects of childhood traumas and drug and alcohol abuse. Part of the change is a physical expansion of the seven-acre mission, the former site of the Yakima Inn. Currently, the mission can accommodate 200 people a night, and during the winter months it gets a full house. There are just eight family units, and there rarely is a vacancy.

Another positive step is Johnson’s outreach to the community and the business surrounding North First Street. Johnson is spearheading a fund-raising campaign to pay for expansion, especially to its entrance so that people will not congregate outside – a major peeve of shop owners. To spruce up the oft-ramshackle stretch of road, Johnson and other leaders from religious organizations have put the homeless and their staffs to work picking up garbage in what is dubbed “Serve Day Saturdays,” a vigorous cleaning following by a pancake breakfast.

With cities such as Yakima strapped to provide services, faith-based groups are needed. The latest figures from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development show that religious organizations provide nearly 30 percent of emergency shelter beds across the country. The nonprofit (and secular) Alliance to End Homelessness, in a 2017 brief, emphasized that “faith-based organizations are critical, but in some ways underutilized partners in ending homelessness.” Their strengths, the organization concluded, lie in “strong connections within the community, a strong volunteer and advocacy base and flexible donor funds.”

Indeed, without the Union Gospel Mission, imagine the uptick in homeless people on the streets in the upcoming chilly winter months. Now, with the mandatory chapel policy gone, even more people might be willing to come in out of the cold.

• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis.