Faithful take action on housing
When Habitat for Humanity of Martha's Vineyard held a program on Dec. 10, dedicating its fourth Island house and handing the keys to the family who will make that house a home, the words of the ceremony suggested that something deeper than Island politics was at work.
"We acknowledge your call to love you with our whole hearts," read the Rev. Jerry Fritz, "and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves." His audience in the high school dining hall responded in the litany of blessing: "Make our hearts restless until all your people rest in decent shelter."
With organizations such as Habitat, the Housing Ecumenical Action Team and its working arm, the Bridge Housing Corp., with the work of church committees and private acts of pastoral assistance that never reach the public eye, the congregations of Martha's Vineyard have quietly seized upon the issue of affordable housing and made it a priority.
Habitat president Ron DiOrio spoke with volunteer Ginger Norton Tuesday at an open house and lunch, held at the Twin Oaks house, Habitat's most recent project. Photo by Susan Safford
Island churches have a tradition of social action that stretches back to the civil rights marches of the 1960s in Alabama and Mississippi. Closer to home, Vineyard congregations have reached out to meet this community's basic needs with programs such as the Island Food Pantry and the Red Stocking Fund. And over the past five years, affordable housing has taken its place at the forefront of community outreach work for many of the Island's congregations.
A call to action
"The big thing for all the churches was the May 2000 housing seminar at the Grange Hall," recalls Isaac Russell, a member of Grace Episcopal Church and a founding member of the Housing Ecumenical Action Team. "That started Grace Church people thinking, and inviting other churches to become involved to create HEAT."
One of the organizers of that watershed meeting in May of 2000 was Zee Gamson of Chilmark, who chairs the social action committee of the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center. "I was part of the group that formed SHAC, the Secure Housing Action Committee, that came out of the forum," she says. "We met right there after the forum and said, we've got to do some direct action stuff here. We marched in the July 4 parade, handing out eviction notices, pushing wheelbarrows of clothes saying, I need a secure bed for myself and my flowers - and we did a skit at the Ag Fair."
The early members of the Housing Ecumenical Action Team also realized that more than talk was needed from the Island's faith communities to address the affordable housing crisis. "We met a few times during that summer of 2000," Mr. Russell said recalled, "and we quickly realized you can't do anything as a discussion group. You have to have an action arm, an entity that can build something. So we created Bridge."
Bridge Corp. has proposed Bridge Commons, a 30-unit complex proposed for eight acres off State Road in Vineyard Haven. That project has won approval from every relevant agency, but neighbors have sued to stop it, and the case is currently in court.
Among the Island clergy who have been active in the Housing Ecumenical Action Team, the Rev. Robert Edmunds, rector of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Edgartown, says it's impossible to work in the parish ministry without being sensitized to the housing issue.
The impact of the affordable housing crisis on Island lives is serious, Father Edmunds says, and growing: "I think a threshold has been crossed on the Island - instead of just helping people around the edges, we're talking about core issues of having decent shelter. This is a whole new level for us. The Red Stocking and the Food Pantry - making sure your kids get something for Christmas, and a square meal - that's all very important work. But somehow when you're talking about having a place to live, it's a whole different conversation."
Father Edmunds says that he and members of his congregation have been watching the Jenney Lane housing project in Edgartown closely and lobbying for its approval. (Jenney Lane, like Bridge Commons, has won all the needed permits, but is in courts as neighbors try to block the plan.) Of Jenney Lane, he says: "This is more than just a nice neighborhood thing to do - there is a Christian imperative here as a religious community to say, we do take care of our neighbors. That's part of our job."
Jerry Fritz, pastor of the Federated Church in Edgartown, agrees wholeheartedly. "When we see a need," he says, "we know it's our Christian calling to address that need."
Father Edmunds says he's heard the complaint that churches should confine themselves to their community's spiritual well-being, and he has a ready answer: "Is the church supposed to be a spiritual haven? - of course. You're supposed to love your neighbor and care for the folks around you, and when you start to put some action around that, it makes folks a little nervous.
"What I say is that housing, to me, is not a political issue - it's a basic human right. I don't have much patience with the politicization of all this; I think it's about taking care of your neighbors in need. This is a fundamental thing. People can politicize it if they want to, but I think it goes beyond that."
Addressing the need
Many of the Island's congregations give their pastors a private account called the discretionary fund - it's money whose final disposition is never accounted for, to be spent at the pastor's discretion to help people in need. Clergy have had such funds for generations on the Island, but lately they are finding that the scale of the community's needs has grown dramatically.
Says Father Edmunds: "Our parish has talked about the fact that this is no longer a time in which people stop by for a quick shot in the arm, where fifty bucks from me will solve the problem. Now when a family calls for help, they're in big-time trouble. It's about working families on the Island, caught up in our seasonal cycle of boom and bust in seasonal employment, who got stuck. This is going on all the time. It's a huge problem now."
"I'm seeing exactly the same thing," says Pastor Fritz. "It used to be that people would come to me for help, and I would write them a check for $50 and they'd go off down the road, happy. Now that same $50 is probably $350 to $500. That's the dilemma."
Church communities across the Island are evolving new structures to address this growing need. One of them is the Tzedakah Fund at the Hebrew Center, which Zee Gamson and others organized at the urging of Rabbi Caryn Broitman. "Miryam Gerson is the chair of it," Mrs. Gamson explains, "and it is focused on helping individuals in need and organizations that work with individuals in need."
The fund's name comes from the Hebrew word meaning "charity with justice." This year the Regional Housing Authority received money from the Tzedakah Fund which can be used to help tide over families who can't pay their rent.
Saying yes, saying no
Perhaps the most powerful way to experience first-hand the urgency of the housing problem is to serve, as Pastor Fritz has done for Habitat, on the committee that selects a recipient family.
"My committee and I agree on this: It's the most gratifying thing that most of us have ever done, to be able to put a family into a home of their own. It's also the most excruciating thing, because we start with 40 people who all have this great need. Finally it comes down to a half-dozen families who all qualify, and we could pick any one of those families and be right.
"In the end you pick one family, and then you start making phone calls to the other four or five families. Saying the yes is a high you can float on for a week. But when you have to say no, you feel so badly. There's just nothing you can say."
Mr. Fritz recalls how the selection committee agonized over its decision when it came down to choosing between two eligible families and one of the first Habitat homes on the Island. "The decisive factor for us, as we talked, was that the person and her daughter were living in an uninsulated one-car garage that was heated by a woodstove in the middle of the floor, and we were talking about this on an extremely cold February night. We just thought about how cold it must be in that little apartment."
When he had to call the man whose family was not chosen for the house, Pastor Fritz recalls, the man asked one question: What was the deciding factor in the final choice? "So I shared that story with him, and his response to me was, 'You made the right decision.'"
Monica Miller, who with Alvin Schackman and their son will soon be moving into the fourth Island house built by Habitat for Humanity, spoke movingly of her experience with the project at the December dedication: "The generosity of heart we've been shown from the donors, and the love and companionship of the volunteers, are what make this house and the building of it special. It's truly more than just building a house - it's a spiritual journey. It's about all kinds of people coming together, people of different skill levels and different physical capacities, learning together, working alongside one another, making something happen. Habitat for Humanity is love made visible. It's the gentle patience of someone teaching you how to use a drill or a saw, it's laughing together and working things out, learning new skills and teaching others. It's many little kindnesses that add up to one big kindness."
Nis Kildegaard lives in Edgartown. He is a writer and editor who founded Framework, the Journal of Affordable Housing on Martha's Vineyard.