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Urban Plunges are short-term mission trips downtown

Through stories and hospitality, Urban Plunges connect people on the streets and in single-room occupancy apartments downtown with people in congregations and community leaders.

Jerry Schwab

Stories told by people, whose lives are bound up in homelessness, addictions and abuse, empower them to move from being victims and survivors to gaining a voice on behalf of others.  As their stories progress from their own alienation to how decisions, relationships and policies that affect their lives affect others’ lives, they gain power and momentum toward recovery, relationships and community.

Stories church people hear during Urban Plunges at the House of Charity stir new awareness, caring and concern that move them out of their middle-class comfort zones and world views, said Jerry Schwab, who organizes plunges as part of his work to develop community relations with social service providers, among people in neighborhood apartments and with congregations.

The stories, he said, turn tables on expectations about who is helping and who is helped. 

Those who are usually hosts and helpers become the guests, served with the food of stories—at mealtimes, in apartments or at the Spokane Transit Authority (STA) Plaza—and insights into people and their lives.

Growing up with his family in Spokane, Portland and Northern California, he attended Mass often and went to Catholic schools.  He later learned of abuse in his family that left members hurting, unwilling to speak up until a granddaughter was affected. 

While his five siblings have excelled and are public figures, he said each still struggles.  Broken relationships continue because of different ways each makes sense of what happened.

Moved by interest in the underdog—people in rough times—Jerry completed a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1976 at Gonzaga University.  He went on to earn master’s degrees in psychology and school counseling, and a doctoral degree in educational leadership.

“My work with House of Charity helps,” Jerry said.  “I deal with, accept and love people who are self destructive and angry.  My own healing ties to their stories.  I now can speak about my family experience, although much remains unresolved,” Jerry said.

“In conversations that open people’s vulnerability and honesty, I have been able to form some trusting relationships with people downtown.  God’s presence here in strangers is profound,” he said.  “The Gospel is about brokenness—about the last being first.”

Jerry has also worked as a foster care caseworker, a sexual assault therapist, a mental health counselor and a school intervention specialist.  A year with the Reardan School District and his ongoing work as a therapist in Washtucna and Kahlotus on Thursdays and Fridays make him aware of common strains in rural and urban life.

When his daughters, now 17 and 20, were young, he worked half-time to have time at home.

By 1998 when he was needed less at home, he discovered the Dining with Dignity program of Shalom Ministries at Central United Methodist Church, when its founder preached at First Presbyterian Church, where Jerry was then a member.

“Central had few resources and First had many, so I began going with my daughters to help at the Monday evening meal,” he said.

When Jerry began volunteering at House of Charity, he proposed his work be an urban mission for the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest, which continues to give support, along with Hamblen Presbyterian Church.  In June 2006, House of Charity hired him as community relations director.

There he nurtures the hospitality he experienced at Shalom Ministries among people who had received little hospitality in their homes or lives. Jerry said many people abused or neglected cannot trust, leading some into unhealthy, abusive, damaging relationships.

“My mission is to give hospitality that leads people to hope and healing,” he said.

“In my 30 years in social services, I found that social services fall short in providing hospitality for clients.  We provide and dispense services, but our professional relationships with clients may lack trust-building to develop the relational piece critical for human beings to progress,” Jerry said.

In his relationships with people downtown, he hears their news of marriages, visits to grandchildren and new relationships—things people share as friends.

“People need healthy connections with others.  Many who depend on drugs, alcohol or sex are unable to trust people, because some people let them down,” he said.  “To leave poverty, homelessness or addictions, people need a significant relationship with someone or with God.”

Jerry believes social services, case managers, therapists and caseworkers are instrumental, but maintain a distance that may hinder progress. 

“Services alone are not enough.  Healing happens in relationships.  People need mentors to take them by the hand and help them move forward.  Early in life, we need recognition by adults to shape us and connect us in our families—to lay the groundwork for future relationships of give and take, negotiation and trust,” he said.

When families betray members, they may turn to violence against themselves or others, said Jerry, now involved at Knox Presbyterian.  “In some cases, the harm will never be undone.  I meet people who are 65 and never trusted anyone, held a job or kept a relationship because they did not have the ability to trust.”

As urban missionary for the presbytery, Jerry involves Presbyterian, as well as other churches, in plunges.  Hamblen Park Presbyterian has been on three Urban Plunges, involving 90 members, plus having Jerry teach a four-session adult class.

The Urban Plunge is a short-term mission trip downtown—a pilgrimage to a strange land.  Participants meet a few of the approximately 6,500 people homeless in Spokane.  Jerry began leading plunges five years ago with Shalom Ministries and has done them three years with the House of Charity. 

Once a month, 12 or more plungers—from area universities, churches, nonprofits and government—arrive at 7 p.m. on a Friday to begin 20 hours of learning about people and their culture. 

In an orientation, Jerry reviews stages of human development and the necessity of trust. 

“I tell them whether people are homeless or live in a gated community they can be stuck in me-centered selfishness and greed—like in the “terrible twos,” in being too independent or in parallel play,” he summarized.

After discussing causes of homelessness, he takes people on a night-time tour downtown.  Plungers see how people live, learn about services and observe the range in housing options.

They go into the Otis Hotel to see the living conditions and meet residents.  On the way back, they go into the Davenport Hotel.  Jerry contrasts commercial with transformational hospitality.

“Any time people experience welcome can be transformational,” he noted.

The plungers talk, walk and share.  Back at the House of Charity, Jerry invites plungers to “check in,” sharing how they feel to be in a homeless shelter.  They often express discomfort in being out of their comfort zones.

At the end of the experience, they “check out,” sharing the impact of what they saw, heard, felt and learned.

“Groups often ask what patrons feel for them to be on their turf.  Do they feel gawked at, imposed on?  At the end of the plunge, they realize they were received with hospitality,” Jerry said.  “Patrons feel gratitude that people took time to visit their home.”

Plungers stay overnight on the main floor.  Patrons sleep upstairs, in two dorm rooms with 108 beds.

“Most middle-class people today no longer experience being guests and being vulnerable.  Many prefer to be givers, hosts and the ones in charge of resources.  Those on the margins often feel they are receivers, helpless and dependent,” Jerry said.  “It’s powerful for patrons to be the hosts and providers—the ones with the resources.”

urban project
Jerry works with youth on urban project.

Jerry finds the Gospel full of such contradictions and challenges:  “Much is required of those with wealth.  Those having little are winners.  Strangers and the poor may be Christ or angels.  We creatures of habit surrounding ourselves with the familiar are called to be aliens and sojourners, to go into unfamiliar territory.”

He observes often that the faith of middle-class and wealthy people in gated communities can be under-nourished.

“On mission experiences, we see people with little or nothing happier than we are.  It’s a jolt, because it seems that the more we have, the less happy we may be,” Jerry noted.

On Saturdays of Urban Plunges, plungers eat breakfast and lunch with patrons and have time for mingling.  At 9 a.m., they attend the chapel for a Lectio Divina—reading a Psalm, reflecting in silence and reading it aloud again several times before they talk.

“Psalms present the human condition—akin to the angst and suffering of people living on the streets,” Jerry said.

The sharing evolves into personal sharing.  Some homeless or formerly homeless people share their stories.

“Stories are powerful,” he said.

After lunch, plungers visit a few people in single-room-occupancy apartments before returning to the House of Charity to check out.

The Rev. Ken Onstot of Hamblen Park said his group picked people at random in the STA Plaza, saying they were part of a church doing an urban mission project, wanting to meet people downtown and hear their stories.

He met a woman sitting in the STA Plaza because she had just run away from an abusive boyfriend and didn’t know what to do.  She knew of Hope House and Ogden Hall, but didn’t want to pursue those options.

“It was intimidating at first, but now church members are going to chapel services at House of Charity and building long-term relationships,” Ken said.  “By going there, we overcome hesitation about people based on dress, grooming, demeanor, race or ethnicity.  Connecting with people downtown softens our hearts and helps us realize some of the reasons for homelessness.”

Down the road, plungers tell Jerry their view of homelessness changed.  He also sees some return to volunteer.

While problems people face downtown seem to be urban problems, Jerry knows from work in rural schools that rural communities face similar challenges.  

Some meth addicts move to rural towns for access to anhydrous ammonia, one ingredient.  Some people move there to escape scrutiny of Child Protective Services or to find low-cost housing.  Multi-generational, rural families deal with abuse and neglect.

“Some rural communities are like tough urban neighborhoods that lack policing and have people struggling with poverty,” Jerry said.  “Community and human development issues span both urban and rural life.

“Anywhere human beings live, breakdowns in community infrastructure and family relationships that betray trust can lead to poverty, crime and other struggles,” he said.  “In both areas, cuts in government funding translate into decreases in social services, mental health services and police, and more human isolation.”

Jerry said the sense of community has declined in urban and rural areas in part because TV and computers reduce face-to-face contact:  Fewer affiliate with clubs, fewer volunteer and fewer attend churches.

He senses, however, a turnaround since Sept. 11 and the hurricane and earthquake disasters last year.  People are pulling together.

“Feeling vulnerable is healthy as we come out of crises, opening us to pull together,” he said.

For information, call 624-7821.


Mary Stamp - The Fig Tree - © January 2007