Boston Public Radio Podcast
4:28 pm
Fri March 14, 2014

Alex Beam On Outdoor Church, Homelessness, And Working Crappy Retail Jobs At 50

Boston Common on a summer day. Alex Beam told Jim and Margery about Cathedral in the Common, a church that holds services rain or shine, sleet or snow.
Credit LandscapeNotes.com

Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam was back for his regular Thursday Open Mic feature with Jim Braude and Margery Eagan. This time, Beam talked about the idea of "outdoor church" — holding service out in the elements — as well as serving the homeless. Beam pointed Jim and Margery to a piece in The Atlantic by a former Globe colleague who found himself working retail in his fifties. The segment ended with Beam's 45-second description of the Herbalife controversy.

For more from Alex Beam you can visit his website, read his Globe columns, and follow him on Twitter.

Questions have been edited, and Alex Beam's responses have been edited where noted: (...)

Tell us about the church in Boston Common.

It's the Cathedral in the Common. It's this astonishing thing that has exploded. I analogize it to First Night. It started in Boston. A woman I've spoken with only by telephone — named the Rev. Deborah Little — knew that some homeless people congregated at the Cathedral of St. Paul, the Episcopal in the Boston Common in the [mid-nineties]. She decided to have Easter Mass on the Common, for the homeless, not for anyone else.

It's not extraordinary to have church outside — it's like having class outside. But she had church outside for the homeless, and they were to participate. She no longer does that for a living — she curates a website, Ecclesia Ministries, and 250 churches around the world now have such church services specifically for a homeless congregation.

My next column (...) is about a church that spun off from Deborah Little's original ministry, which is called the Outdoor Church of Cambridge.

Where is it in Cambridge?

(Laughs) I just have to laugh because [it's] at the Porter Square T stop. The Outdoor Church of Cambridge is every Sunday. I did not go in the depth of winter — I'm a fair-weather Christian if ever there was one. (...) I describe it as an "altar on a shopping cart." It's a little altar on rollers, they roll it up there at 9 A.M., more or less, they start the church service, [and] homeless people congregate to the service. They do that again on the Cambridge Common at 1 P.M.

The two reverends devote Sunday — my infelicitous choice of words — to "wandering around" Cambridge, making contact with homeless people, and giving them sandwiches (...) and socks.

The reason I wrote about this was because I became very deeply intrigued with Rev. Mannis and a long conversation we had about what they were doing. Virtually one of the first things he said to me was, 'We are a church, not a social welfare agency.' Another (...) was, 'We don't get a lot of foundation support because we don't have a path out of homelessness (...) we are delivering a spiritual food to the homeless.'

That got my attention. That was a little counterintuitive for me as a bourgeois newspaper reader. 'Oh, homelessness is a pathology, we've got to cure these people.' It's almost as if every homeless person is a potential undergrad at Wesleyan College. I was learning something different. I know dangerously little, now.

Do the same people show up each Sunday?

I would cautiously answer that yes, because I've only been three times. It's a small group. (...) I've been going to suburban churches. Like, coffee hour is a big deal to the homeless. Suburbanites love coffee hour. They get together and talk about who got a B+ on the high school test. I did notice that at 9 A.M., the reverends are present, a few homeless people are present, a few people like myself are present. But at 9:40 A.M., when the Dunkin Donuts gallon of joe comes out, and Jed Mannis has this great carton of donuts, there's a lot more homeless present. I say this in the spirit of religiousness. (...)

A church is like a fortress. Those walls are there for a reason, so you can do this in private.

  I want to make one other point for context. I was genuinely intrigued with this idea of worshipping out-of-doors, sort of naked. You're in Porter Square, everyone's staring at you. I finally realized, a church is like a fortress. Those walls are there for a reason, so you can do this in private. In the middle of Porter Square there's nothing private. It's just you and your church. I found it very open, very naked, very stark, very fulfilling for me, personally.

This winter has been freezing, with snow, and they're doing the service in the snow. And people are also living out there, too.

(...) Some of the homeless people have children. Sheltering isn't 100 percent perfect. It's pretty darned good, especially in Cambridge. (...) Cambridge, and Massachusetts generally, are extremely generous communities for social services for the homeless. There are three shelters within T distance. These congregants spend the night at the Pine Street Inn, or 240 Albany Street, or — wait for it — an extraordinary so-called dry shelter run by Harvard students at the University Lutheran Church in Harvard Square. [It's] arguably the best-run and best-ministered shelter, but it's a dry shelter. Even just the very few conversations I've had with homeless people, a lot of them don't want to go to a dry shelter.

Meaning, you can't drink there.

Yeah, you can't look drunk, you can't look high, and you can't drink or do drugs on the premises. And it's odd because it's almost like an honor system. (...)

Tell us about Joe Williams, a former editor at the Boston Globe.

(...) He's written this astonishing article on The Atlantic Magazine website, so he's obviously a gifted writer and storyteller. He did cruise around the Globe as an editor, which might not have been his actual calling. This guy is indeed like us. He's the deputy bureau chief of a reputable newspaper in Washington. He goes to POLITICO, and not only is he a good political reporter, he's on TV all the time. His career is on an upward trajectory when suddenly (...) he loses his job at POLITICO. (...)

He made this offhand comment that even I, as a Mitt Romney supporter, don't find the least bit offensive. He said on MSNBC that, It's basically pretty obvious that Mitt Romney is less comfortable in a diverse town hall setting, and more comfortable when he's on "Fox and Friends" with his white pals.

"They're white folks who are very much relaxed in their own company."

What could be more true? I'm a pro-Romney guy. Romney is the whitest American on earth.

Joe Williams is an African-American, and he thought that played into why he was vilified.

(...) It's nuts, and it's effectively unseated him.

He also retweeted a "crude Romney joke." And then there was his guilty plea for assaulting his ex-wife. But the story isn't about his fall from grace. It's him getting a retail job in his fifties.

It's just a place none of us wants to go. And [he's] someone exactly analogous to us in education and competency. Let's say he's at Marathon Sports or something. I assume this is a complete recapitulation of a book I never read, Barbara Ehrenreich's book "Nickeled and Dimed." Joe makes crystal clear with this painful writing that [it's] a $10-and-hour job, at the near-bottom of the American economy. We're now talking about millions of jobs. We know that [Pres.] Obama talked about this subject just yesterday.

I just had lunch at McDonalds, unbelievably, and the guy is cleaning up when the manager comes over and says, "José, put this cap on." So, José has to put on a cap for the Bacon Double Cheeseburger. In other words, they use these people as signage, among other things.

Joe Williams (...) has to agree to be searched if he goes to get a Frap across the street.

If he wears a hoodie or big jacket to work, his boss says they'll have to pat him down. They have to do overtime work for free — cleaning toilets, taking out the trash.

It's like a boy-girl thing, he describes that only the men can haul the trash out to the dumpster, which is surveilled by a camera. So they don't even trust their own people to throw away the trash because they think they might be stealing from the trash. But it's done in twos — in other words, one person goes out to monitor Joe, who's emptying the trash.

At both ends of the day it's all free time. You have to get there early, that's free time. You have to stay late, that's free time. The other detail that none of us missed is that they keep hammering down his hours, and he doesn't get it, he's a little näive. Of course, they want make sure he doesn't trip the 35 hours [worked] a week so he gets benefits.

Switching gears, you have 45 seconds to describe the Herbalife controversy, and how Sen. Ed Markey is embroiled.

What the listeners need to know is that many high-profile public policy issues of the last decade that you think are about "this policy versus that policy" [are not what they seem]. For instance, the jihad against for-profit education — you think, Oh, well that was legitimate, they were taking money out of veteran's pockets — [is all] b.s. It was all driven by short-sellers. What I'm telling you is, a lot of these stories that you read in the news are actually driven by Wall Street manipulators who are seeking to drive down the publicly-traded stocks of these companies.

In the example of the bogus investigations of the for-profit education [companies] — Kaplan, which is owned by the Washington Post, was driven way, way down. Right now, [Sen.] Ed Markey is caught hilariously, he's been galled — and by the way, you notice [Sen.] Elizabeth Warren was too smart to get caught in this — Ed Markey is fronting for [Pershing Square Capital Management executive] Bill Ackman, this short-seller. He doesn't care about the Hispanics who are getting cheated by Herbalife. Believe me, nothing means less to Bill Ackman. Now, Ed Markey is mired. He's writing letters on this guy's behalf, trying to interfere with the Federal Trade Commission.

The subhed was that Bill Ackman made a billion-dollar bet that vitamin and weight-loss company Herbalife would fail, and then Ackman lobbied to make sure it would fail, with his influential connections in Congress, and state and city government.

[Boston City Councilor] Tito Jackson, for those of you following at home. [Rasky Baerlein CEO] Larry Rasky, for those of you following at home. Let's get the names out there. They should be very proud of their nefarious role as ludicrous front-people and puppets for a Wall Street billionaire, Bill Ackman.

That's very upsetting.

Is it upsetting? People need to have their eyes opened. People need to know. Herbalife is a fat target. The for-profit thing really bugged me, because a young friend of mine at some big foundation was testifying before Congress. And to me, they're just cat's paws for Wall Street manipulators. Mine is a very dark and extreme view.

Just FYI, if you own stock in robot surgery companies, it's too late. They've been massively shorted. What you do is you have to leak all these stories to Wall Street Journal reporters, that's the absolute best-case scenario. (...) Google "Wall Street shortsellers and robot surgery," you'll see what I mean. In other words, that's another whole sector they've chosen to collapse.

>> Hear the entire interview with Alex Beam here:

Alex Beam, 3/13/14

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