Mercer Island United Methodist Church in suburban Seattle learned a difficult lesson: Serving the poor can mean offending your neighbor.

When the church decided to host Tent City—a traveling encampment of homeless people—on church property on a temporary basis, many in the affluent suburb were outraged.

Pastor Leslie Ann Knight recalls how a resident approached one of her church members, pointing aggressively. "Your church should be bombed."

Knight had not anticipated the severity of the backlash. "I was astonished by the sheer volume of complaints," she said.

Angry locals did more than talk. Before Tent City opened, a group of Mercer Island residents filed a lawsuit requesting a restraining order to prevent the encampment. The lawsuit alleged that a temporary-use permit issued by the city was granted illegally, and that the encampment would be an eyesore.

"Neighbors will be forced to look at honey buckets [portable restrooms], temporary shower facilities, tents, and an array of equipment necessary to serve the camp," the lawsuit stated.

A judge denied the request, and Tent City opened on August 13.

Though the encampment has continued to divide the community, it has unified churches on the island, as they have chipped in to provide meals and other supplies to the 100 or so occupants of the encampment.

"The churches were very much in favor of Tent City coming to the island, and they have all supported the camp since it came," said Greg Asimakoupoulos, president of the Mercer Island Clergy Association and senior minister at Mercer Island Covenant Church. "What a wonderful opportunity we have as Christians to befriend these people, care for their needs, and build a bridge to tell them about Christ."

Building that bridge ...

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