In the Kingdom of God, there are pancakes, sausages and scrambled eggs a-plenty. In the Kingdom of God, plastic flowers sit in clear glass vases to cheer up the fluorescent-lit room. In the Kingdom of God, a man named Lucky plays ragtime piano, and elderly ladies smile dreamily as they tap their fingers to the music.
Early every Sunday in the basement of First Christian Church on 11th and Oak, hundreds of transient, homeless and hungry people of Eugene line up to receive an offering of food, coffee and juice. For some it’s simply a free meal. For others it’s a brief respite from being hassled out of downtown, and a moment to sit and talk with other street folk and volunteers from the congregation.
For Pastor Dan Bryant, it’s a hope that they can retain dignity and strength through their current situation.
“The soup kitchen is where the people of means hand out the food to the people without,” Bryant says. “The Kingdom of God is where everybody sits down at the table together, where we’re all equal.” He continues, “It’s about us living it out together, getting to know one another, having conversation over the table so we can break down the barriers that exist between the more well-off and the least of these in our midst.”
A native Oregonian and the son of a minister, Bryant “grew up in the church,” and after living around the U.S. and in Europe, he became a fixture in Eugene’s community after joining First Christian, a Disciples of Christ church, in 1991.
Bryant conducts his sermons with a humor and global awareness that might surprise those used to more rigid, scripture-only services. With a confident voice, Bryant flows easily from a joke about Chris Rock playing Moses to a comment on ISIS to preaching the gospel. When he speaks, the bright rainbow-striped clergy stole draped over his navy blue robes contrasts sharply with the somber wood and metal pipe organ that towers on the stage behind him.
From feeding the hungry on Sundays to his work with Opportunity Village, Bryant is considered by many to be a leader on homeless issues in the Eugene community, a status he says “just happened” out of the convergence of his faith and an obvious need for more local services.
Bryant says that helping those in need is a focal point throughout the Bible, quoting Matthew 25:35-40, a passage in which the Lord tells his disciples that when they fed, clothed and cared for those with the least of those things, it was Him that they were serving.
“It’s part of our faith to promote the wellbeing of other people,” Bryant says. “It’s all through the Bible and one of the most prominent teachings.” Aside from the Bible, he sees in his work a human commitment to those in need and doesn’t see someone’s faith as a motive or deterrent to helping them.
With First Christian Church’s downtown location, Bryant says that all kinds of people walk in off the street needing help in some capacity. The church has a person at the desk at all church hours to direct people to different church and social services around town.
“He was one of the first people who I saw who is truly just living it,” says Alley Valkyrie, an advocate for the unhoused. “He gets it. He is being that role. Most churches make some sort of attempt to do a social service, but I don’t see it as the focus of their ministries. For Dan, that’s really the focus of the church.”
Valkyrie, who identifies as a Pagan “polytheist earth-worshipper,” began working with Bryant in 2010 when they were both on a city-appointed board after the Occupy Eugene camp was broken up. Valkyrie says she heard his name long before she first shook hands with him; Bryant’s rapport with the City Council, interfaith organizations and local non-profits precedes him.
“He has a very smart political instinct. He’s very good at being diplomatic and doesn’t allow himself to be walked over,” Valkyrie says. “We all have our places, but his is a rare one.” She says that people “respect him, don’t write him off and he has a way of holding the issue with a very hardcore strength while coming off as so gentle and likeable and not the least bit ‘Grr.’”
That strength helped push through Opportunity Village Eugene (OVE), which grew out of the 2010 Occupy encampment. Bryant is chair of the board of directors. As Bryant explains it, OVE is “the American Dream on the micro-level,” and it’s an accomplishment he hopes to see repeated in other parts of the country.
A cluster of mini-houses and Conestoga huts on a gravel lot in Eugene’s industrial sector, OVE was built by volunteers and is maintained by the inhabitants of the village, a move to empower the residents.
Bryant says that the villagers, who pay $1-a-day rent, are able to focus on other areas of their lives like school, jobs or getting their families back together. The progress that he’s seen at OVE has been encouraging, and the group is planning a Phase II project called Emerald Village Eugene that would provide more permanent housing.
“He’s able to meet people where they’re at, and that’s something that people in authority positions have a really hard time doing,” Valkyrie says.
Bryant says that with such a strong cultural barrier between the haves and have-nots, it can be hard for those with means to understand the sort of privileges they are born into, and that those without means often struggle early on in life with abuse, abandonment and addiction.
“I am convinced that those who blame the homeless for their condition are not so much uncaring as they are unaware — they see what is on the surface and not what is inside,” Bryant says. “When we get to know someone, wounds, warts and all, we move from blame to empathy and we see the other as a full human being deserving our respect and care rather than as an object we can scorn and dismiss.”