In the spacious yurt at the center of Opportunity Village Eugene (OVE), Father Brent Was rummages through his bag with a red-and-white “OCCUPY” screenprint safety-pinned to it. Seated in a wobbly plastic chair, the bearded Episcopal reverend pulls out a simple wooden rosary and begins thumbing the blue beads from his left hand to his right, listening intently to the villager’s council meeting.
Council members air their grievances and make suggestions to help OVE run more smoothly. Other villagers enter and exit the yurt, using the computer stations or refilling their coffee. The villagers often look to Was as he observes, his bespectacled face attentive. At times he responds with encouragement, at others he plays devil’s advocate and then turns the question back to them, confident they can sort it out.
Was is on the OVE board, helping with decision making, the vetting process, finances and general maintenance of the village.
“We’re here to give guidance, but we strive for them to be as self-sustaining as possible,” Was explains. His black clothing and white clerical collar stand out against the bright red, yellow and purple painted tiny houses that cluster around each other in the village as he walks down the bark-chipped path.
He speaks quickly and with clarity despite sometimes tumbling over his words. Working with the 30 people who were recently homeless and now live in the small community can be tense due to their life struggles. “It’s baby steps to the kingdom. If you want to be there tomorrow, God doesn’t work like that,” Was says.
Was came to Eugene in 2011 on All Saint’s Day after living and studying theology of sustainable agriculture on the East Coast, becoming ordained, then moving to Portland for a short time. Upon arriving in Eugene, Was says the issue of homelessness was shockingly evident, as opposed to other places he and his family had lived.
“We started learning very quickly that this is a major issue in the city, and it seemed like the most visible sign of the decay of society,” Was says. “I feel very strongly that Jesus calls us to gravitate towards places of suffering. God prefers the poor, and God is most present with those who are suffering."
Now settled on a homestead in Jasper with his family, Was is the reverend of the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, a little church out on 39th and Hilyard, set far back from the road and sheltered with tall old oak trees. This church was the first in town to host Conestoga huts: small, one-room mobile units that resemble the covered Conestoga wagons of Wild West days. It now hosts three people in what Was calls “the best parking lot in Eugene,” with towering oaks that create cool shade and a small lawn that the huts encircle.
The church also hosts one of Eugene’s Egan Warming Centers, which open during periods of extreme cold to give the unhoused a safe, warm place to sleep at night.
Mark Hubbell is one of the tenants in a Conestoga hut and has worked with Was for the past two years. Hubbell previously lived in Portland’s rest stop, Right 2 Dream Too, and was recruited to help with Opportunity Village Eugene because of his experience living in transitional communities. When the Conestoga huts were set up on the church’s property, Hubbell was one of the first to sign up.
“We both agree that what’s missing out of society right now is a recognition of humanness,” Hubbell says of Was. “The system is broken, but if we can recognize that, maybe we can find a way to support it until it actually does what it’s supposed to do: Help everyone who needs help.”
It’s never required of the residents to attend church, but Hubbell, who is Pagan, says he always volunteers at church functions and at the Egan Warming Center as a way to repay Was and his congregation for their kindness and because he sees them as an extended family.
Hubbell is able to get by with part-time general labor, and members of the congregations hire him out for different jobs, as do people around town. The money he makes from his work has allowed him to buy a phone to keep in touch with his daughters in Connecticut and Arizona.
Recently, Hubbell filled out a church questionnaire about people’s goals and values. One of the questions asked where they found God in everyday life. “If there had to be a God every day, Father Brent would be that representation,” Hubbell says.
When speaking with Was, his time at Harvard Divinity school is apparent; he quotes and quips from the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and his influences include Dorothy Day, Peter Marun, Leonardo Boff, Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson.
“They connect the idea that human poverty is an environmental problem; it’s a sign of unsustainability and imbalance in the world and entire ecosystem we’re a part of,” Was says. “If the system were stable and balanced, there would be enough for everyone — the human culture as well as the agriculture.”
Was sees cultural barriers as the main obstacle between people seeing those in need, and doing something about it. He points out that community organizing and social activism are part of his job, which is why he can spend so much time with them while others hold down a job and then volunteer on the side. He also stresses the importance of working on the issue of homelessness at its roots, to help stem the tide of those in need.
“We have to relieve the suffering directly. Acts of Mercy are incredibly important, but there is also the call to look at structural sin,” Was says. “That institutionally our country is set up in a way that is sinful and unjust. The idea that since you are unable to earn money, you are unable to live, have food, have a place to live, etc.”
Was breaks down the issue of homelessness in a way he is familiar with — in terms of agriculture.
“To me, the understanding of the Kingdom of God is the world and how it’s supposed to be,” Was says. “In farming, if you make the soil beautiful, healthy and full of life, then you’re going to get that abundance in return. We can engineer that system, pump it full of chemicals and have a sterile field, and we’ll get a predictable result. But it is unsustainable, and nothing about it is in accordance with how God wants it to be. That extends from a field to how our community is run.”