ESSAY: Rev. Rick Cole and his homeless publicity stunt

By Kel Munger

It’s not surprising that Capital Christian Center pastor Rick Cole decided a publicity stunt was the best way to help Sacramento’s homeless population. That’s how mega-churches get to be mega-churches, after all: lots of publicity.

But despite Rev. Cole’s stated intention of raising money for the city’s winter shelter program, which is a very deserving cause, this is really all about Rev. Cole. After all, it’s his face and his story in the Bee and on TV news.

There’s an insufferable privilege in the sort of humanitarian tourism that drives people to “live homeless,” whether for a night or a couple of weeks. (Exhibit A: Gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari’s attempt to make himself over as Tom Joad and establish his compassionate conservative bona fides.) It misses the point: Homelessness is such a despairing and desperate condition for people precisely because there’s no end in sight.

And it’s not as if we don’t know about Sacramento’s homeless population. In addition to William T. Vollmann’s brilliant first-person account in Harper’s Magazine, we’ve also had top-notch reporting in this paper from Dave Kempa, Nick Miller and R.V. Scheide, to name just a few. These writers have already given us the inside story, including the stories of people who—unlike Cole—didn’t choose to hit the streets.

No, this little stunt is about something else. But what?

If it’s about being homeless, Cole might skip the new camping gear and congregational back-up. Homeless people sleep rough.

And if it’s about spiritual enlightenment, well, the media coverage pretty much killed that right off.

But if this is about self-promotion in the guise of altruism, he’s got that just about right.

Instead of seeking headlines, Rev. Cole might have simply petitioned his audience to donate to the winter shelter. Then he might turn his attention to the systemic problems associated with homelessness in this region: inadequate mental health services, an overwhelming problem with substance abuse, and growing income inequality.

Or perhaps a man of his influence could inspire his congregants to ask why we’re holding fundraisers for public shelters at the same time that we’re subsidizing professional sports teams.

But, you know, those issues aren’t nearly as photogenic as Pastor Cole with a backpack, headed out to sleep on the streets—voluntarily.

Kel Munger is an SN&R contributor and an adjunct professor of journalism at American River College. Follow her @KelMunger.

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