Many good-hearted people of faith are at the forefront of the fight against homelessness in the United States. In fact, without the involvement of religious communities, few if any resources for neighbors struggling with homeless would exist. Soup kitchens, overnight shelters, daytime resource centers, treatment programs, and permanent housing are created as responses to God’s call to love of neighbor. In the Christian tradition, faithful people heed biblical commands to bring light to dark places, to be the body of Christ in the world, and to give their lives in service especially to the “least of these.” For these acts of Christian kindness, I am thankful.
There are ways, however, that the services we offer our siblings on the streets can cross over into the territory of religious manipulation, exploitation, and even abuse.
Consider these examples:
A church provides a warm dinner to homeless guests. Those serving the meal stand behind a counter and nervously put food onto plates, not knowing what to say. Church volunteers talk to one another, while their guests socialize among themselves.
A homeless shelter requires each person using its services to attend worship in exchange for a bed for the night. Sermons often focus on sinfulness and assume that homelessness is a result of that sin.
A woman who has experienced chronic homelessness has a repertoire of personal testimonies, none of which are fully true because she knows that she will receive preferential treatment from many service providers if she can prove herself as a “born again” Christian.
A chaplain at a shelter “treats” a man’s mental health condition by having him memorize Bible verses. The man then thinks his faith has not been adequate when he experiences symptoms again.
A ministry takes a struggling man underwing and provides him with everything he needs to fix his problems. His story of success and redemption is highlighted in the ministry’s marketing materials, and the staff worries how their donors will respond if he “messes up” this opportunity.
A church newsletter touts the number of people who have come to Christ through a shelter ministry the church supports with generous financial donations. No one from the church has volunteered in person due to fears about the members’ safety. For similar reasons, church leaders actively opposed an affordable housing development near the church property.
These examples represent a reality that is not at all uncommon. Good intentions of helping neighbors deal with or escape homelessness are doubtlessly behind these types of ministries. However, they remind us that there is often an underlying “us vs. them” dynamic: We have; they receive. We fix; they are broken. We know what’s right; they need to learn. This model, in Christian terms, presupposes the need for conversion on the part of the homeless person. That usually means a spiritual conversion, but can also mean a conversion to middle class norms.
The gospel points us to a different type of conversion experience:
Mary sings, “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”
Jesus preaches honor upon the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and, conversely, woe upon the rich, the full, and the laughing. He points us toward a kindom right here on earth as it is in heaven, where the poor are guests of honor at the banquet. His ministry is one of foot washing, healing, and presence among those without power or place. Jesus’ ministry was not about fixing, but about bringing about a new order — a conversion experience for those who are rich and powerful that will make us all feel as though we have been born for a second time.
Jesus preaches honor upon the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and, conversely, woe upon the rich, the full, and the laughing. He points us toward a kindom right here on earth as it is in heaven, where the poor are guests of honor at the banquet.
In light of that call, how might people of faith be called to re-think our ministries with neighbors impacted by homelessness? Here are four practices I suggest that could lead to the transformation of our communities.
Practice Genuine Hospitality
There is perhaps nothing in life more humanizing than hospitality. This is not the kind of hospitality practiced by hotels and restaurants, where hospitable treatment is part of a transaction dependent on payment. It does not look like a traditional soup kitchen where “haves” scoop less-than-appetizing food onto trays of the “have-nots” standing in line. Instead, it involves people sitting down and sharing a meal together, telling stories, finding common ground, and expressing care. The best shelters and social service centers remind people that they are human. People who have experienced the daily rejection of life on the streets assume that they are unwelcome. We must let people know that they are respected as full members of the human family. This includes making explicit our welcome for people of all races, religious backgrounds, gender identities, and sexual orientations.
Create Communities of Healing
Homelessness is often the culmination of a long series of traumatic events. Being without housing then inflicts additional daily trauma. People of power and privilege are also in need of healing. They must actively participate in discovering, acknowledging, and repenting of the ways they participate in systems of abuse and injustice. Churches must be part of fostering healing communities where all kinds of people can know and support one another and offer a space for honesty, accountability, and change. Imagine the societal healing that occurs when people who are different come to know one another. Churches also need to discover the pain they have inflicted through religious abuse and need to know when to get out of the way.
Accept and Accompany People
All of us need people willing to accept us just as we are especially since we are often unable to accept ourselves. We also need people to walk with us through life. Our ministries of chaplaincy and case management must find ways to practice accompaniment rather than paternalism. Finding solutions together is more effective than simply dispensing advice and resources.
Don’t Neglect Justice
Providing acts of mercy–shelter, food, and clothing–are necessary. They cannot be separated, however, from the work of justice. Relationships across dividing lines form people who are willing to advocate for one another. Those with access to power must work toward more just systems of housing, criminal justice, and economic fairness. Powerful people must resist the temptation to speak for others, but must find ways to instead speak together with others. Asking the big questions in community, like “why are people homeless when there is so much wealth?” is the beginning of change.
Yes, the solution to homelessness is a conversion experience, not the religious conversion of our neighbors on the streets, but, as Dorothy Day put it, “a revolution of the heart.” She famously said, “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?”
This revolution must happen in the hearts of all of us especially those of us with possessions, privilege, and power. We must be converted to reflect God’s welcome, healing, compassion, and justice. May the church and its ministries with those burdened by homelessness stand ready to embrace the new life to which we are called–together.
Jeff Moles is the Director of Christian Education and Mission at First Presbyterian Church, Owensboro, Kentucky. He served as a PCUSA Young Adult Volunteer in Nashville, Tennessee in 2006-07, a year which began a 13-year experience working with people experiencing homelessness. The community at Room In The Inn, an organization that connects faith communities to neighbors on the streets, taught him nearly everything he knows.