No, I don’t have any shocking or compelling stories about my own personal experience with homelessness. I’m actually quite grateful for that. I do have plenty of stories of people I know who have experienced homelessness or are experiencing it now though. I know names of people. Some of them are in my phone directory. I know stories. I have heard the challenges and the disappointments.
Yesterday I posted a blog post on different approaches to homelessness. It generated a considerable amount of discussion and sharing of stories. I think that’s great.
Today I want to share my why I believe what I believe about how to approach homelessness. There are a few reasons.
First – Theological. As a Lutheran pastor, I have the challenge and privilege to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus. And what exactly is that Gospel? It can be described in a variety of ways, but as it pertains to this conversation, I would say that the Gospel is the Good News that we don’t believe in karma. We don’t get our worth based on what we do or what we produce. Rather, we believe in unearned grace. We believe that God freely gives grace to each one of us without strings attached. That doesn’t mean we are free to do whatever we want. It means that God gives freely first and gives us the freedom and ability to respond to that free gift. We are called on to respond in a way that shows our gratitude for what God has done for us. In relation to homelessness, this means that I prefer to give first, without strings attached. I’m not interested in making people earn something. That contradicts what I preach and proclaim.
Second – More Theology. Jesus tells us that the two greatest commandments are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians gives a nice list of the characteristics of love.
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a, NRSV)
This isn’t just a description of what love is. It is a description of the characteristics of God, since we believe that God is love. In this, we hear that love is patient and kind. It does not insist on its own way. It bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. And it doesn’t end. Sounds like a great description for how we should handle homelessness. If I know anything about homelessness it is this – patience is extremely important. Kindness is sometimes all you have to give. Insisting that someone do something your way doesn’t always work and can in fact make matters worse. When I work with those experiencing homelessness, there are times when I have to bear a lot of the pain and suffering and rejection that people experience. Hope is essential in this work. Endurance is just as important.
Three – Even more Theology. As a pastor, I teach about the Imago Dei – the Image of God. We believe that every person is endowed with the Imago Dei. That is how we are able to fulfill the two great commandments. We love our neighbor because they bear the image of God and in so loving them, we are also loving God and what God has created.
Having the image of God and seeing the image of God in others is really important. It allows us to have a different approach to dealing with homelessness. My job isn’t to fix people – I can’t. It is instead to carry out a ministry of presence. What presence? The image of God. To remind people that they also have the image of God within them. That forces me to see the other person with dignity. It forces me to see their humanity. It forces me to see them more fully. It’s what allows me to be hospitable and to see the value each person already possesses.
Four – Yes, even more Theology. A question I wrestle with when I work with those experiencing homelessness is this – if our situations were reversed, how would I want to be treated in this moment? What result would I hope for?
In Matthew 7:12, Jesus says, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
My usual answer to these questions, when I am actually paying attention to the questions is something like this – I would hope to be treated with respect, dignity, and kindness. I wouldn’t expect the other person to have all the answers, but to make a best effort to try to help. I would hope that they would at least listen and hear me and my pain and to let me know that I am not alone and that someone cares whether I live or die.
I don’t have the answers to how to end homelessness. Or poverty. Or abuse. Or addictions. Or broken relationships. But I do have a message of hope. I do have a ministry of presence. I do see the Imago Dei – or at least try to anyway. I know that when Jesus encounters us, lives are transformed in incredible ways. I have see that. Often, it’s not on my timeframe or what I expect. But thank God for that. It’s more often than not so much better.