Homelessness to Homefulness

[Yahweh demands:] “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard." (Isaiah 58:6-8)

"To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out..." (John 10:3)

I suppose Eve and Adam were the first tenants to be evicted from their home back at the beginning of Creation. Perhaps back then, grounds for eviction was failure to abide by the landlord’s contract, so they and all their fig leaves were tossed out on the street, in the poor part of town somewhere east of Eden. Their lives went downhill after that.

They were the first but sadly not the last. Today I read the headline, “A ‘Homeless Pandemic’ Looms as 30 Million are at Risk of Eviction.”  Homelessness sounds awful to me. Like the Bible stories, I can only understand this as a matter of faith, because I know nothing of it first-hand. I have never been homeless, never even felt homeless, never lacked a safe space where I felt I belonged (“my room,” “my apartment,” “my house”). The only way I can imagine being homeless is to employ some negative imagination: if home is the place to which we belong, being homeless must mean you do not belong. Here, anywhere. You certainly do not matter. To use a crude expression from my childhood, “you don’t have a pot to pee in.” Literally.

These were among the typically weird thoughts that occurred to me reading a book by the astounding, often frightening, biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, titled The Practice of Homefulness. He consistently makes a compelling argument that God cares deeply for people experiencing poverty and argues here that homelessness and homefulness is one of the great themes running throughout the entire Bible. “The homeless are the genuine orphans in our society, for they have no protective tribe . . . the entire life history of our community of faith is a struggle to be a housebuilding, home-making enterprise in a world endlessly productive of homelessness.”[1]

A Biblical Take on Homelessness

That got me thinking about the big picture storyline of the bible and homeless people. True: if Adam and Eve were the first evicted tenants, we note not long after that Noah’s family’s home (everything and everyone else) washed away in a flood. I get the feeling that Yahweh felt bad about the way things were headed and has been trying ever since to call his people back to build a new home, calling again and again to live with Yahweh, under new terms, a new deal. There have been lots of ups and downs along the way. Abraham heard Yahweh’s call “to leave the land of your parents and go to a new homeland I will show you.” But after a few generations, Abraham’s people were homeless again, slave laborers in a foreign land. Yahweh called Moses and together they out-smarted and out-plagued Pharaoh and led the wandering, homeless Israelites by fire and smoke for 40 years through the wilderness to a promised land, a new home. But once again, the tenants failed to follow the rules, mainly Yahweh’s commandment to take care of one another, especially the widows, orphans, and homeless. Rapacious greed, corruption, and consolidation of wealth by the political and religious elite led directly to the utter, total destruction of their home in 587 BCE. From homeless exile by the rivers of Babylon, the former elites must have wondered “What went wrong?” But the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls and tenement halls: God cares about people in need! And any community that cannot and will not extend God’s gift of hospitality, protection, and shelter to people with low-income and displaced persons condemns itself. It is doomed, for it cannot be justified nor sustained by such vanity.

What about Jesus (a question we Christians really ought to ask ourselves from time to time)? Presumably Jesus had a home once. But in his work (and emptying himself of all divinity such that he identified totally with the homeless, see Phil. 2), he “left home” for the sake of his itinerant ministry. His most fundamental teachings were (a) first love God, (b) then demonstrate you love God by loving one anotheras I have loved you”. Where and how should we live? He tells his us to abide in him who abides in God. And oh, for goodness sake, do not worry about the details like shelter and food because God knows what you need. You have to trust. You have to have faith. And yes, you have to help one another. If you really want abundant life, this is how you want to live.

From the World of the Bible to the World of Now

Coincidentally, contemporary experts on homelessness seem to agree with Jesus. With God too. Homelessness is a problem we can solve, together. We have numerous examples of how it can happen, how it is happening in Atlanta, around our diocese and Georgia, and in smart, committed communities across the nation. They are smart because they realize that homelessness is not a problem simply of people experiencing homelessness. It is a problem for all of us. Rosanne Haggerty, who has studied homelessness and worked successfully with local leaders in dozens of towns and cities, has shown what it takes.[2]

  • First, we must recognize that doing nothing about our homeless brothers and sisters is far more costly to a community than solving the problem, if we consider the burden on existing systems of healthcare, incarceration, policing, sanitation, social services, and so forth; it is much more cost-effective to solve homelessness.
  • Next, community and church leaders must seek a collaborative and holistic approach together, because the problem cannot be solved by a collection of individual program efforts. Haggerty calls this a “command center” approach that calls to the table and discussion not only the expected government and NGO agencies, churches, shelters, and soup kitchens, but all the other programs that have resources such as VA programs, domestic violence prevention, Medicaid, Medicare, and senior housing available for those over 65.
  • The third and critically important requirement is good data (please don’t snooze yet, this is the best part). Good data, when it comes to solving homelessness, is getting to know who—exactly who—is homeless, their backgrounds, health conditions, their needs, and their story. Saying “We have a homeless problem” is like saying “We have a sickness problem.” It tells you nothing. Data is the only way we can diagnose, understand, and treat all the various problems faced by individuals effectively and efficiently.

In a very, deeply religious sense, we have to know our homeless siblings by name and not labels. Why is this important? Like everyone else who God created, no two homeless persons are the same, nor are they homeless for the same reasons or circumstances. While one person may be homeless for a night due to a family break-up, another may be homeless for 40 years, all for very different circumstances.

Dr. Haggerty never uses explicitly religious language in her public work, but I do. A community doing the work, entering into such relationships with homeless persons, and making the commitment to move from homelessness to homefulness (Brueggemann’s wonderful term) is inviting God’s miracles to manifest. God tells a new story: This IS NOT an unsolvable problem. It changes our minds (and hearts) about what is possible, and what really matters. Just as homelessness is a problem for all of us, it also holds the promise of our mutual salvation and the greatest fulfillment on earth for all of us. When our hearts change, the world changes.

Homelessness to Homefulness in North Georgia

I had to share all that with you so that I could share this. I read about a significant grant made by the ECF to Rainbow Village, a very cool ministry that was planted and has grown out of our diocese. Founded in 1991 at Christ Church in Norcross, it has blossomed from a simple church-owned duplex (“Rainbow House”) that initially helped four families transition out of homelessness. Rainbow Village has become a self-contained campus with a family service center and the capacity to serve 30 families. Counselors and case managers lead multifaceted programs that address key areas of income, employment, childcare, life skills, and attainable goal-setting.  Over nearly 30 years have helped to restore over 1,000 families with children from homelessness to homefulness, and ECF’s grant was to specifically help Rainbow Village improve their ability to track data around their clients.

All persons working and residing at Rainbow Village form true bonds of relationship and responsibility with one another. They know each other by name, in the big and truly religious sense. I do not know what challenges the staff, clients, and benefactors of Rainbow Village are facing now in the midst of a global pandemic, but I trust that the foundation of their home is built on very solid ground.

In the end, I pray it doesn’t really matter whether or not I understand homelessness. The question that matters most for me and others who are so abundantly homeful is what we are willing to do in practice to help those who understand homelessness all too well.

[1] Walter Brueggemann and K. C Hanson, The Practice of Homefulness, page 41.

[2] My source for this information came from a June 5, 2019 podcast interview with Malcolm Gladwell in the series entitled “‎Solvable: Homelessness Is Solvable.”

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