Posts Tagged ‘Homelessness’

Social Transformation Takes Work

January 16, 2018

Taking meaningful social action is hard for churches. Yet social transformation, which is really what churches are all about, only comes through the hard and persistent work of individuals and groups.

Social transformation — creating more just and compassionate communities — begins by addressing real needs and not imagined ones. There are lots of nice things to do to help people, but whether or not these things are truly needed or even effective should be considered carefully.

Let’s look at homelessness. The way to end homelessness is to house people. It is that simple. If the goal is to end homelessness, then our priority must be housing. Everything else is secondary.

There are many groups and churches who want to do something about homelessness. They want to feel good about doing good. So they gather hygiene products for the homeless. Or they make blankets. Or they gather coats, shoes, and other basic items for the homeless. They go out on holidays and serve food to the homeless. At Christmas, they buy gifts for the homeless.

All of these are wonderful and kind acts. But if we step back, if we look at it from a distance and with honesty, we will see that none of these projects has helped end homelessness. No one has been housed. At best, these groups have helped homeless individuals be a little more comfortable while remaining homeless.

Non-profits are partially to blame for this situation. We are not willing to tell the truth about these warm-hearted programs. We are unwilling to say to churches and donors: Thank you, but those things are not helpful. They will not end homelessness. What we need from you is housing. And since a lot of homeless individuals are employed, that housing just needs to be affordable based on the realistic earning capacity of a family or individual.

Homelessness persists, at least in the U.S., because churches and social groups have not been willing to do the actual hard work of housing those who are houseless. This might involve opening up church buildings to the homeless, or pressuring lawmakers to build realistically affordable housing, or some other approach.

JizoBig social changes involve sacrifice. Homelessness persists because we, as people of faith, do not truly believe that everyone deserves a home. We are willing to accept homelessness — even the homelessness of families and children — because challenging the status quo is uncomfortable.

If we want to create a more compassionate society, then we need to take action to address real needs in an effective way. Start local. Be effective. Charity is good and important, but we also need to work for structural change. By all means feed your hungry neighbor, but then begin challenging the systems that contribute to hunger in your community.

Charity is often easier than social change. There is something immediately satisfying about feeding a hungry person, or giving a coat to someone who is cold. But if you have to do that day-in and day-out for years, it gets old. So challenge broken and oppressive systems. Charity is a Band-aid. Social change is the cure.

Churches and Faith Communities have the resources to maintain the struggle over the long haul. We have Faith and Vision. However, realizing the Pure Land — the community rooted in love and compassion —  requires action. The Pure Land arises when we do the hard and tangible work of reducing poverty, oppression, violence, racism, injustice, and environmental destruction in our neighborhoods and local communities.

Peace, Paul

Photo: Jizo Bodhisattva, a protector — especially of children

Shepherds and Sheep

May 30, 2017

Growing up in a Christian household I knew well the language and imagery of Shepherds and Sheep. Jesus was our Shepherd and we were his sheep. The same imagery was applied, to a lesser degree, to the Pastor of the Church. We, the members of his congregation, were the flock that he tended, cared for and protected.

The Shepherd symbol was so pervasive and normative in my youth that I never gave it a second thought. In fact, I don’t even think that I was aware that it was a metaphor.

That changed when a young Christian Pastor pointed out that, “Shepherds smell like sheep.” He made this statement in a discussion about the difficulties that churches inevitably encounter when they welcome the homeless into their facilities. Understandably, no church wants to have to deal with difficult people and situations.

Unfortunately, life and people are complicated. If we want to help house the homeless, then we cannot separate ourselves from the messiness of life. People are homeless for a variety of reasons. Housing can be expensive and hard to find. A period of bad luck and unexpected expenses can land individuals and families on the street.

There are certainly homeless individuals who suffer from mental illness and/or disability. There can also be substance abuse issues. A handful have been homeless so long they can’t imagine being housed. Homelessness, especially chronic homelessness, is complicated.

“The homeless” are people just like us. Their lives are filled with both joys and sorrows. Like us, they are driven by hurts, emotions, and motivations that are buried deep in the mind. They may react, as we also often do, to people and situations in ways that are contrary to their best intentions and beliefs.

christ of the bread linesHousing the homeless means getting to know the people who are are homeless as people. Unique. Human. Challenging. It may involve sharing meals, entering into conversation, or just listening.

It is important, however, to remember that shepherds, no matter how they smell, are not sheep. No one seeing a herd of sheep would mistake the shepherd for the sheep. Nevertheless, to be effective, the shepherd has to live among his/her sheep. The shepherd cannot delegate shepherding. He/She cannot create a non-profit whose mission is ensuring that no sheep “goes astray.”  No. Being a shepherd means tending and nurturing sheep with our own hands. It involves getting dirty and stinky, as well as sharing in the fullness of the life of sheep: birthing, nursing, protecting, and burying.

If we, as religious leaders and people of faith, are akin to shepherds — and I think there is value in the metaphor — then the question is do we, “stink of sheep?”  How protected from adversity and unpleasantness have we made our spiritual lives and churches? Who are the “lepers” in our life and our community? What uncomfortable work have we have delegated to others?

All us will answer this question differently. We each have different callings. The work and mission of each church will differ. We are, however, capable of doing more than we think we can. The first step is a willingness to get our hands dirty or, in the words of my Christian friend, “smell like sheep.”

Peace, Paul