When I was a youth, this old Salvation Army song was used as a drinking song. But the sentiment of the song and the evangelical theology it represents has infected our culture in a pernicious way. It is to the point now that people who are poor are seen as somehow morally defective. It seems a large part of the population, including many, if not most church-goers in America equate poverty and homelessness with drug and alcohol addiction, sloth, immorality, lasciviousness and general lack of faith. I got asked again, last Thursday, if we have seen much results of people coming to faith through this ministry through the years. My answer did not make the youth leader happy. I said, “I am not here to save them. I am here to save me. These people are not rats. The food is not bait. Just because they are poor does not mean that they need saving. When someone thanks me for serving or asks why I do what I do, I tell them, ‘I am here because Jesus loves you and He compels me to be here.’ And some have learned to thank God for us.”
We have never coerced people to sit through a sermon in order to receive a meal. I find that degrading, humiliating and contrary to the Gospel. The Gospel is to be without price, never by coercion. So, if we were ever going to preach, it would be after the meal to whoever would want to freely stay and listen. And we have on occasion shared stories of the Saints and of Jesus’ ministry and message.
People have assumptions about homeless people that are not based in reality. The most common is that a majority of them are addicts and that is why they are homeless. That is false on two counts. Addiction rates are the same among people becoming homeless as they are among the general population. The rate doubles after a year of homelessness. So homelessness is more a cause of addiction than a result of it.
The most common cause of homelessness is a health problem or hospitalization that causes one to be unable to pay the rent or the mortgage. Medical debt also ruins one’s credit rating, so one cannot rent anywhere else and disqualifies one for many types of employment. Once a person is homeless, it is very difficult to break out of it. Most employers will not hire anyone who does not have a permanent residence. The social service industry prides itself on its placement rate, but, at the same time, does not want to go out of business, so the hoops seem endless and there is no incentive for them to short circuit the process so people do not become homeless in the first place. One has to fall through the “safety net” that isn’t there before one can be helped, losing all one’s possessions, memorabilia, etc. This process takes years, and forces a lifetime dependency on the social service industry; good for the industry, bad for the people.
Poverty is not a sin. “And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: ‘Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.’ ” [Luke 6:20]
Wealth on the other hand. … “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.” [James 5:1-6]
People who know me well will find this hard to believe. I do more listening than speaking among the homeless. Perhaps it is because there is an easiness there. They really do save me, by their presence and by their prayers.
I should be working among them full time, but soon I may not be doing anything but living among them. The business has failed. We need $600 today just to pay July’s health insurance. If we don’t, we will end up owing even more. Two months’ mortgage due, utilities, etc. Apparently, what I do is not worth my space in the world in this economy. This ministry will die without meaningful support. I should not have subsidized it for as long as I did, I guess. But I only see death as an alternative.
* thanks to Jennifer Barefoot McCoy for the photo