What Should The Church Do About Homelessness?

Posted: February 6, 2012 in Christian Living, homelessness
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The homeless have become the invisible people of our society. They remain in our minds as the lowest, the outcast, those who don’t fit in. It has become much easier to ignore them than to acknowledge that there is a problem that we are responsible for.

Not all of the homeless are the same. Some have lost jobs and fallen on hard times. For others, they have a network of supporters that give them a place to crash for a period of time. But for others the hard times perpetuate over years, sometimes even decades. These are the chronic homeless and they stand out as the most obvious failures in our society.

Our Town

Omaha is a fresh, dynamic city, merging the best in Midwestern hospitality with the energy of a big city at full throttle. There is something here for everyone. In addition to all of the great attractions and things to do in Omaha, you’ll find a number of things that are budget-friendly. Omaha’s nightlife offers a variety of Irish and Micro Brew Pubs, Dance Clubs, live Jazz and Rock bands. With 17 public and semi-public courses Omaha offers something for golfers of all levels. In Omaha, we have so many attractions you’ll have a hard time choosing where to start and how much fun you can pack in.

But there is another side of our city which is not as well-known and much harder to see. We also have a homeless community living here in our midst. These people largely stay out of sight. They live their lives in quiet desperation largely unnoticed by the rest of the community. They are known to each other and often help each other. Although their stories are different, they each have their own difficult lifestyle in common. Their focus is on the most basic elements of life – food, shelter, basic clothing and companionship.

Certainly, we have agencies trying to help these people. Many of our local churches are involved as well. There are food banks and feeding programs and a program to provide warm, dry, safe shelter– especially when the weather is bad.

A New Way for the Church

Many of us look at the homeless in disgust, knowing that if they would just shake their addiction and apply themselves they could get a job and get back on their feet. Others look at the homeless and feel sympathy for them and want to help, but are only able to throw an occasional dollar their way.

But as followers of Jesus Christ, how are we supposed to react? Many believers think that if the homeless would just commit themselves to Jesus, then their lives would get straightened out and they could be normal participants in society. What many Christians don’t know is that at many of those who live on the street already have committed themselves to Jesus and are doing their best to live a Christian life. Yes, some are addicts and are mentally ill, but we cannot blame homelessness exclusively on mental illness or addiction either.

As followers of Jesus we should not to stand at a distance from the homeless. We must not separate ourselves from what we perceive to be the lowest in society—whoever they are. Can we continue our practice of throwing evangelistic messages and food to the cold and grief-stricken, while we stay warm, comforted and well-fed in our buildings? We need to embrace some of these outcasts as brothers and sisters, and others as the poor who need our help. As followers of Scripture which teaches compassion, we must stand with those on the street.

But how are we to do this? Thousands of homeless are just too much for any church to bear, let alone the small percentage of believers that are stirred by the Spirit to assist the homeless. But the Lord has not called us to help the massive crowd, only those we know. To assist the homeless is not a matter of a huge ministry with hundreds of thousands of dollars. Rather it is a one-on-one ministry.

From time to time my wife and I have invited homeless people into our own home. At times it was hard. Many times we were taken advantage of. A few times things were stolen from us. But there was not one time that we felt that we were not doing the right thing. Because there are some that we helped who are now our good friends who are living healthy lives dedicated to God.

If every church had only two people or three people among their congregations who would be a friend and support just a single homeless person, then I believe our whole society would change. The homeless would no longer be outcast, or invisible strangers in our midst. They would be members of our churches, participants in our society and our friends.

Very few churches have the resources to have a shelter. And it is not necessary for every church to have a food pantry; But there is one common problem within the homeless community that any believer can help with—their isolation. The strength of true followers of Jesus is not money, or political power. But our strength has always been our faith, hope, and love— faith in One greater than ourselves, hope in a better way of life, and love for one another.  If we take these strengths and focus them on the homeless, then the landscape of the American homeless will change. The Church will have a new people. And Christ will be glorified.

Why the Homeless Don’t Come to Church

I believe that many of the homeless are committed, baptized Christians. Yet most of us don’t see them in our churches. This is not because the homeless don’t go to church. There are missions that hold bible studies, individual worship services, and many other venues for the homeless to worship and serve God. But why are there so few churches that specifically target the homeless, and welcome them? If you don’t see the homeless in your church, it’s likely due to a cultural difference.

The homeless do not refrain from coming to these churches because they are not really Christian. They don’t avoid them because they feel they are greater sinners than other church-going Christians. It is because they feel uncomfortable or out of place and that everyone is judging them.

Every church is not just a spiritual experience, but a cultural one. We have certain customs and different kinds of worship that on one hand are specifically for a certain cultural group which, on the other hand, push away those of different cultural or social background. For instance, if we speak only Spanish in our congregation, we do not offer a welcoming atmosphere to those who only speak English. This is not a bad thing, but we shouldn’t wonder why no Spanish speaking people come to our English only services. Similarly, if everyone in your church is exclusively clothed in suits or dresses, and associate with like-dressed friends, it should be no wonder that homeless people, even if they wandered into the church, wouldn’t feel welcome.

Although much is being done already by agencies, churches, and individuals, I wonder how Jesus would view our concern for these people? Is there a way in which we could be more involved personally? What would Jesus do if he had the resources most of us have, to help meet the needs of these struggling people? How does Scripture tell us to react to these poor and outcast of society?

Here is what God said through the prophet Isaiah:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter–when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: ‘Here am I.’ If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” (Isa 58:6-10)

We are to show the same respect to the poor as we do to the rich:

“My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?”  (James 2:1-4)

We are to offer hospitality, clothing, shelter and food:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:35-40)

We are not to think of ourselves as more highly than others:

“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” (Romans 12:3)

Most of all, according to Scripture, we are to love. This doesn’t always mean giving money or food, although we shouldn’t be closed to that. But it does always mean being patient, being kind, not putting ourselves above the other person, but bearing each other’s burdens and enduring with them. (See: I Corinthians 13)

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