Ministering to the Homeless

lovingourcity

“It’s complicated!”

This is often what we say when we are unable to give a clear response to a question, or when we are unsure how to navigate through a situation.

Consider the subject of homelessness. Broadly speaking, the homeless community is one of the most misunderstood and marginalized community groups in the States. And in the Dallas – Fort Worth area, it is difficult not to see or run into a member of the homeless community.

Brian Fikkert, a leading thinker on ministering to the homeless, once remarked: “There is a lot more going on than meets the eye, so the solutions need to move well beyond ladling soup, dispensing clothing, and handing out food stamps, as important as those activities can be. Indeed, the problem of poverty is so complex that it takes a miracle to eradicate it.”

How then do we as Christians engage and understand this overwhelming and often heartbreaking subject?

Here are three thoughts to help guide the conversation, all the while remembering that the homeless are neither projects or pariahs, but first and foremost, fellow image bearers of God.

First, take time to understand your context. 

Poverty is pervasive. But it does not manifest in the same way in every place. There are some common underlying forces at work, but there are nuances as well. This requires thoughtfulness and creativity in the ways we engage.

For example, in early 2017, Dallas Morning News reported, “More people [in the homeless community] are visibly living outside in encampments and tents throughout Dallas and surrounding cities. And the ongoing shortage of affordable housing units is making it more difficult to get people off the street, forcing people to remain homeless longer. The census shows that the average unsheltered person has been homeless for more than three years.”

Local news reports like this provide insights that can deepen our understanding of the issues at hand, and remind us it is not so simple a matter as handing out a few dollars here and there, but neither should those acts be easily dismissed.

Regarding local ministries to the homeless, one of the most active and gospel-centered ministries in the Dallas area is OurCalling. Theirs is a ministry that is the result of much trial and error, yet with a steadfast, multilayered approach to bring Christ-centered discipleship to those often neglected. This is simply one model of ministry to the homeless that can be a supporting resource for those navigating through this topic.

Take time to understand your context (investigate, read literature on the subject, ask questions of those already in this field of ministry) so that you might move towards the homeless community in your area with wisdom, humility, and compassion.

Second, pursue this ministry with others, not in isolation.

Most likely, you are not the only one in your church wrestling with how to engage this subject. And because this subject is so multifaceted, it will require numerous perspectives and skill sets that will extend beyond you. See this as an opportunity to bring together members of the body to serve a community often treated as modern-day lepers. And perhaps, to also consider joining other agencies or parachurch ministries already immersed in this work.

Finally, pray!

Pray for those in your area who are homeless. Pray that God would give you courage and clarity in terms of how you and your church might engage. Pray that you would be alert and sensitive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in this matter.

Arloa Sutter, founder of Breakthrough Urban Ministries, which serves homeless adults and youth and their families in Chicago, offers this helpful reminder:

“Listening to God and being prompted by the Spirit needs to be the basis for our action. God works in us and then out through us. In practical terms, this means… contemplation of God and God’s word…spend time praying and listening for guidance before diving into action…respond with obedience to those nudges of the Spirit when God instructs us to act. [For] it is when we are moving in obedience that God can use us effectively to care for others.”

The hope, then, for the church and the homeless is that God is on the move. And He is in the business of bringing hope where there is despair, and life where there is death. There will be many different ways for you to come alongside the poor and homeless in your context. Some will be helpful; some will not. And that is ok.

Thanks be to God that He is unlimited in His creativity and ability to use imperfect and impatient people to display His justice, grace, and compassion.

2 book resources worth reading:
When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just by Timothy Keller

Lent & Lament

So, what does Lent have to do with lament?

Generally speaking, Lent is a time to reflect not only on Christ and the last days leading to his death and resurrection, but also a time to consider our need for the mercy and grace of God.

Lament, on the other hand, wrestles with the painful realities of this world, in and outside our lives.  These realities are constant.  Mass shootings, discrimination (often violence) against marginalized communities, suicides, human and sex trafficking, and drug overdose only capture a fraction of the pain that grips this world.

Lament and Lent, then, complement one another as they bring into sharp focus the reality of suffering.

Herein lies the rub.  Most of us would rather focus on happiness and success.  And if it was within our control, we would arrange our lives in such a way as to distance ourselves from suffering, especially suffering that others experience.  For example, one need only observe the extent to which the homeless community is often treated as a pariah.  Thus, in our efforts to script out pain, many are determined to pursue a life that is as convenient and pain-free as possible.  However, the cost of such a path is the loss of lament.

D.A. Carson offers this remark on biblical lament: “There is no attempt in Scripture to whitewash the anguish of God’s people when they undergo suffering.  They argue with God, they complain to God, they weep before God.  Theirs is not a faith that leads to dry-eyed stoicism, but to a faith so robust it wrestles with God.”[1]

 

Biblical lament invites us to wrestle with God.  To not turn from our pain or the pain others experience, but to bring it before God. 

 

 

This can include grieving, praying, crying, protesting, questioning, and even silence.

Indeed, we are invited to wrestle with God in numerous ways.  In the process, lament becomes an opportunity, alone as well as in community, to experience the power and hope of God and his gospel.

There are at least two ways we can lament, individually and together, as a witness to the gospel.

  • Lament creates space to listen to stories of struggle and suffering.  

    Soong Chan Rah comments: “Our historical reflection reveals an obsession with success and celebration while stories of survival and suffering are ignored.  History is often told by the victorious and therefore favors them.”[2]  Lament, then, helps us to not focus so much on success stories that we neglect stories of failure and cries for help.

  • Lament pursues the justice and righteousness of God in all areas of life.  

    Kathleen O’Connor remarks: “Laments create room within the individual and the community not only for grief and loss, but also for seeing and naming injustice.  Laments name the weeping and fracturing of relationships – personal, political, domestic, ecclesial, national, and global.  The point of lamenting is… to name injustice, hurt, and anger.”[3]  As a result, lament helps us to be attentive to injustices that are local and abroad, as well as engage these issues with wisdom and compassion.

In this season of lent, may we increasingly learn to lament in ways that are life-giving.  Lent reminds us that Christ set his gaze towards Jerusalem, knowing he would be crucified on the cross for our sin and suffering.  Yet, it also reminds us that despite the pervasive narrative in which death wins regardless of a pain-free life, Christ offers a radical alternative.  The wisdom and love of God is that our suffering and our stories are intimately wrapped up by faith in Christ’s suffering and his story.  And his gospel story is one in which sin, suffering, and death do not have the last word.

In Christ, life has the last word.

May this season of Lent, and the seasons to come, be a time in which you increasingly rest in Christ and lament with hope.

 

Footnotes:
[1] Bill Muehlenberg, “The Lament Psalms,” (CultureWatch, 2012).
[2] Soong Chan Rah, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015).
[3] Kathleen M. O’Connor, Lamentations and the Tears of the World (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 128.