I was out of town and away from my computer for 4 days this weekend, on the Oregon coast trying to surf (terrible waves and even worse weather!) Therefore it’s been awful quiet around here, I hope you can forgive a guy for taking a vacation.
Here in Central Oregon it’s below zero (Fahrenheit) tonight. The air is crisp, because there is no life in it. When the temperate drops like this, I intentionally go for late night walks, just to feel how cold it is. On nights like this I think of the homeless people here, possibly fighting to stay alive as they sleep in the woods on top of snow.
Despite the fact it can snow anytime from October through May, and in years past has actually snowed on the 4th of July parade, thousands of homeless people reside here (approximately 3,000, but its hard to know). It’s the sunniest place in Oregon, a stark contrast to the rainy temperate rainforest of the valley where 75% of the state population lives, and I suppose this is why so many homeless people come here. Nonetheless its a wretched place to be homeless.
I’ve worked in homeless shelters for a few years (which progressed into my current work as a drug and alcohol counselor), and at one time you could say I was one of “those” Christians, the ones Glenn Beck thinks has been deceived. But I’ve since lost some zeal, and I’ve lost some compassion. I admittedly judge beggars, the people who hold up signs all over town requesting spare change so they can eat, precisely because I know just how many services there are in town that will give them food no questions asked.
I think there always will be poverty and homelessness. Even though Christianity has had two millennium to fix it, we haven’t. Despite our immense collective wealth as Christians, especially in America, poverty is still here and quite strong. I used to think Christians simply needed to support the non-profits working to fight poverty, and if enough Christians did the problem would be gone. But throwing money at problems never works.
I don’t think Jesus ever told us to cure poverty. He did, however, tell us to love the poor. This is a big difference. I think lots of organizations try to cure poverty while never loving the poor. If there is one thing fundamentalism has taught me, its that institutions are no substitute for people. Institutions aren’t very good at loving in meaningful and tangible ways, not like people are.
Unfortunately I think if we could ask Jesus today what we do about the homeless, he’d simply say “take them in.” And he wouldn’t mean into our programs and organizations. He’d mean our individual, personal homes. I’m not there yet. In my Utopian view of the early church I imagine the first Christians bringing in the homeless to their dwellings, but I don’t see me bringing in a scruffy man in dirty clothes to our couch.
What does a guy like me do, who’s got a wife and an infant daughter and two jobs? I like the idea of hanging out with the poor, and I’ve done plenty of it, but these days I’m a bit occupied. I’m asking you – this is not a post with a moral or a message, but a “how the heck do we respond?” I’ve lost faith in institutions and programs, and I think Jesus was more in favor of a personal touch rather than addressing the problem with well designed organizations.