Pastor Bill Daywalt
This is the first in a series of sermons about the role of the church in society. They are part of the website celebration of the 176th anniversary of the Kingsville Presbyterian Church.
As the worshipers arrived for church in a small town one Sunday morning, they were met by a rather disturbing sight. An apparently homeless beggar sat on the front steps of the church, wearing tattered clothing, a wool cap pulled down over his eyes, and clutching a bottle in fingerless gloves. They had never seen anything quite like this in their town.
Most worshipers simply walked around the man, or stepped over him, as he sat there. Some muttered words of disapproval, and others suggested that the man move to another doorway before the Sunday school children arrived. One member told the man, in no uncertain terms, that the Salvation Army was a more appropriate place to sleep it off. At one point, a kind woman brought the man a Styrofoam cup of hot coffee, but not one person asked the man to come in out of the cold, and certainly nobody invited him in to join them in worship.
Imagine, then, the people’s surprise during the entrance hymn, when their homeless friend made his way into the pulpit and took off his cap. The people recognized that it was their pastor! The pastor began his remarks that morning in this way: “I didn’t do this to embarrass you or to poke you in the eye. I did it to remind us that this is a person that Jesus loves, and he has called us to love him, too.”
You may have heard that story before, but I think it is fitting when we look at the homeless problem that face our communities.
Homelessness is an important issue that has gone on in society longer than we care to admit. During U.S. colonial times, laws and attitudes about “worthy” and “unworthy” governed how communities responded to those in need and those without homes. The first documented cases of homelessness appear in colonial records from the 1640’s. European settlers were displacing Native Americans and resulting conflicts on the frontier also lead to homelessness among both Native Americans and Europeans.
As a population we would prefer not to admit that there are people living under bridges, sleeping on park benches, or finding uninhabitable places for shelter.
Due to homelessness, lives end early, hardships are created, and stress is increased not only in the lives of the homeless but on society in general.
An 11-year-old was asked what she thinks when she hears someone described as a homeless person. She said, “it makes me feel sad, defeated, like there was nothing to be done to help”. Then someone asked for her reaction when a person is described as “experiencing homelessness.” She smiled. “Oh, that’s just a person who needs some help to fix a problem they have.”
Those are interesting responses, especially coming from an 11-year-old. Can adults have the same view about homelessness?
Homelessness is defined as people who are living in a place not meant for human habitation, in an emergency shelter, in transitional housing, or are exiting an institution where they temporarily resided. These include people who are losing their primary nighttime residence and lack resources or support to remain in housing.
Families with children or unaccompanied youth who are unstably housed are more likely to continue in that state. Often, people who are fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence, have no other residence, and lack the resources or support networks to obtain other permanent housing.
Veterans are more likely than any other population to be homeless. 40% of homeless men are veterans although veterans comprise of only 34% of the general male population. According to research, on any given night 200,000 veterans are homeless.
An estimated 23% of homeless individuals are considered chronically homeless meaning they have suffered homelessness for a year or more.
Causes of homelessness can include substance abuse, serious mental illness, developmental disability, and chronic physical illness.
Unemployment is also a factor. Forbes magazine reports that 78% of the population in the United States lives paycheck to paycheck consequently, making unemployment a risk factor. An estimated 39.7 million people live below the Federal Poverty Guideline.
A major contributing factor is a lack of affordable housing. It is estimated that there is a shortage of 3.9 million affordable rental units.
All these causes combined lead to high levels of homelessness.
The following are statistics in the state of Ohio:
Numbers of homeless:
- Total Homeless Population: 10,345
- Total Family Households: 1,015
- Veterans: 749
- Persons Experiencing Chronic Homelessness: 874
- Unaccompanied Young Adults (Aged 18-24): 686
Length of Stay in Emergency Shelters
- 69 days for single men
- 51 days for single women
- 70 days for families.
- Non-Hispanic Whites – 39%
- African Americans – 42%
- Hispanic – 13%
- Native American – 4%
- Asian – 2%
Homelessness is everyone’s concern. It takes a community to overcome homelessness.
Temporary solutions such as increased homeless shelters assist with taking people off the street and providing warm and safe shelter. That is a short-term fix to the problem. To truly improve the situation long term and efforts must be achieved.
Coordinated efforts will lead to solutions. Individual housing programs need to come together to accomplish a wider response. Communities need to identify the vulnerable population and create a response plan where people can be connected to needed services. Jobs need to be created that pay a livable wage.
Government programs such as Rapid Rehousing provide people the opportunity to find affordable hosing with the focus on creating self sufficiency so that they can stay housed. These programs do no more than put a band-aid on the problem.
As Christians, we look to the Bible to ask God for direction to do our part.
“Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” Proverbs 19:17
“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.” Matthew 25:35
I wonder how often we forget the blessings that God has bestowed on us. Most of us have the privilege of leaving worship knowing that we have a roof over our head, utilities, a bed to sleep in and a fully stocked refrigerator. It can be easy to become accustomed to our way of life and take things for granted.
We tend to forget about, and not even notice those less fortunate. They become invisible to us. We forget they have nowhere to go. We overlook that their belongings are in the grocery cart that they are pushing down the street. And there’s a good chance that someone will steal their cart, or they will be arrested for being where they are not supposed to be.
I remember several years while living in Cleveland a friend telling me this story.
“The other day I was forced to catch the Metro bus home due the fact that I had dropped my vehicle off the auto repair shop. My vehicle broke down on the freeway in ninety-plus weather. Distressed and brokenhearted I thought about how much it would cost me even though I do have a warranty. While I was riding on the bus feeling sorry for myself, I noticed a man walking in the hot sun with grocery cart filled with his life’s belongings and right then and there God placed me back into the right perspective.”
When we begin to look for ways to serve Christ, the One who loves us and saves us, we recognize that in serving Christ we are serving others. God is so in love with us, that When we serve, God is served. When we love, God is loved. When we clothe, God is clothed. When we feed, God is fed
On the other hand, when God is in prison and homeless, we are as well. We are not alone. God is much closer to each of us than we could ever imagine.
How should that play out in the way we see and treat those we seek to serve? We first remember that God doesn’t play favorites.
God is in love with all his creation. God is in love with you. God is in love with those he calls us to serve.
God is just as in love with the person sitting next to you as well as the person living under the bridge.
God is just as in love with you as God is in love with the person holding the “will work for food” sign at the interstate exit ramp.
God is just as in love with you as God is in love with the most outcaste, the most marginalized, the most cut-off and hated persons in human society.
God is just as close to them as God is close to you. And so, the way we treat others is the way we treat God—literally!!!
How are we doing on that level?
Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
If you just love those who love you, what good is that? If you just love those who look or act like you, what good is that?
A friend of mine recently confessed that he has trouble with “stinky people”. People who literally “stink.” He said that is a problem that he is asking God to work on in his life.
Who or what kind of people do you have trouble loving and serving? How can we overcome our prejudice? How can we learn to see Jesus in everyone we meet? We must ask God to help us to love those whom we have a hard time loving.
We can’t do it alone, can we? It is important to be aware of where we fall short and ask God to help us. Romans 3:23-24 “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
I recall one terribly cold and snowy Friday while working as a Case Manager for a community mental health agency. There were nine homeless clients that nowhere to lay their head that night. I just could not leave these folks in that condition knowing I was going home to a warm house. With God’s help, by the time 5:00 rolled around all nine had a place to go. I cannot take credit for that. God was by my side every step of the way.
How can the church help?
There are many things that the church can do that will help with the homeless situations that exist within our communities.
- Know your community and its needs.
- Provide monetary support to homeless shelters and local housing programs
- Support people in their efforts to find suitable employment by making phone calls our taking them to interviews
- Assist with the search for affordable housing. Connect people to agencies that aid
- Be creative
A CHURCH IN SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA, SAW ITS HOMELESS POPULATION MISSING A KEY FACET OF GETTING OUT OF HOMELESSNESS: AN ADDRESS.
A church is San Jose, California came up with a way to help homeless people and it starts with a mailbox.
When people think of home, they often focus on what’s inside. But there’s a privilege in having a place to live that’s often forgotten having a permanent address.
For people experiencing homelessness, an address can be a gateway to gaining that home. Without an address, an individual cannot receive disability benefits, social security payments or veteran’s benefits. They cannot open a bank account, which is often needed to collect earnings from employers. They can’t receive notifications about newly available affordable housing, messages from their children’s school or correspondence from family members.
In other words, the resources that homeless people need require an address, but in order to have an address — a home, apartment or place to sleep — the individual needs to first obtain those resources.
This vicious cycle has come to be known as the Postal Paradox — and leaders at Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph in San Jose, California, saw an opportunity to disrupt that cycle.
The church opened “The Window”, a place for people to use as a permanent address until a permanent address can be found.
Typically, about 150 people per day use “The Window” as their place to receive communications necessary for their housing search.
And, friends, the most important thing we can do to help is pray. Pray for those in need and pray for God’s guidance to serve.
We would all like to believe that we can end homelessness. The reality is, that will never happen. Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” Matthew 26:11
What we can do is to work to help one person, or one family at a time. What a better blessing is there but to serve.