Local Justice

“What I want to know is, “ Mark asked pleadingly, “why has God forsaken us?”

Mark and his wife Diane, a homeless couple, has just been forced to move from the camp that they had peacefully dwelt in for years. They have nowhere to go. A summer storm blew through Portland the last couple days and because they had nowhere to legally set up their tent, they were soaked the other night, hiding for cover, and now they have no dry blankets or clothes.

They came into our church’s day shelter yesterday freezing. We were able to give them a warm meal and a change of clothes and some dry bedding… but Mark’s question lingered. He said, “I’ve been praying. I’ve been seeking God for help. Why won’t he help us?”

Honestly, I gave some pious answer about waiting and God’s timing isn’t our timing. But I wasn’t really being honest to him. I woke up at 6 this morning with his question haunting me. I couldn’t get any more sleep, so I want to be honest with you today:

The reason Mark isn’t being helped by God is because God has already given the power to help him to His people, the church, and the church isn’t interested.

It isn’t that the church isn’t interested in justice. But they would rather take sides in the Israel/Gaza conflict rather than be there for their neighbor who lives in their community. Which is odd to me, because it seems that the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that we are to show mercy to the one whom we come across, not write a blog post for them, nor re-post a video that touched us about justice. Justice isn’t about making a public position, but about creating a context where people are free to live.

I’ve been reading Walter Breuggermann’s book Peace the past couple weeks, and in that brilliant short book he makes the point that there is a difference between order and justice. Order is what Pharaoh had, with his slavery and his taskmasters. God had to reach in and make chaos of that order so that He might establish justice. Order is what we have in our cities, and the city councils keep order by creating laws and policies that move the homeless out of people’s sight, that fundamentally make it illegal for those human beings to exist. The police, many of whom believe the homeless to be naturally criminals, will move them on, dehumanize them, take their possessions, and even arrest them for the crime of being unable to pay rent.

The church of the United States can stop this. They can create justice for the homeless in their communities. Here are some simple steps. Not all the steps are easy, mind you, but creating justice never is.

1. Get to know the homeless
We can never help create justice if we do not know those whom we seek justice for. You can go to a day shelter like what my church, Anawim Christian Community, has. There are shelters like this where the homeless can exist without harassment in almost every major city of the United States. Go and listen. You can volunteer, or help, if you like. But your primary goal is to listen to the homeless and find out about their lives. What are their struggles, what are their joys, what are their hopes and what keeps them from obtaining their hope? As we talk with the homeless we will find out that, just like housed people, a few may be criminals, but most are not. We will find out that we really enjoy spending time with some of these folks. We will find out who can be trusted and who can’t be. And we will find out the policies and habits of our city that make their lives miserable.

2. Write letters
Find out what laws have been passed in your community that the law enforcers use to oppress the homeless in your area. In Portland, there is a camping ordinance that makes it illegal for anyone to sleep outside. While it could be used against children pitching a tent in their backyard, the lawmakers intended to use it against the homeless, and so “sweeps” regularly happen where the police tell the homeless that they have to move. There is nowhere for them to move to. Some police in Portland will tell the homeless to move out of their city and never return–the city they were raised in. If a number of people wrote letters to their city council demanding that the homeless be treated like the citizens they are, instead of piles of garbage that need to be cleaned up, the city would change their policies. If people wrote to the local newspaper demanding that the homeless not be harassed by the police, then lawmakers and the police will listen. But it will take a lot of people, over time, doing this.

3. Provide jobs
Most of the homeless want to work. But getting a job without an address, or a shower is almost impossible. Going to an interview when the stress of everyday life makes one desperate and anxious and so an unlikely candidate for hiring. Our church hires the homeless to care for our landscaping and to do our janitorial work. Some folks might need some supervision or training, but they are grateful for the work, learn fast and work hard. Often churches see the homeless as objects of charity rather than people who need a chance. Instead of hiring a company to maintain your property, go the extra mile and hire some homeless folks.

4. Offer housing
When Jesus spoke of helping the homeless, he didn’t talk about giving them a dollar, but inviting them into our home. Me and my family of five live in a six bedroom house. We specifically purchased this house so that we could take our extra rooms and welcome the homeless to live with us. We have had as many as eleven folks live with us. I am not suggesting that everyone who reads this take so many people in, but many of us have extra room where we could take someone in. I would suggest not bringing in a stranger, but someone you learn to know and trust at a shelter. Because what the homeless really need is an opportunity

5. Create a Network of Churches
Most of our churches are small and have little finances or resources. But groups of churches are able to do what an individual church cannot. A group of churches can establish a day shelter in areas of town where the homeless population isn’t being served. A group of churches can establish a regular meal for the local poor to eat. A group of churches can collectively go to the city council and request that they no longer harass the homeless, to stop treating them all as if they were criminals and not citizens. A group of churches can listen to the homeless, find out their needs and help them with the resources they have collectively. In one area of town, we listened to the homeless and provided a winter shelter. In another area of town they didn’t want a winter shelter, but propane stoves to keep warm in their tents. Our church networks were able to provide these services.

6. Support your local ministries
If you live in a city in the United States, there are local ministries to the homeless in your area. Some of these ministries are being attacked by local laws to prevent them from bringing justice to the homeless. Other ministries are attacked by neighborhood associations or local neighbors who assume that they are “brining criminals into our neighborhood.” Anawim stands strong for the homeless every day, but we are attacked and we struggle with too little to go on. Go to your local ministry and find out what they need. Almost certainly they need financial help (we struggle to pay our rent every month). But they may need more volunteers or more donations. They may need some encouragement. They may need someone to stand up for them against those who complain about them in neighborhood meetings.

7. Tell Stories about your Homeless Friends
As you learn about the lives of the homeless, tell people about their stories. Not just the bad things or the oppression they face, but talk about their everyday triumphs. Post stories on FB, talk about them at neighborhood meetings. The homeless are our local citizens and their victories are our victories. If they get a job, if they were able to get their identification that has been lost for years, if they were able to obtain housing, if they were able to get a medical problem resolved, talk about it. Let your friends and your neighbors know that homeless people are good people. That they are your friends. And that they are deserving of love.

If you’d like to know more about Anawim Christian Community, a community church for the homeless in Portland and Gresham Oregon, go to www.NowhereToLayHisHead.org