Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Homelessness, the Homemaking God, and the Sojourning Community: Rachel and Her Children and Beyond Homelessness in Conversation

The following is a Literature Essay I recently wrote for my Urban Ministries class comparing two books on homelessness and drawing insights for urban ministry.

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“We are all in exile.”[1] Thus Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian Walsh, in their captivating book Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement, state the overarching problem they perceive to be facing the world in the 21st century. Writing on the same topic yet in a vastly different manner, Jonathan Kozol – in his devastating book Rachel and Her Children – seeks to answer the particular question, “Why are so many people homeless in our nation?”[2] (Specifically, homeless mothers and their children.) On the one hand, Bouma-Prediger and Walsh encompass socioeconomic homelessness under the broader umbrella of its myriad forms that infect so much of North American society today. On the other hand, Kozol, through personal interviews and relationships formed over a period of time in New York City homeless shelters, paints the hard picture of life on the ground for individuals and families; he tells the untold story of mothers and fathers and children without homes or shelter or dignity in a time otherwise named “return to prosperity,” “morning in America,” “traditional values,” and “shining city on a hill.”[3] Bouma-Prediger and Walsh tell the larger, though no less true or particular, story of what it means to live in a society utterly divorced from place, a society thus doomed through its structures and apathy to displace others at alarming rates. Kozol, a non-Christian,[4] spells a narrative on the street; Bouma-Prediger and Walsh broaden the scope, do Christian theological reflection, and call the church to action. Though unrelated formally, read together the two books tell a compelling story to which both the church and larger society ought to listen.

Context is key in analyzing such an overwhelming issue. The temptation is to speak generally about a generic issue for a general audience. Instead, we must recognize that we speak from a context and for a context. For Christians that context is the church. Conversation, discussion, and analysis – especially concerning a topic as important as homelessness – cannot be divorced from ecclesiology. The church is God’s people in the world, the Spirit-led community that follows Jesus and proclaims him as Lord. In this paper I will speak primarily to that community as a member of that community. At times I will step back for a moment to talk about society, culture, policy, government, etc., but the central focus will remain the implications for the life of the church. Furthermore, I do not want to limit the practice of “ministry” to formal programs led by clergy; rather, I want to ask what the reality of homelessness across America, both that of poor people without shelter and rich people without true home, means for the daily lives of Christians in community together. In this way ministry is not limited to what is “official,” but instead the vocation of each Christian’s ordinary life alongside collective activity.[5]

Rachel and Her Children is a diagnosis and a call to arms. Poetic and unflinching, Kozol delves deeply into the lives of homeless families living in shelters in New York City. Examined as a whole, the book accomplishes four primary purposes:[6] 1) it establishes as undeniable fact the plight of the homeless; 2) it makes clear that the homeless population is growing; 3) it finds culpability in a citizenry and a government apathetic, unmoved, impotent, or unbelieving toward such a monumental crisis; and 4) it argues the case, implicitly through its stories and explicitly through rhetorical questions and proclamation, that there is a moral compulsion for radical, systemic change.

Kozol’s account offers extraordinary insights into urban ministry for the church. The first, and possibly most important, is fluid and seemingly unempirical, but is the fruit of a book like Rachel taken in its entirety: homelessness is real, it is not going away, and the church must be shaken out of its stereotypes and its malaise. A book suffused with stories ought to remind the church that, in contrast to the American lie that stats and figures are determinative, the church is a people constituted by stories. Thus, Christians need not research “the facts” about homelessness in order to care or lose prejudice. Kozol says, “We would be wise, however, to avoid the numbers game…There is no acceptable number.” He goes on to remind us that, in contrast to any number of reasons given for homelessness on all sides of the debate, “The cause of homelessness is lack of housing.”[7]

One stereotype especially squashed by Kozol is that the poor and/or homeless are somehow unspiritual or automatically non-Christian simply because they are in dire economic circumstances. One of the most emotional aspects of reading the stories Kozol tells is the ubiquitous presence of deep, abiding trust in God on the part of the homeless families. They pray, they attend church, they read the Bible, they teach their children about God. Most of them seem to believe wholeheartedly that God will rescue them from their distress. As Annie shares with Kozol: “Pray God to make me strong. If it’s a bad day I think of heaven.”[8] Or Rachel, after whom the book is named: “I do believe. God forgive me. I believe He’s there. But when He sees us like this, I am wonderin’ where is He? I am askin’: Where the hell He gone?”[9] Christians simply cannot engage in urban ministry believing that they are “bringing” Jesus or faith or God or salvation to the needy; that is, they must realize that the poor are not necessarily the poor in spirit.

If Kozol is clear about any of his convictions, it is that the system is failing, and living, breathing human beings are paying the price. The most gut-wrenching tale of this sort is found at the end of the book, about Holly Peters and the death of her son Benjamin.[10] A mother and father with a seriously ill toddler and two young children were repeatedly dismissed, denied emergency shelter, given poor medical treatment, and treated with utter disregard and disrespect. Even after Benjamin’s death much of the media coverage painted Holly and the father as equally responsible for the death as the systems that failed them. It is impossible to read the story and find sanity in any of the policies or decisions held against them; for example, they were rejected from housing because they didn’t want to be separated from Benjamin’s father. Traditional family values indeed. Holly’s story is only one of dozens that highlight that it is neither a lack of individual generosity on the part of the wealthy nor somehow the moral poverty of the poor that induces and sustains homelessness: the system is failing, and children are paying the consequences. Systemic restructuring is fundamentally requisite for any serious addressing of the plight of the homeless.

These systemic needs connect to a final insight for urban ministry: politics matters. To endorse failed or oppressive policies while “serving” the poor does no good; political action is required. Kozol repeatedly links the suffering of the homeless with the Reagan administration’s slashing of any budgetary measures meant to help the needy.[11] For those of us inclined or raised to be politically conservative, the point is particularly apt: How can the church be a faithful witness to God’s preferential option for the poor, to the suffering savior, to the homeless Rabbi, to the one who was labeled a glutton and a drunkard, if the American political party most intimately connected with policies and interests for the rich continues to have the undying support of the “Christian base”? Christians engaged in urban ministry must ask themselves what kind of politics they are called to, what kind of policies would best work for the common good, and how they might go about listening to, submitting to, and enacting the politics favored by the poor.

Transitioning to Bouma-Prediger and Walsh’s work, here is full disclosure: if I were to write one book on homelessness, it would be Beyond Homelessness. It is difficult imagining what else they could have included in this well-rounded, full, rich book. Arising out of experience in ministry, with the homeless, and in the academy (they are astoundingly well read in their sources), they present a grand biblical vision of the homemaking creator God, the ensuing and perpetuating homelessness of humankind, and the glorious homecoming wrought in Christ and the church. They analyze what exactly home is, the concrete experience of socioeconomic homelessness, the difference between home and housing, the ecological crisis, the recent arrival of postmodern homelessness, the structures of capitalism and globalization that only add to the distress of the homeless, and the ways in which the story of Scripture, the character of God, and the calling of the church speak to being a homemaking force in the world. In between each chapter is a biblical interlude in which the authors creatively employ a passage from Scripture to illustrate the various ways God’s people have encountered issues of home, exile, and homecoming.[12] In short, as members of the church they take up the hard but necessary work of theology in order to take both God and his good creation seriously and to seek a healthy way forward for a society so at odds with God’s homemaking intentions.

Beyond Homelessness is overflowing with insight for urban ministry, so any examples must inherently leave out some excellent considerations.[13] (If I were to lead a study at a local church about homelessness and God’s calling for the church, this would unreservedly be my textbook.) However, the book’s primary insight for the church is that homelessness is a scandal to the God of Jesus Christ,[14] that the story Scripture tells is one centered around the notion of “home”: given, received, enjoyed, lost, restored. Bouma-Prediger and Walsh reframe the question of “some random folks who happen to not have housing” into a theological crisis of (literally) biblical proportions about which God has spoken directly and at length. To understand “homelessness” in such a way, to have one’s vision expanded to see as God sees, is the first step Christians must take.

One of the most unexpected areas the authors venture into is the environment, what they deem “ecological homelessness.”[15] In a nation where those identified as anti-science or in denial of environmental problems are equated with ignorant, fideistic, “backwards” Christians, it is a welcome surprise to see the earth (the entire cosmos!) – understood as God’s good creation – to be at the heart of what Bouma-Prediger and Walsh consider to be good homemaking. They remark: “The world is amiss. The earth is amuck. We are feeling homeless on our home planet.”[16] More to the point: “Addressing the pervasive and pressing issue of socioeconomic homelessness, important as that is, makes little sense if we do not address the equally pervasive and pressing issue of ecological homelessness.”[17] They identify both individual reasons (emotional impairment, ignorance, denial, apathy) and systemic problems (population growth, affluence, technology, poverty, capitalism, political failure, globalization, destruction of place, contempocentrism, anthropocentrism) to explain why humans are not doing as much as they can to care for the earth.[18] They conclude in agreement with Wendell Berry that “ecological degradation…is blasphemy, an egregious affront to the living God, the holy homemaker who creates and sustains a holy heaven and a holy earth.”[19] They then spend an entire chapter outlining what it would mean for the church to be a character-formed people who embody the virtues of shalom as earthkeepers.[20]

Such serious and sustained thought ought to give pause to Christians seeking to go about urban ministry, precisely because so often perceived solutions to poverty themselves contain the seeds of potential ecological violence, which threaten in the long run any attempts to help in the short run. Urban ministry is by nature located in the city, so “nature” may not be immediately evident. But actions in the inner city have no less an effect on the environment, and thus especially there, where powerless residents may not have the means or knowledge to address such issues, the earth must be kept in mind.

Having addressed socioeconomic then ecological issues, the authors move onto what they call “postmodern homelessness.”[21] They see North American society, and globally the 20th century as a whole, as uniquely typified by uprootedness. We no longer have loyalty to, knowledge of, or love for a place. We literally do not have roots. And a people without roots have no sustenance, have no ability to know what it means to call a place home. They specifically connect this reality to two seemingly opposed worldviews (themselves proposed antitheses to the other): capitalist modernity and self-centered postmodernism.[22] Each is predicated upon the autonomous self, the freedom to choose, the placelessness affording liberation from external constraints. All such desires are false idols, the authors say, and in the end produce the same, homeless result.

What a powerful corrective for self-exalting saviors coming to the poor offering salvation! Urban ministry, when conducted by placeless people ministering to the placed (neighborhooded), turns in upon itself. Those on the “receiving” end of such ministries – though of course, ministry must always be “with,” not “to” – likely have a great deal to speak to wealthy suburbanites or educated do-gooders concerning things like community, belonging, and home. If Christians fall into the temptation of upward mobility and “freedom” from locational restraints, any ministry is doomed to ungrounded failure.

Ultimately, Bouma-Prediger and Walsh find the truth, hope, and resources of the Christian tradition – the indwelling triune God, his promises and actions, and his sojourning community called to care for creation – to be the proper home for humanity, the answer to the need for a noncoercive “household,” and the message of good news for an exiled world.[23] Such gospel belief, however, is not shared by Kozol. So how do the two books overlap and disagree, reinforce or mutually exclude each other?

Though written 20 years apart – at similar junctures? – the books’ essential agreement is in the reality and nature of socioeconomic homelessness in North America. Compare this quote by Bouma-Prediger and Walsh to Kozol’s above: “The reason that so many people are homeless in Toronto is that there is not enough affordable housing.”[24] Both wholeheartedly repudiate the (neo)conservative governmental policies that seek in any way to “trust the market” or cut public funds for the care of the most vulnerable.[25] In different ways, they also each recognize homelessness as a spiritual issue; obviously, Bouma-Prediger and Walsh’s lens is explicitly Christian and theological, but Kozol does not diminish in any way the vibrant spirituality of his correspondents and indeed openly wrestles with the implications of divinity in such wretched suffering.[26]

The differences between the books pertain more to disparate emphases and intentions than to outright ideological disagreements. Surprisingly, though Rachel and Her Children is a blistering attack on what he sees as a comfortably uncaring nation, Kozol presents few direct policy suggestions.[27] On the other hand, Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, though still not offering outlined resolutions for Congress to vote on, consistently make precise claims about the kinds of legislation in need of immediate enactment: affordable housing, increased business regulation, steps away from globalization, an established safety net, strict rules to protect the environment.[28] Beyond this slight difference, though, the books are largely complimentary: one gets a picture of Kozol sitting in a room of one of the filthy shelters in New York City interviewing one of 100 homeless families, painting the brutal picture for any and all to read and know and look away no longer. Bouma-Prediger and Walsh assume that necessary account and step further to ask even deeper questions, about God and society and the earth and culture and the church. The books themselves tell a story; a story I, as a Christian, find truthful and compelling, hopeful though harrowing.

In response to such a wealth of analysis, information, stories, reflection, theology, challenge, suffering, and hope, my questions are threefold and simple: What should I do? What should society do? What should the church do? The “I” of the first question is included in the collective “we” of the second and third questions, but each question is distinct from the others. The first two are important, and do include aspects of urban ministry: What do I do as an individual, and what kind of politics do I champion and represent for the sake of the poor and the homeless? However, for our purposes the third question takes priority: What is the message these books speak to God’s people?

First, these books remind us of our true identity: followers of the one pleased to spend his time among the outcasts of society. “There shall be no poor among you” is Yahweh’s communal Torah calling to Israel fulfilled in the church in Acts.[29] Christians today cannot be so compromised by a culture of consumption that they forgets their Lord and calling. The church, in all places, at all times, in all its various forms, must be involved in the life of the poor and marginalized – in service, in relationship, in worship. If America is suffering from a crisis of people becoming homeless, Christians must be the people who do not add to the stigma, who welcome them into the worshiping community, who provide housing and needs – who, in other words, embody the virtue of hospitality. Such hospitality, the fruit of the “virtues of shalom,” is precisely why “urban ministry” cannot be reduced to a mere program for the poor, but instead is at the heart of what it means to be Christian community lived out daily in neighborhoods and workplaces, on the street and in restaurants. Hospitality is seeing the image of God, Jesus Christ, in the other, and welcoming her accordingly. Such is the faithful response of the homemaking church, with good news of homecoming for a world enslaved to homelessness.

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[1] Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian J. Walsh, Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 250.
[2] Jonathan Kozol, Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America (New York: Three Rivers), 4.
[3] That is, the 1980s of the Executive Administration of American President Ronald Reagan.
[4] Kozol only implies this, but questions like “How can they pray?” indicate at least a general agnosticism. See Kozol, Rachel, 175.
[5] These claims arise out of my ecclesial tradition, that of churches of Christ, which there is no official clergy, so I don’t make them theoretically or idealistically.
[6] For more information see the “Overview” in Kozol, Rachel, 5-25.
[7] Kozol, Rachel, 12, 14. The italics belong to the original quote.
[8] Ibid., 57.
[9] Ibid., 85. Kozol devotes an entire chapter to spirituality: “About Prayer,” 174-180.
[10] Ibid., 141-160.
[11] E.g, Kozol, Rachel, 15, 17, 73-74, 101-102, 167, 203-205.
[12] The passages include Genesis 1—9;Deuteronomy 15 and 1 Kings 21; Amos; Isaiah 58; Matthew 14—15; Mark 11—16;Colossians; Revelation 21—22; and Luke 15. See Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, Beyond, 29-37, 68-75, 113-120, 153-157, 190-195, 230-238, 264-270, 305-312, 320-327.
[13] The analysis of the meaning of “home” is especially superb. See Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, Beyond, 1-28, 38-67.
[14] See Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, Beyond, chapters 1 and 3.
[15] See Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, Beyond, chapters 6 and 7.
[16] Ibid., 161.
[17] Ibid., 162.
[18] Ibid., 169-184.
[19] Ibid., 188.
[20] See Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, Beyond, chapter 6. The virtues they list are peaceableness, justice, compassion, and wisdom.
[21] See Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, Beyond, chapter 7.
[22] Ibid., 254-263.
[23] Ibid., chapters 8 and 9.
[24] Ibid., 98; see note 7 for the similar quote from Kozol.
[25] E.g., Kozol, Rachel, 56-57; Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, Beyond, 92-112.
[26] See again Kozol’s chapter on prayer in Rachel, 174-180.
[27] Kozol questions whether our policies are implicitly ways of quietly killing the poor in order to rid ourselves of them. Rachel says, “I had another baby. What about it? Are you goin’ to kill that baby?” to which Kozol responds, “As of now, we do not have an answer to that question.” See Rachel, 232.
[28] Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, Beyond, 121-152.
[29] Deuteronomy 15:4; Acts 2:42-47.

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