Homelessness and Poverty: Reaching Out in Christ-like Manner to the Vulnerable

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Combatting homelessness is
part of the Christian message.

 

I remember sitting on a bus filled with pre-schoolers and their parents. We were on our way to an outing that was organized by the nursery school my daughter attended. At the time I was beginning a pastorate in a small Mennonite Brethren church in southwestern Ontario (Canada). I was sitting next to a young woman whom our family was just beginning to befriend. The “befriending” was mutual and I decided to casually begin to explore matters of faith.

Up to this point, approaching anyone this directly involved some angst and fear, so you can imagine the care with which I approached the topic. My friend sniffed out my approach as sharply as a dog sniffing for illegal drugs. Although I do not remember her exact response to what I said, it is safe to say that she did not want to discuss matters of faith. Yet fifteen years later I still call her and each member of her family friends. Over the years we have had a number of opportunities to discuss faith issues, generally in a “back door” kind of way.

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Feeding the hungry and sharing
the love of Christ.
 

What’s the point of this seemingly insignificant story? Well, it raises a number of questions regarding my personal desire to invite people into a relationship with Jesus. Also, since I have moved from the pastorate to a social service agency which reaches out to those struggling with homelessness and poverty, it also raises contextual questions such as:

  • What does it mean to invite others to Jesus from a position of power, where on the surface we claim that everyone can decide, but in reality we make the decisions?
  • What does it mean to invite others to Jesus, where the culture appears to be the same, but in reality it is fundamentally different?
  • What does it mean to invite others to Jesus, where dependence can undermine our relationship in a world of vulnerability and where motives can easily be confused? It is not difficult to look like we are trading bread for belief.

There are certainly more questions to wrestle with, but first we will look at the world in which I work and some working principles that I am attempting to implement with varying degrees of success.

Reaching Out to the Vulnerable at the Men’s Mission and Rehabilitation Centre
The Men’s Mission and Rehabilitation Centre, located in London, Ontario (Canada), is an emergency and transitional to long-term shelter for men sixteen years of age and older. There are 111 emergency beds arranged in dormitories and thirty-five transitional to long-term beds arranged as private rooms. The residents get three meals a day and there is a guest meal program for non-residents. There is little private space in the building and most of the residents not only have economic issues, but health, mental health and addiction issues as well.

The most significant conversations with the men in the shelter generally involve me being silent. Listening and probing with questions so that I can listen further seems to be the one strategy that encourages these men to begin to open up. For a group of people who struggle to have a voice, deciding to give them a voice, even to the exclusion of your own, is perhaps the only way to engage them and build a relationship beyond professional parameters.

Yet vulnerable people still know about boundaries. They will tell you when you have probed too much and since you need to earn their trust, you are going to need to invest time and energy into these individuals. In the rough and tumble world of transience it will take work and intentionality to connect deeply enough to explore the world of the spirit in a person’s life.

Working Principles to Interact with the Vulnerable
Recently I had the opportunity to share some thoughts on the subject of “evangelism in a social service environment” at a conference in Ottawa called Streetlevel, which was sponsored by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s Roundtable on Poverty and Homelessness. Although I felt slightly overwhelmed, I was able to come at the issue from a somewhat different angle than the rest of the participants. Prior to the Streetlevel conference I had presented on the same subject at a secular conference on poverty and homelessness. At that conference we did not speak of “evangelism”; rather, we spoke of “spirituality.” The topic was uncomfortable for a number of the participants as there was an undercurrent of suspicion that the workshop was simply a pretense for religious manipulation. Discussing spirituality in the context of serving those struggling with poverty and homelessness raised some good questions and forced me to rethink my approach.

What do we need to remember and where do we need to begin if we hope to enter this world with the truth and love of Jesus? Here are three principles to remember:

  1. “I needed to move away from thinking about ‘them,’ and learn to think about ‘us.’” Sometimes working principles must begin deep in the heart and mind. The above statement by author Greg Paul1 was written in the context of Paul’s very intentional desire to connect with a world that was foreign to him; sadly, many of us would have referred to that same world as “them.” When I first joined the Roundtable at the Streetlevel conference I was struck by the use of the word “friend” that was liberally sprinkled in our conversation about the homeless. I did not use the word, but it quickly became apparent that my colleagues used it not as a warm and cozy label, but as a way to describe a relationship that meant something.

  2. Everyone believes something. I remember reading a story about two men who were participating in a Christian conference. In between seminars they struck up a conversation with a couple of students and asked them what they believed in. Thinking the question was only related to a religious answer, the students responded with, “Nothing.” The two men probed further and discovered that the students in fact placed their faith in many things and ideas not related to religion. We need to remember that faith is not just about religion.
  3. There is no “universal translator” when interacting with others. Translation involves more than just going from one language to another; it may mean waiting, fumbling around in a relationship and being willing to learn from the other person a new vocabulary that involves words and visual cues. People do not come to poverty and homelessness overnight. It should not surprise us that we cannot parachute in and hope to gain trust and understanding in a short period of time.

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    Healthy relationships are
    important in ministry.

Dependence, Independence and Interdependence
In social service circles we often recoil from the dangers of creating dependence and herald the virtue of independence. We do not want those to whom we extend services to somehow become dependent on those services. Although we encourage independence, in reality none of us lives completely independently. We are interdependent, but that interdependence is better suited to a community where professional designations like staff and client are absent. We must walk a fine line when interacting with those we serve in both professional and non-professional environments.

I heard a story recently where two people met at a streetcar stop in Toronto. The one asked the other a faith question and the other answered that she did not have a strong faith commitment. When the conversation turned to the individual’s church affiliation, the woman’s face brightened as she recounted the story of how one particular church had reached out to help her troubled son. Suddenly it was no longer about “religion”; it was about community. Faith needs to have feet and hands; it needs to be faith in action. It need to listen and it needs to love. This is how we reach others for Christ.

Endnote
(1) Paul, Greg. 2004. God in the Alley: Being and Seeing Jesus in a Broken World. WaterBook Press, 12.


Gordon Russell is branch director for the MenÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s Mission and Rehabilitation Centre, an emergency and transitional shelter for men, in London, Ontario, Canada. He is involved with the London Homeless Coalition and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada Roundtable on Poverty and Homelessness.