Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Why The Homeless Should Have A Voice in Your Church

From a paper by Alex Cole, "Church On the Streets", a student at Ambrose University College
          In the Bible, the descriptions of the homeless indicate that they are generally there to be helped, and that helping them brings blessing.  Isaiah 58:7 “Give shelter to the homeless.”  Matthew 25:35: “I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home.”[1]  There are few passages that speak directly of the homeless having leadership roles.  However, although many Biblical leaders were rich or powerful,[2] many of God’s leaders are taken from those who are poor.  The Israelites were slaves and then refugees in the desert.  Gideon was the least important member of the weakest clan in his tribe when he was called (Judges 6:13-15)[3] and Jephthah was the son of a prostitute and his half brothers’ chased him off his land to deny him his inheritance.[4]  David started life as a shepherd, and Amos was a shepherd.  Jeremiah found himself in destitute circumstances.   Peter, Andrew, James and John were all fishermen.  John the Baptist adopted a life of poverty in the desert, and shepherds were chosen to witness the news of Jesus’ birth.  Jesus himself came from a poor family.[5]  This indicates that poverty and even lack of a stable home (the Israelites were refugees in the desert) are no barriers to leadership.

            Some biblical passages validate a homeless person assuming a leadership role.  Jesus was homeless for periods of time,[6] as was Paul.[7]  God chooses those who are powerless and despised and uses them to shame the powerless and to bring to nothing what the world considers important.[8]   James 2:5 says that God has chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and it is good to have someone who is rich in faith in church leadership.  Jesus spent a lot of time with the poor[9] and he even says that when people shelter those with no homes, then they are sheltering him.[10]  Therefore the poor are close to, or even identified with Jesus – and closeness to Jesus is also an admirable quality for those in leadership.  The kingdom of heaven will be inherited by the poor[11] and so presumably they will have a leadership or at least stewardship role there.   Jesus encourages not just the rich young ruler but all Christians to “sell your possessions and give to those in need”[12] and he himself “became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich.”[13]  In fact, some parts of the Bible almost militate against having rich people in leadership, because they foresee those who are rich “fading away”, and thus would foresee those in leadership naturally becoming poor. [14]  For all these reasons, it seems that the Bible would not be, as such, against having a homeless person in the leadership of a church.  

            In fact, in some ways, there are advantages to having homeless people being involved in the leadership of a church.  As part of the leadership, they would be responsible for teaching and preaching, and might have a significantly different perspective on Scripture from that of other populations.  In this way, another voice will be powerfully released in the church, speaking the gospel back to the rich so that the rich might hear the gospel anew.[15]  For example, the ‘gospel according to the homeless’ is more multi-faceted than many gospel presentations I have heard, may contain a clearer recognition of the reality of evil than other presentations of Christianity,[16] and may expose the nature of the spiritual “powers” described in Ephesians 6:12 more clearly.[17]   Homeless peoples’ analyses may elucidate the contents of biblical books more clearly.[18]  Justo and Catherine Gonzales paint a picture of the writers of the Bible being amongst those who are weak and powerless, and therefore “a more accurate interpretation of the biblical word can be gained by those who currently stand in a parallel place in our own societies [to the original biblical writers.”[19]  For example, whereas sin has become seen as sexual sin by some churches, they argue that the poor see social injustice as more blatant sin.[20]  Finally, some have even cast the entire bible in the framework of homelessness.  They describe God as creating a home (Eden) which the home-breakers (humanity) then wrecked and were cast out of (to become homeless).  Jesus then creates the possibility for God to be at home in our hearts, and God creates a renewed home for us after his second coming.[21]  In this way the voice of homelessness adds another perspective to read the Bible from.  To sum up, the Bible being taught by homeless people in the leadership of a church could encourage a voice that would help other churches to see the Bible and the gospel more clearly. 

[1] Other scriptures that relate to the poor are that God protects the poor (Ps 12:5), provides a refuge for them (Ps 14:6), saves them when they pray (Ps 34:6), rescues them from those who rob them (Ps 35:10), helps them, thinks of them (Ps 40:17), provides for them (Ps 68:10), helps them to see him and hears them, (Ps 69:32-33), satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things (Ps 107:9), raises them from the dust and from the ash heap (Ps 113:7), secures justice for them and upholds their cause (Ps 140:12), watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and widow (Ps 146:9), provides a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat (Is 25:4), and re-creates the environment so they can find water and food, planting trees, turning desert into pools of water, making rivers flow, (Is 41:17 – 20).  The Bible also speaks of those who help the poor being blessed, for example: “If you … spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.  The Lord will guide always, he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame.  You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.  Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the gage-old foundations.  You will be called repairer of broken walls, restorer of streets with dwellings” (Is 58:9-12).)
[2] , For example Moses, Saul, Solomon and all the Judahite and Israelite kings, Nehemiah, Ezra, Isaiah, Matthew, and Paul.
[3]  When he was called he was threshing wheat in the bottom of a winepress to hide the grain from the Midianites, indicating a poor situation.
[4] Judges 11:1-2. 
[5] His parents brought two turtledoves or 2 young pigeons to sacrifice in the temple (Luke 2:24), which Lev 12:8 indicates were for those who “cannot afford to bring a lamb.”
[6] “The son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20).
[7] “We have been homeless.” (1 Co 4:11).
[8] 1 Corinthians 1:27-28.
[9] For example, lepers, poor women (Mark 12:42), prostitutes, women with immoral marital pasts, the blind, and the sick.
[10] Matthew 25:36,40.
[11] In the Greek: πτωχός (Luke 6:20) – although notice that Matthew 5:3 says the “poor in spirit” so Luke 6:20 can’t definitely be used as a proof text that this verse is referring to the materially poor.
[12] Luke 12:33.
[13] 2 Co 8:9.
[14]             Part of the Bible’s teaching on money indicates that “the rich will fade away.” (James 1:11).  Paul started with status as a Pharisee but lost everything for Christ.  Barnabus laid the profits from his field at the disciples’ feet.  Many lost everything for the sake of the gospel, for example those mentioned in Hebrews 11:37 who became “destitute”.
                Many of the early church fathers also spoke against private property and condemned the rich.[14]  Ignatius and Hermas instructed Christians to care for the widow and respond to those in need.   Ambrose wrote “Why do the rich claim for yourselves the right to own the land …  When you give to the poor what is theirs you return it, not give it.”   He condemned the few rich people who claimed everything for themselves “not only the land, but the sky, the air, the sea …. every day are the needy murdered.”  Basil the Great wrote that the bread that we hoard belongs to the hungry.    “Those who attain a certain level of power use those whom they have already enslaved in order to gain more strength to commit every greater iniquities, and by using them they enslave those who were still free.  Then their greater power becomes a new weapon for evil.  And as a result those whom they just injured now have no other option but to help them, and thus collaborate in the evil and iniquity committed against the others.”  Augustine, Cyril and Gregory the Great didn’t believe in private property.  John Chrysostom wrote that “the earth is the Lord’s: … nothing is to be held by any as privately owned.  The rich are not really such, for what they have belongs to others.  Anything that one might have, even though legitimately earned in truth belongs to the poor.” These quotes are taken from Justo Gonzalez and Catherine Gonzalez, Liberation Preaching, The Pulpit and the Oppressed (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980), 55-57.  Basil the Great said that if I have a chest full of shoes that I cannot use, while the poor walking in front of my house are unshod, I am committing theft just as much as if I had actually taken their shoes off their feet. Chrysostom went further, declaring that allowing someone to die of famine is committing murder.  Information taken from Justo González, "Faith and Wealth : The Early Church and Ours," Living Pulpit 6, 3 (1997): 12. 
[15] An idea put forward in Lesslie Newbigen, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 196.  “The only way in which the gospel can challenge our culturally conditioned interpretation of it is through the witness of those who read the Bible with minds shaped by other cultures. We have to listen to others. This mutual correction is sometimes unwelcome, but is necessary and it is fruitful.”
[16] I conducted interviews with four different homeless people at the Mustard Seed in Fall 2011, simply asking them “Who is God to you? And “How do you understand the gospel / how are we saved?”  Their explanation of the gospel drew on the classic Christus Victor approach, and the substitutionary atonement perspective.  The real presence of evil was a strong theme that came through, because many of them had directly experienced the effects of evil on their own life.
[17] William Stringfellow, a lawyer who practiced street law in East Harlem for seven years, realized from those he spoke to that these “powers” are often, to the destitute,  the economic powers of those in charge of labor pools, landlords, police agencies, the city administration, and so on.  In this way these powers seemed more recognizable and insidious, in their effects on human lives.  This description is taken from Stanley Saunders and Charles Campbell, The Word on the Street, (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 62-81.  
[18]  Saunders and Campbell (2000: 52-3) argue that Revelation can only be understood properly by the poor, because Revelation describes the overthrowing of earthly political rulers, who are happy to keep the world poor.  The powers described in Revelation are those economic powers that have crushed the faces of the world’s poor in the dust.  So, for example, Revelation 7:16 says “they will never again be hungry” in reference to those who die in the great tribulation.  In other words, God’s redemption of his people shows that his persecuted saints are the poor, who will be cared for.
[19] Their arguments are that Israel was a weak and generally powerless nation, sandwiched between other, more powerful nations, and because they were at one point slaves and refugees, and later they were exiles.  It could also be pointed out that the early church was often, though not exclusively poor (1 Co 1:26: “few of you were wealthy”)  (Gonzalez, Liberation, 16).
[20] Gonzalez, Liberation, 23.
[21] This description is taken from Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian J. Walsh, Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008).  This is an outstanding Biblical look at homelessness throughout the Bible.

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