D and I had the joy of spending last week in downtown Knoxville with 20 youth and 1 other adult from our own congregation as well as youth and adults from St. John’s Lutheran Church, Spirit of Joy Lutheran Church, and Christ the King Lutheran Church for WOW 2010. As part of WOW, we stay in an apartment building next to the church, which is right in the heart of the downtown area. St. John’s is surrounded by Knox Area Rescue Ministries, the Salvation Army, and the Volunteer Ministry Center, so it’s impossible to ignore the homelessness in the area as you make your way to the church.
As I lay in my bed Sunday night I couldn’t get the images of people lining the streets out of my head. As I began reading the book I brought with me – What Difference Do It Make? – I was struck by the coincidence (or perhaps it was a God-incidence) that I was reading about homelessness at the same time I was surrounded by it. At WOW, we refer to those who are homeless as “our neighbors” rather than “the homeless folk” because they are indeed our neighbors – in every sense of the word.
I began to imagine what it might be like to be one of those neighbors. To have no cool (or warm in the winter) place to lay my head at night. To have no privacy, no real space to call my own, no kitchen to prepare meals in, no couch to lay on. To truly not know where my next meal might come from or what it might consist of. To have no more belongings than I could carry with me wherever I go. I don’t know how I would be able to keep going. I don’t know how I’d be able to see God’s presence in my life, or how I would be able to trust that there even was a God – especially one that loves unconditionally. I don’t know how I would be able to push myself to look for a job or for help. It was easy for me, in that moment, to understand how people living on the street turn to drugs or alcohol or just plain go crazy.
It’s so easy for us to judge those who have found themselves homeless. We see them as lazy and unwilling to work hard enough. We are sure that if we give them the right help, they can turn their lives around and be a productive part of society. If they try just a little bit harder, they can surely find a job. Or maybe, if they’d stop using that Blackberry we just saw them texting on, they’d be able to pay rent somewhere. But then again, we’ve never been homeless. We can’t possibly know what it’s like to live on the street, day after day, week after week. No matter what the circumstances are that might find us on the street, once we’re there, it’s near impossible to get out.
Jesus tells us that the poor will always be with us. Our homeless neighbors will always be there. We are not called to judge them for being homeless – we are merely called to serve. I pray that my words and actions towards all people are ones of love. I pray that I can look past why people might need help and walk alongside them – no matter where they live, no matter what they look like, no matter how they live.