On Saturday morning 61 students from Boyce College headed out to the Jefferson Street Baptist Center in downtown Louisville to engage the homeless, serve the center, and learn more of the gospel. This homeless shelter has roots reaching back to 1888 and the post-conversion ministry of former riverboat gambler Steve Holcombe. It’s now run by a Southern Seminary graduate who recently made the risky decision to decline tens of thousands of dollars in government aid so that the center could evangelize freely and in good conscience. The ministry is gospel-centered, hands-on, and holistic.
It was a joy to see such a large group of students overrun the center with energy and love, and even more exciting to hear lots of talk about getting involved on a regular basis. Naturally, everyone left with a variety of thoughts banging around in the brain, many of which will not be settled for years. For me, the experience helped ripen some long-standing reflections I’ve had over the years about the homeless.
“Homeless” has come to be (or maybe always has been) an identity with attendant assumptions, characteristics, and generalizations. The problem is that assumptions are often misconceived, characteristics turn into caricatures, and generalizations outgrow their usefulness.
For instance, when we identify people as “homeless,” what are we usually attributing to them? I don’t think we have to resort to psychological evaluation or socio-linguistic research to arrive at a fair summary of what we mean when we use the word. When I conjure up the images typically associated with the label “homeless,” this is what I see:
“Homeless” means dirty. Whether we mean grimy, smelly, or just disheveled, those who live without the customary hygiene and standard possessions of the masses come to be viewed as dirty. And try as we might, we just don’t respond much differently than the ancients to those whom we consider “unclean.” Whether that uncleanness is religious, ceremonial, ethnic, social, or physical, we slap on the label, and then we avoid. And doesn’t it always seem justified? After all, it’s been ingrained since our earliest years. “Don’t eat that! It’s been on the floor.” “Don’t touch that! It’s dirty.” “Stay away from that! You don’t know where it’s been!” So we avoid contact, lest we be infected, which means that we avoid love, lest we be uncomfortable.
“Homeless” also means worth less. Few people would dare say (out loud) that the homeless are worthless. But society does tend to view the homeless as worth less. The problem is that in our unthinking thinking, we forget to tap the spacebar. Those who are worth less become worthless. But the greater problem by far is not that we join the two words together, but that we allow those two words in the first place. How we define human worth is one of the most important things about us. So consider: What makes a homeless person worth less than a “normal” person? What is a “normal person,” anyway? And last but not least, what makes you worth more than a homeless person?
Worst of all, “homeless” means hopeless. It’s one thing to be dirty. But it’s another thing to be uncleansably unclean. It’s one thing to have your human worth discounted or even discarded in the eyes of society. But it’s quite another to wallow in the inescapable refuse bin of humanity’s judgment, to be relegated to the dungeon of hopelessness. When you see a homeless person, do you sense not just compassion but hope? Can you see them believing the gospel, grasping the Word, welcoming the Spirit? Can you see him holding a job, raising a family, supervising employees, keeping a journal, discussing a movie, sending an email, even driving a car or pulling out a wallet to pay for a burger? Can you see her discipling another woman, changing a diaper, providing excellent goods and services in the marketplace? Compassion is good, but without hope compassion will destroy a man.
Yes, Jesus did say that the poor would always be with us. We are not the merciful messiahs who will finally eliminate poverty. We live in the old creation, and the groaning is unbearable for those who have ears to hear and hearts to hurt. But Jesus also waged a revolution against the elitist structures that oppressed the poor and the spiritual arrogance that condemned them.
Yes, I could preempt the mental objections by offering caveats about all the homeless people who choose in one way or another to remain in their pitiable lifestyles. So they’ve sinned, and they continue to sin. What’s new about that? When I see a sinner, shouldn’t my first question be whether I’m looking out a window or looking in the mirror?
Yes, these are complex and painful issues, because sin tangles and tears. But the gospel cuts and mends, and the healing flood of Christ’s righteousness and love flows out as far as the curse is found.
Labels are powerful things. They’re part of language and society, and we should never get so idealized that we rail against every generalization and stereotype. Our language can’t always reflect the infinite nuances of life. But we still need to know what we’re actually saying, and sometimes change what we’re saying.
For starters, we might just want to try replacing “homeless” with “human” from time to time. Once someone’s human, he’s one of us. Once she’s a person and not a problem or a project, then she belongs. Seeing the imago Dei looking back at us through those dark eye sockets and grease-filled wrinkles has a way of changing our perspective. Now there’s a sparkle of majesty, an upspringing of worth, a spark of hope. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful gift in and of itself — just to be treated as human?
Ed Welch once described the shape of Jesus’ life and ministry as one extended zig-zagging line moving back and forth between the margins of society. Tax collectors, bleeding women, day-laborers, contagious lepers, elderly widows, ethnic half-breeds, town prostitutes, thieves on crosses.
If ever there were someone who could look down and rightfully label a group as dirty, worthless, and hopeless, it was the prince of heaven. And if ever there was someone who did just the opposite, it was that very same prince. Now the dirty are clean, the worthless are made worthy, and the hopeless see the breaking of the dawn. If this is us, then there must be hope for them. Better yet, if this is us, then there is no “them.”