The Homeless and the Church
Have you ever wondered how Christian churches treat homeless individuals when they attend church on Sunday? Do they show authentic Christ-like compassion to those who struggle and live on the streets. How does the Christian church greet, communicate and show Christian love to them. Generally they are not dressed in Sunday attire and hygiene and grooming may be lacking. For well over 40 years it has appeared to me that the church is changing and is more and more inclusive and less evangelical driven toward the "less fortunate".
Remember Matthew 25:40 the Lord says, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Reading further in Matthew 25:44-45 He again addresses the turning away from the needs of the less fortunate, "Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You? Then He answered them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me." Turning our back on the less fortunate, the sick, homeless etc. is turning your back on Christ. WOW
I have spent years getting to know some of the homeless. I've done photo shoots and written their stories. I remember Jeanne a homeless lady who had lived on the street for years, when I ask her about her life she said, "you are the first person who ask me about myself". How sad it is that the homeless are often invisible in our society. Their stories have ripped at my heart over the years. I just simply can't imagine how it would feel if no one cared about my existence. For the most part, the street homeless feel they are invisible. But surely they are not invisible to our churches, who's doors are open and welcome all, or are they? Recently while listening at a Bible Study, a member said, "I wonder how church members react to having the homeless show up in their churches?" After that, I didn't hear anything else said that day in Bible Study. My mind was going a hundred miles a hour, I was lost to that one question. By the time the Bible Study was over, I knew what I would do in an attempt to know the answer to it.
On Sunday, September 3, 2017, with a full disguise, pulling a cart with a pillow, blanket and a bag of bottles to be recycled, I went to church appearing much like the street homeless of today. I wanted to see how the church would react and more importantly, see how the homeless might feel should they attended the service. First, a little about the church I chose. I believe it is comparable to most of today's churches. The name of the church is not important. Please understand, I have no desire to fault find, shame or blame the church. However, it's imperative that Christians understand how the homeless might feel when and if they visit the Christian churches of today. The experience of the day proved to be invaluable in my understanding of how truly uncomfortable and even hurtful it may be for them.
To begin with, the pulling or pushing of a carts is important to the homeless as it holds all their possessions. The clothes they wear to church does not come from the cleaners nor a closet that morning. Their grooming may be compromised by the conditions they lived in the night before, so please excuse them if their appearance offends you in any way. The rough look on their faces, the circles under their eyes are often the result of not sleeping well in a field the night before, and that may make them look a little less cheerful than the other members of your congregation. Be aware that they may be coming to church with a hidden agenda, like hoping to find a cup of coffee or even a doughnut. But the good news is that you are happy they are at your church, or are you?
I arrived at church ten minutes early, pulling a cart and fully disguised as homeless. There were a lots of people arriving at the same time. As I enter, a greeter says "welcome" and handed me a program as she made no eye contact. As a matter of fact, she was looking beyond me and appeared all excited as she yells at someone she knew. It felt uncomfortable, like she did her duty and she was hoping I'd move along. Let me pause here and share my thoughts. . . a greeting at the door needs to be personal, like "hello, welcome, I'm Sara and what's your name?" Then immediately say their name back to them, because that reflects that they are important enough that you want to know them by their name. "Joan, so glad you're here, now you know I'm Sara, just feel free to flag me down if you have any questions." The homeless need to feel like they have an identity and that they are significant enough to be called by their name.
There are many greeters in the foyer talking with people. l stand there for a few moments eavesdropping, and long enough to become aware that all these other church goers are significant enough that the greeters are engaged in getting to know them. No one approached me. Finally I moved into the sanctuary and took a seat in the back, but in a place where everyone would have to pass by me. My little cart was right beside me. Maybe the church could prepare a place where the homeless could safely store their possessions while attending service. Just a thought...
The pastor at the front of the church starts moving row to row up the aisle shaking hands, laughing, talking, greeting the people. He keeps moving closer and closer to my row and I anticipate he will soon be shaking my hand too. After stopping at every row, he is finally welcoming the gentleman in front of me. Then he turns and doesn't even look at me, walks quickly around behind me. I really couldn't believe it, but then I feel a light touch on my shoulder with one finger, and in a hushed tone he said "mornin" as he quickly moved on. No eye contact, no interaction, it felt more dutiful than anything. You can just imagine how a homeless person might have felt.
When the sermon was over, the collecting of the offering was next. The ushers, very organized, went row by row passing the collection vessel. . . Each person would pass it to the next, well, that was until it was my turn. Oddly enough, the usher reached over me and took it so I was unable to touch or pass it on. I certainly don't know his intention as to why he felt the need to do that, but I was left feeling awkward and different.
Then a closing song and prayer. As I stood and organized my cart, the volume of noise rose as the people were hugging, shaking hands and talking with each other. No one said anything to me as I stood waiting for the crowd to move so I could leave. As I finally got to the foyer, I could hear members of the church thanking people for coming, expressing their hope that they would return next week. However, I remained invisible, as no one said any thing to me. No one expressed they were glad I came, nor did anyone invite me back. I again simply felt invisible.
As I walked away from the church, I was numb. My typical inclination after experiencing anything significant is to immediately write to capture the experience... But not this time, I jump in the shower as tears welled up in my eyes. How sad for the homeless that they could be left feeling so rejected in the very place one would think they'd feel so loved. It’s really not that complicated. When people who are obviously homeless show up at your church, you welcome them with love. You ask them their name, and you try to remember it and call them by it when you see them again. You invite them to Bible Study, you invite them to Sunday School, you invite them to coffee hour. You remember that a church is called a “sanctuary” for a reason. You get used to the idea that your relationship with them might be something other than “you give them something and then they go away.” If their smell and their noise and their looks frighten off a middle-class family who are visiting, so be it. You consider the idea that maybe that homeless, disruptive person isn’t there so that *you* can help *them*; maybe God has chosen that person to help heal you of your fear. You look for Jesus in them, because that’s where Jesus is.
For years my husband and I would reach out to the local street homeless. I say "street homeless" because they are the one's that live on the streets, in fields, on sidewalks, in between buildings, etc. not in shelters or in facilities. We know them well and they taught us much about a lot of things including their faith in God. We would handout food, gift cards for restaurants and assistance, it's not much. One day I ordered bags of wooden crosses, they were 3" in size. As we handed out food and assistance, I would ask if they needed prayer, I'd write down their individualized requests and then hand them a cross to represent Christ's love for them and our commitment to pray for them. Here what we learnt, the crosses were far more important to them than monetary assistance, gift cards or food. They loved them and were extremely verbal about it. Many of them expressed the same sentiment, 'that God is all they have; that they pray and depend upon Him in their daily struggles; that they trust Him because they have no one else.' They crave opportunities to talk about the Lord. One individual said with much clarity, that he wanted to be homeless because he didn't want the clutter of having stuff in his life, it would weaken his desperation for God. The homeless have been a total enrichment in our lives. It is my belief that some of them would enrich the lives of those who attend church.
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