Reconciliation with the Unhoused
– Luke Sumner —
“If I encounter someone holding a sign and asking for money, what should I do?”
Having spent many years working among those who live outside, this is a question I have heard many times. For many people, the hustle of day to day life doesn’t leave much room for encountering those of a different economic class. Walking past folks holding signs and asking for money is one of the most common places that this happens, and all of us at one time or another have likely been asked for money, or had to walk past someone holding a sign.
So I understand this question. We want to know what the best thing is that we can do is in that situation. But the problem is, this is the wrong question to be asking. Because a question like this puts the focus on me, the one asking the question, rather than on the person holding the sign. And this question is also based in judgment, assuming that they might use the money for something we don’t like, whether or not they actually will. So rather than answer that question, I will often push back with a question of my own: How would that encounter change if, rather than ask if you should give someone money or not, you asked yourself how you might best, in that situation, treat this person like a human being?
You see, by the time someone is at the point of being houseless, they have not only run out of money, but they have run out of relationships as well. Hugh Hollowell, pastor at Love Wins Ministries, talks about houselessness as a series of losses. It might start with losing a job, and then maybe your house, and so on. One of the biggest of those losses is that of losing community and relationship. Now, the many reasons people end up houseless can be complex, and everyone’s story is unique in some way. But a common thread in these stories is broken ties between people and the support network of family and friends. To be living outside means that there is a string of broken relationships in your past.
I spent many years as a pastor at HOMEpdx, a church for folks on the streets of downtown Portland, and I heard this over and over again from my friends who live outside. I heard about the pain and sorrow that comes from those broken relationships. One thing many of my friends told me was that, when you are homeless, people just ignore you. People walk past you. Sometimes people will even cross the street, just so they don’t have to wait on the corner next to you. I have heard stories of people literally throwing money at people holding a sign, but never even looking them in the face in the process. People living outside in our cities occupy this lonely space, where they are both the most visible citizens, having their poverty publicly declared wherever they go, and yet the most ignored, often spending hours and even days without anyone acknowledging their presence.
I also learned, with many bumps and stumbles along the way, that in those moments my job as a pastor wasn’t to fix those broken relationships. It wasn’t to figure out what I could do to fix the situation. My job was to be a friend, to practice the relationship that was right in front of me.
What Does it Mean to be Human?
Which brings us back to our question: How can we, when we encounter someone holding a sign or asking for money, treat them like a human being? Maybe it’s giving money. Maybe it is saying hello. Maybe it is asking if you can take them to lunch. Maybe it is just acknowledging them with a smile and eye contact. But whatever it is that we do, we must ask how we can better affirm their humanity in that moment and do whatever we do more relationally.
How can we truly see them, as a human being made in God’s image, standing across from us?
I believe that for reconciliation to happen between those who live outside and those who live inside, we must always be asking these questions, from the one-on-one encounters we have on the street, to our engagement in the larger systems of economic injustice that lead to homelessness and poverty. I believe that the biggest hinderance – to loving the poor for both individuals, and the Church – is that they don’t know the poor. We are often great at getting things done for the poor, from food and clothing drives to financial support. But we aren’t always as good at helping to break down the walls that stand between those living outside and those who live inside, at creating spaces where people across the economic spectrum can truly get to know one another and engage each other as equals.
I believe that the Church has the opportunity to play an important role in economic reconciliation in our country, by constantly asking these questions about how we can be more relational toward those who live outside and affirm their humanity in all that we do by being a voice in our communities saying that “the homeless” are not an issue to be solved but a group of people with complex stories, people who deserve to be loved simply because they are human beings.
And by always asking – be it in a church outreach program or a brief encounter on the street – how we can be more relational and affirm the humanity of those who live outside.
Luke Sumner lives in Everett, WA, where he is co-pastoring a new church community with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) along with his wife Rebecca. He is constantly asking how the Church can better love its neighbors who live outside and how people of faith can engage in economic reconciliation. Prior to moving to Everett, Luke was a pastor at HOMEpdx, which is a church community for those living outside in Portland, OR. He also loves the outdoors, local coffee, and good food, which he occasionally cooks himself. You can follow along with him at his blog.