The unnamed woman with the weathered face stands on the corner of the street with her cardboard sign. The sign, like so many others around town reads, “Homeless and hungry. Anything helps. God bless.” Short and to the point the staccato sentences lay out the problem, tell us we have no excuse for not sharing something, and digs into our deepest held values. She doesn’t smile, but periodically salutes the oncoming traffic in a confident parody of Nixon’s classic V sign for victory, and of course, peace. Her gaze is largely fixed on the distance, as if mesmerized by the strip of shimmering pavement, interspersed by the bright shots of color as the vehicles flow by. Discretely hidden somewhere close by is her bicycle, and a few bags with her belongings. She’s not alone. Across the street is the man in whose company she’s often seen riding. They seem to trade off on corners, begging for relief, and preaching the gospel in silence.
I don’t pretend to know this couple’s story, but the deeper issue demands closer inspection. Even though I’ve served and talked to literally hundreds of homeless and hungry people, the questions keep popping up like perennial weeds. Why is anyone homeless and hungry in a society filled with such obvious abundance and riches? However imperfect they may be, there are government aid and support programs available. There are also nonprofit organizations offering shelter, counseling, and even job training opportunities. There are numerous religious groups who also offer help through food banks, vouchers,clothing, furniture, and also by connecting the homeless and hungry to other agencies. Yet for thousands of years, homeless and hungry has remained a fact of life.
Our Judeo-Christian tradition calls us to provide assistance and care for the poor and needy. No one should have any illusions about the horrors of street life — physical and emotional violence, rape, theft, increased likelihood of injury, disease, and prostitution, high incidences of substance abuse and mental illness, reduced lifespan — it’s all part and parcel of the homeless scene. Not to mention the increased probability of crimes in our neighborhoods. We’re called to see the face of Christ in all persons. We’re called to respect the dignity of every human being. Most of us see little or no dignity in living on the street, but there are always those who seem to defy all attempts at constructive long-term help, and repeatedly choose the street as their home. Everyone who’s ever been involved in a service ministry knows that we walk a fine line between empowering others towards independent living, and simply enabling dependent behaviors. In the meantime, we deeply desire justice and equality for all. We also work to improve and change the flawed and broken systems that leave so many people hungry and homeless. God willing, maybe one day our efforts will end the hunger games.
The highly visible hungry and homeless make us uncomfortable enough, but our communities are equally filled with the invisible hungry and homelessness. They’re folks who are estranged from God, and have no spiritual home, no community to offer encouragement, strength, and support. Ironically, sometimes the questions remain the same. Are communities of faith and those who come seeking God being empowered by what they truly need? Sometimes we have a hard time differentiating between what we want and what we really need. The word of God may taste bitter at first. It certainly demands our active participation. It insists on something more than cheap grace, and moves us into the uncomfortable realm of deep reflection, of taking a close look at who we are and how we live. It takes humility, time and patience to offer ourselves to God, but the love, joy and peace of real freedom in Christ is always worth it. No more games, it’s time to taste and see that the Lord is good. It’s time to find our home in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
• The Rev. Susan E. Wilmot is priest-in-charge at St. James the Apostle Episcopal Church, 975 E. Warner Road, Tempe. Reach her at email@example.com or at (480) 345-2686.