What I Learned about Community from the Homeless

There are many ways to learn how to live in community. Here are lessons about living in community from a homeless population in my state.

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I spent a week one summer as an adult volunteer on a youth mission trip in an urban area in the mountains of North Carolina. One of the main reasons I wanted to chaperone this trip was to witness firsthand how the ministry joined in community with people of divergent backgrounds, specifically among the homeless and the housed, and how the community united in the love of Jesus fostered transformation.

Background

The trip was sponsored by a congregation in the city and a youth ministry, and offered a homeless outreach missions experience for teens. The focus was not on serving or being served. Instead, the emphasis was on recognizing people as children of God and cultivating community with this recognition. The kids (and I) didn’t serve the homeless or help the homeless; we hung out with the homeless. We talked with them, we prayed with them, we worshiped with them.

The congregation’s relationships with members of the homeless community provided the foundation for our interactions. The specific encounters and conversations were prayerfully anticipated and encouraged, though not scripted. For example, we formed friendships by serving ice cream in a park where the homeless often gather and enjoying a meal at church that hosts a free lunch followed by a worship service.

The week included education on homelessness. A staff member walked us through an area dubbed the “invisible box” where service agencies are located and the homeless live. We received coaching on having conversations without referencing professional status, living arrangements, and church involvement. For example, instead of asking someone “what do you do for a living?” or “where do you go to church?,” we might ask “what do you do for fun?”

Bible Study Lessons

Members of the hosting congregation visited our group and led us in reading selected passages from the Bible and applying scripture to preparing us for the week’s experience.

In the opening session, we considered Matthew 14:3-9, the story of the woman who anointed Jesus with a costly perfume. Together, we reflected on and discussed this passage. When the disciples chastised the woman for wasting the perfume (which could have been sold and proceeds given to the poor), Jesus not only defended her but said that she would be remembered for her kind act. Then, he mentioned that he wouldn’t be around for much longer but that the poor would always be with us.

We clarified that Jesus does want us to use our resources to care for others: feed the hungry, visit the sick, and clothe the naked. At the same time, we realized there are times when we can receive gifts and enjoy the present moment, whether that involves worshiping God or reveling in the scent of expensive perfume.

The second devotion came from Matthew 4, when the devil tempted Jesus. This event occurred immediately after Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness and soon after Jesus’ baptism when God acknowledged Jesus as His son. We explored how temptation here was not about convincing Jesus to claim material wealth and worldly status but on tricking the tired and hungry Jesus to question his position as God’s son. Jesus didn’t need to do anything special, but simply claim this status.

Likewise, we don’t need to do anything to become more of God’s children. We are God’s children. Our status is based on Jesus + Nothing.

Practical Lessons from Experiences

During the week, I saw how these lessons applied to loving and following Jesus, nurturing a sense of community, and becoming transformed in these ways:

We can’t fix other people

During this week, our job was to show God’s love to other people. We weren’t charged with fixing people, resolving their homelessness or addressing other issues that we identified as problems.

We treat people like brothers and sisters, like family

When considering outreach activities here or back home, we were encouraged to be extravagantly generous rather than hoard our resources for ourselves. This approach was modeled in the meal offered by the church. The lunch resembles a family gathering rather than a soup kitchen line: there are aspects of the meal that seem chaotic; generous portions of home-cooked food are served family style; people gather at round tables in a way that is comfortable and conducive to conversation.

Whatever our circumstances, homeless or housed, we gracefully receive and cheerfully give

We sought to avoid viewing ourselves as always being the givers or always being the receivers. Those with material means shouldn’t see themselves as the privileged who help the unprivileged.

We embrace that God loves us “as is”

Christians may say that God loves us just as we are and others just as they are. But we often don’t act that way.

We practiced the “as is” perspective. Over and over again, members of this church expressed that we are all children of God and nothing we can do or say can alter that status. For example, those who are struggling with an addiction can be assured that whatever state they are in, they are children of God. Having the status of God’s child does not mean that abusing substances is okay, just that you are loved unconditionally in all circumstances.

People feel loved and valued by others

On our last full day, we shared ice cream and conversation with a couple of people from the homeless community. One of them was particularly outspoken about the attitudes of the visiting youth groups and the members of the hosting congregation: he said they we were the only ones who did not look down on the homeless but treated all as real people, not as something or someone to be avoided and marginalized.

Relationships are about genuine friendships, not an agenda

The interesting thing about this community is that there are services benefiting the homeless and poor: a free lunch, free clothing, and assistance in dealing with self-destructive behavior such as substance abuse (for example, AA is offered at the church and many folks mentioned being counseled and helped by the pastor in fighting an addiction). However, the focus is on friendship, not exchange of goods and services.

Particularly intriguing was the way the homeless in their community took care of each other. Whereas I imagine myself defending what I owned vigorously if I had little. Though there wasn’t complete harmony, there was a distinct sense of community among the homeless. We gained a glimpse of what it looks and feels like to be part of the community, how to embrace our identity and worth as God’s children, and how loving others “as is” can transform our perspective and actions.

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