We have recently been having a challenge in our small town with an increase in homelessness. This is not an isolated challenge--nationally, many people both within urban and rural settings are grappling with what this increase actually looks like both in the numbers and the names of those without homes and shelters. The challenges surrounding bed restrictions due to Covid, increases in job losses due to inflation, and some complexity around what homelessness actually is (believe it or not, we struggle to maintain a good working definition of what homelessness even is!) makes seeing homelessness something of a perception obstacle. And, of course, whenever there are perception obstacles, there are response obstacles.
Furthermore, the route to homelessness often takes months or years to manifest. A family that loses its primary source of income may in fact have some immediate options available to them (savings, liquidation of processions, government assistance programs, etc.) that eventually will run out of the ability to keep the family afloat. Or, for another level of complexity, the road of a depreciating mental health may take its time to manifest before turning someone who was otherwise stable and cognizant into someone incapable of holding down a permanent residence on their own.
A few years ago while working as an intern with the VA’s homelessness division I walked into a man’s apartment who had been previously homeless. He was housed under their ‘Housing First’ program, which aims to establish permanent or temporary housing first and then address other comorbidities. The man was schizophrenic. His apartment temperature was set to a whopping ninety degrees. With the exception of an occasional grunt, he didn’t talk. He didn’t wear shoes. And he didn’t have a visible hair on his body. A dozen bottles of flavored soda lined up neatly alongside his countertop wall and several cats roaming about. I also saw his former military portrait hanging prominently on the wall for every visitor to see. In his file it noted that he had served several years in the military in a highly specialized position and was honorably discharged fifteen years earlier. As I thought about that for weeks to come, I realized that this man who, without the resources and aid of the VA, would have been considered homeless, “insane”, and socially deviant had at one time been a highly skilled soldier who had served his country and defended my freedom. I remember thinking two things: first, “I could have once had a conversation with this individual and never batted an eye.” Second, ‘this could just as easily be me in a few years.’
Much has been said over the years about the lowliness of the Christmas story and its contrast to the wealth, power, and riches of what we typically identify as ‘rulership.’ Jesus was never born in a palace. He didn’t grow up in affluence. Outside of a few strangers, the world had no idea that a king had been born because his birth announcement wasn’t proclaimed from the heights and had no imperialistic celebration to go along with it. But not much is said about the fact that by all major technicalities, Jesus was also homeless. He was born in a stable or a cave (we are not sure which), born outside of the town that his parents hailed from, and was almost immediately swept off to Egypt as a refugee. Given the most plausible historical dating, Jesus was likely eight or ten years old before he and his parents returned to Israel.
A homeless refugee. Those were the earliest years of Jesus. And as any parent will tell you, those early year experiences matter crucially for how a child will grow and develop in their personality. I wonder if Jesus, as an itinerant preacher, thought about his early experiences without a home as he went about his ministry. I wonder if those early experiences in which he was defined by those that were more economically and socially stable as a homeless child with homeless parents fed into the way that he developed compassion for those on the outskirts of society. We know Jesus was accused of insanity. We know he was routinely chastised for the ways in which he broke (and taught his followers to break) the division lines of social status. We know, in fact, that he also preached a message of exile--that those that would follow “the way” would be without a true and permanent home in this world.
We like to think that Jesus--if we met him--would have been all these things and we would immediately recognize him for being the outlier among the homeless, the refugees, those accused of mental insanity as if he was simply one more like us (with all our comforts and social norms). But I think that is itself more of a myth of comfort we tell ourselves. The truth is, most of us would have some things to say about “that man.” We would as a society lump him into a category. But the message of the gospel that he preached is that we should be more like the homeless, more like those that are accused for being socially deviant, more of a refugee. What would change for us if that was our comfort zone?
Questions for Today:
- What is my comfort zone with those that are homeless, have apparent mental health challenges, or are otherwise considered “socially deviant” this season?
- How do the early experiences of our lives shape our expectations of how the world should be?
- What changes if I consider myself “homeless” in the broader scheme of things?