The Forgotten 50,000

Eleven years after New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office, more than 50,000 people rested in homeless shelters and on the streets of New York City last night — nearly 45 percent of which were children. As numbers have reached an astonishing height within shelter population, New Yorkers are hoping the next mayor elected will provide permanent shelter and resources for families and children in need. The New York Times reports:

The next mayor will have to do better by them than Mr. Bloomberg. He once proposed energetic and aggressive initiatives on behalf of the homeless. Now he speaks of them with resentment: “You can arrive in your private jet at Kennedy Airport,” the mayor said recently, “take a private limousine and go straight to the shelter system and walk in the door and we’ve got to give you shelter.”

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'There Should Be No Poor Among You'

Homeless, Annette Shaff / Shutterstock.com

Homeless, Annette Shaff / Shutterstock.com

There should be no poor among you - Deuteronomy 15:4

This is one of the few commands virtually all religious people easily – even eagerly – follow.

We just do it our own way.

The biblical and cultural context and overriding assumption is that those of us with means should contribute – willingly and without conditions – to those among us who, for whatever reason, are needy.

We are not to judge – or distance ourselves – from those who have little – or cannot pay us back. In fact these are the ones Jesus commands that we – and by extension he – should invite to a banquet (Luke 14:12-14).

But we seem to have ‘no poor among us’ – we do our best to exclude, ignore, or even ban them when we do see them.

Homeless Jesus Sculpture Searches for a Home

Photo courtesy Timothy Schmalz

Peter Larisey seated alongside the Jesus sculpture. Photo courtesy Timothy Schmalz

TORONTO — This homeless Jesus can barely find a home.

Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz notes the ironies in his latest creation, “Jesus the Homeless,” a bronze sculpture depicting the Christian savior huddled beneath a blanket on an actual-size park bench. Only the feet are visible, and their gaping nail wounds reveal the subject.

“If Jesus was watching the streets today,” Schmalz says from his home in St. Jacobs, Ontario, “I think he would want himself represented as one of the most marginalized. That’s what he said in the Gospel.”

Indeed, as Schmalz notes, Jesus calls on his followers to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and tend to the lame. Possibly referring to himself, Jesus says, in the book of Matthew, that “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Be Ready to Be Changed

Flower growing out of crack in asphalt, Elena Elisseeva / Shutterstock.com

Flower growing out of crack in asphalt, Elena Elisseeva / Shutterstock.com

We have a group at our church that does a weekly sandwich ministry together. Though we already had a group that makes sandwiches each week for a local shelter, another team realized some folks don’t go to shelters, and that they might be missing out on a real opportunity to connect with different folks in our community if they didn’t go out to where the people are.

So now, every week, they walk the streets of downtown Portland and hand out upwards of 100 sandwiches. As they’ve met folks who live outside, they’ve identified other needs some have, such as socks, new underwear, rain gear, flashlights, and batteries. Each week, they come back with a list of needs, and each week our congregation helps fill those needs.

To me, this kind of ministry is exemplary of what missional church is about. We don’t simply wait behind the walls for people to come ask for something; we go out, meet people face-to-face and get to know them. Yes, we offer them a meal, but we also share stories, learn a bit of their history, and they come to know that there actually are flesh-and-blood people behind all those steeples and stone facades.

How Will I Know I Have Given Enough?

Man asking for help, Africa Studio / Shutterstock.com

Man asking for help, Africa Studio / Shutterstock.com

As has happened many times after I have given a talk about the Body of Christ’s responsibility to care for their brothers and sisters experiencing impoverished and dehumanizing conditions, I was asked to answerthose questions — the ones in my experience that are always the first to be asked the moment I stop speaking.

“How will I know I have given enough? How does the church balance financial responsibility with service to the poor? Where do we draw the line?”

These questions always come, sometimes spoken in a curious tone by a person whose heart is being convicted, sometimes in an angry accusing tone insinuating I must hate prosperity, sometimes privately as a whisper in my ear or in a personal email filled with insinuations about my sanity. What a preposterous proposal, that the Body of Christ in any particular location should be the first resource to its own community for spiritual, physical, and emotional well being! Don’t I know that such a mission is naïve and impossible to achieve? Most recently it was phrased like this: “I love this idea, but it is difficult to see benevolence funds go towards someone's electric bill when they smell like they smoked five packs of cigs before meeting with us; what do we do?”

To Whom Do They Answer?

Beds in a homeless shelter, Nathan Kresge / Shutterstock.com

Beds in a homeless shelter, Nathan Kresge / Shutterstock.com

During this Holy Week, Christians around the world turn inward to reflect on the mystery and miracle of the death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Those two surpassing events are more than good enough to occupy the mind and heart of every believer. 

But they are not all that Jesus did in these eventful days. As any student of the scriptures will know, Jesus did not go quietly to the cross. Three days before his execution, he stormed the temple and challenged the seat of theocratic power in Jerusalem, condemning the pharisaic elite who "preach, but do not practice" and "tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the people's shoulders." (Matt. 23:3-4) He accused as hypocrites leaders who make token offerings yet "have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness … Inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence." (Matt. 23:23,25)

In his final teaching before the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday began, Jesus embraced those who are oppressed and cautioned his disciples that acts of love and mercy are the measure of a heart touched by grace. "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me … Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." (Matt. 25:35-40)

In honor of the occasion, Congress will close its doors and lawmakers will head home to be with their constituents for the Easter recess. If inside reports are to be trusted, they will leave Washington "armed with excuses" that explain away the latest fiscal fiasco, and the people will have little to say in reply. I pray it isn't so. 

Church and State for the Homeless

Christianity Today reports:

When Kimberly Banks unexpectedly lost her job in 2006 and her job search stretched from weeks to months, she became despondent. Living in a Denver motel, she would frequently wake at 3 A.M. and cry out to God in prayer as her two sons slept soundly nearby. "I was always a woman who said I can take care of my own. There were some nights that I didn't want to keep living because I felt like less than a mother, like my kids were better off somewhere else," Banks recalls. "I didn't know what to do."

But getting involved with Denver's innovative Family and Senior Homeless Initiative (FSHI) changed all of that. Banks was matched with a mentoring team from a local church. They met regularly for financial counseling, support, and encouragement. The church paid the first month's deposit on an apartment and helped her furnish it.


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