This week I found myself reading many articles about homelessness, both local and national. Some were political, about what we can do as a country or city for those living outside. Some were more relational, people’s stories about their work with folks on the street, or their relationship with one of them. Some of them I agreed with, and some of them I shook my head in disgust at. But as I was sitting here today, I thought back to all of them and realized that almost all of them had something in common.
Most of them talked ABOUT those living outside. Almost none of them talked WITH those living outside.
The people I talk with on a weekly basis who live on the street tell me this often. They feel like objects, not subjects. They feel like numbers, and not people. They feel like problems in the city, not citizens. Much of the work that seeks to end homelessness and poverty, both on a government level and within charitable organizations, does not include the voices of those in poverty or living outside as they plan their programs and projects.
And this is not surprising in our society, where the fault of houselessness is placed squarely on those who are houseless. Since they were not able enough to keep themselves off of the street, our social myth goes, then they need our help to get off of the street. If they would just work harder, they would not be there, so we have to help them get a better work ethic. The other side of the same coin. As long as this story is told by our society, those living outside will be seen as objects.
And sadly, the church has often bought into this. Folks in churches make brief forays outside their comfortable middle-class lives to serve people on the street. They load up with supplies, food, and big smiles, and spend a few hours doing what they can to help people. Most of these folks are good people, trying to follow Jesus in their context. But they don’t always see that much of the church’s “mission” work among the poor treats the poor like objects, and buys into this social myth. It assumes what people need, rather than asking them. It seeks to do things “for,” rather than “with.” I know, because I have been guilty of this as well.
So what can the church do? The church needs to be present, not just make brief trips outside it’s middle class enclave to serve people. The church needs to listen to those living in poverty in it’s community, not just do things for them. The church needs to see people living outside as neighbors, not just people who need help. The church needs to see people as human beings made in the image of God, regardless of mistakes they have made or how they ended up on the street or in poverty. And the church needs to refuse to see any person as an object.
Because to followers of Christ, no human being is an object.