Friday, December 20, 2013

Homeless Jesus

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"And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn." (Luke 2:7)

In less than a week, we will celebrate the birth of a homeless savior.

To be fair, only Luke's gospel places the birth of Jesus in a borrowed barn, and that only because his parents were traveling in a town with inadequate hotel facilities at the time of the blessed event. It is the life of Jesus once he began his ministry that is rootless, roofless, without any fixed address, a traveling man relying upon the kindness of strangers for shelter.

I once got in hot water for describing Jesus as "homeless" at a men's prayer breakfast. It was 22 years ago, and one of the men hearing me speak was deeply offended by the thought. It could just have been that one man; after all, many churches operate soup kitchens, food pantries, and shelters for the homeless, and pastors' emergency funds are frequently tapped to help homeless persons with meals, motel rooms, and gas money. And yet, I have frequently encountered discomfort from church people around the issue of homelessness, particularly when it comes to begging.

And now comes the confession: last night, I partially blew off a homeless man asking me for money.

I was waiting for Amy just inside the door of a sushi restaurant in Beaverton when I saw a man waving to me through the door. I didn't recognize him, but he was acting as if he recognized me. I opened the door to find out what was going on, and he seized and vigorously shook my hand. Then he made me to understand--I think he was Korean, and didn't speak much English--that he was hungry, and wanted some money for a meal. Caught in an uncomfortable spot, I pulled out my wallet and gave him two dollar bills. He asked for another; I said, "No," put up my hand in a "Stop" gesture, and closed the door firmly. He walked away, discouragement on his face. I spent the rest of the evening, and much of today, questioning why I wouldn't give him another dollar.

The truth is that panhandlers make me uncomfortable. I know I'm hardly alone in this regard. I've never been an easy touch; frequently I question their motives, thinking they'll probably spend anything I give them on drugs, alcohol, or tobacco; and really, there have been many times in my life when I didn't have a lot off cash to spare, and what I have is earmarked--typically for something I could do without.

When I've acted in this way, ignoring or rejecting a panhandler, I frequently find myself reminded of Jesus' admonishment in Matthew 25:  "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me...just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." There have been many times I have turned away from "the least of these," street people looking for a meal, a room, a tank of gas; and as the man says, when I withhold mercy from the poor, I reject Jesus.

Christmas morning, I will be serving meals to poor people at Amy's temple. This will be my third year doing this. It's a moving experience for a lot of reasons. Most of the people are polite and grateful for our efforts. Many have health problems. And some have other problems, and can be difficult to serve. These are the ones that I try the hardest to see Jesus in. It's rewarding, and I feel like I'm making a difference--but it's just one day a year.

My friend Pat Schwiebert, on the other hand, works with these people several days a week, all year long. She has a passion for serving the homeless through meals and other work she performs at the Sunnyside United Methodist Church. Every Friday night, she cuts their hair. She and her husband John frequently employ them to do work around the Peace House. They come closer than anyone else I have ever known to modeling their lives on the ideal expressed in Matthew 25: to care for all those society has marginalized, for that is where one is most likely to meet Jesus.

I do take comfort in the work I am doing now at Scott Elementary School, and, beginning in February, at Hartley Elementary School. Some of the children I work with are probably homeless, in the sense that they are living in the home of a relative or friend of their parents, who are between homes. I don't think any are living in cars. They have many emotional and behavioral issues, and teaching them is challenging. They also express their gratitude for what I do every day with smiles, waves, high-fives, and hugs. I get a real sense of meeting Jesus when I find myself smothered by a kindergarten puppy pile.

I'll close out this meditation on homelessness with a news story reported in the Huffington Post two years ago, and followed up recently in Slate Magazine: there is one state that is solving its homeless problem in the most effective, literal way possible, by giving homeless people homes. It's an approach I've heard about before on NPR, and the science behind it is excellent: putting homeless people in apartments with social workers saves a good deal of money compared to having to care for them in emergency rooms and free clinics. Over time, they're able to reconstruct their lives and, eventually, to recover from whatever put them out on the streets in the first place. And the state that is doing this groundbreaking work, eliminating homelessness in this amazing progressive way, is: Utah.

I saw that, read it, reread it, and every time was stunned by this information--and then embarrassed. Utah, as red a state as exists in the western United States, is overcoming the traditional conservative distaste for giving services to the poor to give them what they need the most, and it's working. Meanwhile, Portland, a city that is a synonym for left-wing politics, has more and more people sleeping on its streets.

Think about that, Portlandians. Think about the many living in the cold wetness of a Northwest winter, for whom shelter would make all the difference. That's Jesus in that sleeping bag, atop a cardboard mattress under the bridge.

Isn't it about time, after two thousand years of wandering, that we got Jesus an apartment?

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