A friend recently told me that my message of working on housing as the first goal, avoiding a focus on sobriety first as a necessary step in order to access housing, and a very secular approach to addressing homelessness was not met favorably by some leaders within large faith-based homeless-focused ministries.
I am a little troubled by that given I have very positive relations with a lot of faith-based groups that offer services and housing to homeless and formerly homeless persons. It got me thinking about what the distinctions are between various groups that do what they do in the name of Jesus Christ (same guy, I think, with different interpretations of who He was and what He wants of humanity) and why some faith-based groups would welcome my message and others feel threatened by it. [As an aside, I am well aware that other faith groups are involved in ending homelessness, but I see greater variation within Christ-followers.]
In July I had the chance to hear John of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions speak at the National Alliance to End Homelessness conference, and I also spoke with him one on one. In a transformational speech he gave at the conference, he remarked that 81% of Gospel Rescue Missions no longer require prayer prior to service. After I tweeted such a remark enthusiastically in my conference summary, several people chimed in that this relates to food service, not a bed. Others simply stated based upon their community’s Gospel Rescue Mission this could not be true. Others still (for example, some places in Oklahoma) wanted me to know that I may be relaying messages of change, but I should know with certainty that the Gospel Rescue Mission in their community speaks with venom when they state my name. [I appreciate I am provocative, but that doesn’t mean I am anti-Christian.]
This all got me thinking (again) about the interface between religion and service delivery in ending homelessness. This is not a blog directed to Rescue Missions, but I would encourage them to read it – along with the litany of inter-faith and ecumenical organizations that rally together in community after community to provide services and supports in their places of worship.
Here are the nine questions I came up with for faith-based groups involved in providing services to homeless people:
- Do you label evidence of what works in ending homelessness as “secular” or “worldly” and tell your staff and service participants to avoid it or dismiss what the evidence suggests as being evil or incompatible with your Gospel mission/central teachings/doctrine?
I am not going to suggest rightness or wrongness or enter into a debate on science versus beliefs. I only ask that organizations be transparent to let service participants know one way or the other in the same way, for example, a school district may be transparent on teaching evolution or creationism.
- Does anything that your organization does divide up people into “us” and “them” and suggest that “us” is better than “them” whether that be in the herelife or afterlife?
The experience of homelessness is fluid and the experience of homeless people in using services is even more fluid. Divisions within the fluidity can be difficult to navigate. If there is a side that you are asking people to choose, be clear what it is and what the consequences are of choosing or not choosing that side.
- Do you try to change the behavior of each person that encounters your programs and focus on modification of behavior of each person with checklists, dos and do not’s, rules and reasons for becoming excluded or falling out of favor with your organization if they do not meet these expectations – in order to please God (or any other Deity)?
Behavior modification happens in loads of organizations, not just faith-based organizations. I have seen government funded and even operated programs that attempt behavior modification. What is different is whether there are rules for inclusion and exclusion. If a person does not subscribe to your beliefs and expected behaviors can they still get service from your organization or are they kicked out? That is the real question.
- Do you see the weakness of the human condition as an affront to God that must be repressed and eradicated?
As a remarkably imperfect person myself, I want to hope and believe that God’s love is unconditional. But people with circumstances that may be characterized as worse/more severe than my own exist in society, including within the homeless population. There are serious questions to be answered in the difference between supports and efforts and social control; options to make improvements versus disdain for “sinful” attributes and behaviors.
- Do participants in your programs have to pin all of their hopes, dreams and aspirations on the afterlife – or are they allowed to (and encouraged) to live in the here and now?
There is nothing wrong or improper about a belief in an afterlife, except when it unduly influences how homeless people are treated in the current day-to-day life. If I don’t get a meal or a bed or access to a case manager because I am deemed a sinner than needs to repent in order to achieve an acceptable afterlife, how does that address my needs in the here and now if I am not in a place psychologically or spiritually to address that right now?
- Do service participants have to surrender themselves to God – and are you the vehicle for which that surrender should occur?
Submission is a concept that has existed in various cultures for millennia. Participants may choose to make this surrender. The question is whether they must do so, and if doing so has particular pecuniary or other interests specific to your organization that should be made known to the person prior to surrender.
- Do people have to worship/pray to receive services in your organization or can they abstain?
If you offer shelter or food or access to basic needs – and likely you do – there is a matter of whether people must share your beliefs in order to access those things – or at least put themselves in the presence of it. Or can they choose not to share your beliefs and still access those basic human needs?
Or perhaps you are of the ilk that provides tiers of services based upon the extent to which you believe? For example, a bed is reserved for those that believe – a bed may be available for non-believers on a first come, first served basis.
- Do you suggest certain behaviors or attributes are sinful because of your interpretation of the bible/scripture or because of doctrine within your religion – to the detriment of the people you try hard to serve?
I admit this one sounds much more judgmental than the others, but I bring it up because these sorts of interpretations of scripture abound and have serious consequences on whether people get access to service. In some small to medium sized communities where a faith-based organization is the only shelter service, for example, I have encountered gay and lesbian people living outside because they were not welcome in the shelter – even though they wanted shelter – unless they admitted they were a sinner because of their sexual preference and sought redemption. In other places, I have encountered large youth serving organizations that do not provide or allow service participants to have access to condoms because they believe premarital sex is such an affront to God that abstinence is all that is preached – even when they have full knowledge that service participants are engaged in sex whether through relationships or transactions with customers.
- Are you serving homeless people, or are you trying to increase the size of your congregation – or both?
Evangelization is a huge part of many faith groups. People in society have free will, generally, to choose affiliation and participation. A free society in a democracy (not a theocracy) can continue to do so. The bigger question is the appropriateness of requirements of affiliation, conversion, baptism, etc. in order to receive services. When an organization makes membership and participation mandatory in order to get access to basic human needs like housing or food, it becomes coercive. It requires a (perhaps) downtrodden or broken spirit to enter into an unequal power dynamic in order to get out of homelessness. The central feature of these relationships is that they are either based upon retribution (“If you don’t repent, you will never enter the Kingdom of God – and you will not get services now either”) or reciprocity (“If I provide this essential thing for you, you need to show up at worship and go to Bible Study for me). Unfortunately, while both of these approaches may come from a well-intentioned place, they are nowhere near as effective as a reasoning approach to service delivery, which uses facts, appeals to personal values, respects personal goals, and realizes that people are in different stages of change on a fairly regular basis.
I share these thoughts because they are the burning questions is hundreds of communities if we are serious about wanting to end homelessness. I present them to start dialogue within your community. I make no claims to be above reproach for I am considerably flawed and an extraordinary sinner. But if redemption or submission were required in order to receive service in many of the communities I travel to, I can assure you that I, too, would be homeless in your community.