One Little moment lets you know the world will be okay.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner
Let me start this story by telling you that I did not witness this, I heard the story from my wife who was there watching over our two and a half year old as this all played out. As we explore our new city we have found, much to Erin’s joy that there are many green spaces with playgrounds that she can run and play at. One even has a water pad with those wonderfully tricky little guizers that gave us all trust issues as kids. More exciting for her is the one that is only two blocks from our house, it is small, but it is appropriately named “Fairview Park” as it gives you an incredible view of Downtown Spokane. Rachel will take both girls there if I am running late after work or if Erin just needs to run around she will leave Alethia with me and take Erin down to swing and slide. Fairview has already become a favorite spot for Erin and our family.
Spokane has a fairly large homeless population, Its climate and accessibility make it the perfect place, similar to Denver Colorado where I served in 2011. We see men and women flying signs and setting up camp underneath bridges as we are driving through. My daughter has never known homelessness, she has lived through two moves, but God has moved us from home to home. Her first encounter with homelessness though, came at Fairview Park. Two young men were camping there, in the far back corner near the fence. Rachel had taken both Erin and Alethia to the park that day since I was late coming home from my sunrise shift at work. When Erin saw the tent and the two young men she did what most people will not. She walked over, under the watchful eye of her mother, stretched out her hand and said: “Hi, I’m Erin, What’s your name?” While Rachel watched for warning signs that never surfaced, Erin chatted and talked with these two homeless men before going back to playing. “You should be so proud of your daughter” Rachel said as she walked in the door and realized I was home. And of course, I am proud of her.
I am proud of her because I have sat on at the entrance to an alleyway with a homeless man flying a sign and have heard some of the things that are shouted by people as they rush by. I have seen the scorn and disdain on the faces of people as they pass by the Panhandler who has had one descent meal that day. My daughter acknowledged the humanity of these two men and asked them their names. It did not matter that they were dirty and had slept in a tent that night, she extended her hand, gave her smile and asked for their given names. She did not brush by them, she was not afraid of them, she wanted to know how they were. To her, they were not just faceless numbers flying signs begging for money, they were humans and while she is too young to understand the Imago Dei, she does not even know what homelessness is, but she has a love and compassion towards people you cannot teach and I hope never gets snuffed out.
Now, I do not pretend to know why these young men were homeless. I can go downtown or look at parts of my own neighborhood and see the Gentrification going on downtown and that helps me understand why Spokane has an increasing homeless population. Rising property values and the population surge are driving up the cost of renting which prices low income families out of the housing and rental markets. That tends to drive homeless numbers up and puts strain on the resources of shelters and charities. This is made even worse by the fact that the current housing market everywhere is, to put it mildly, insane. This factor alone does not create a situation where a person may become homeless, but suffice it to say it is not as simple as: “they are drug users” or “they just need to find jobs and work.” Homelessness is never the cause of one factor or another, it is usually the result of multiple unjust systems working together. Sometimes homelessness is of a person’s doing, but some people try and try and try and never get off the street. That is why organizations like Joshua Station and Family Promise are so important, providing transitional housing and training programs to help people get back on their feet. When I was working in Denver we may have had 3 people in the shelter who were homeless because of mental health, one or two who were there of their making and the rest were there because of the unjust systems that Five Iron Frenzy recently wrote a song about.
Nor is it true that “you should not give a homeless man money because they will just go buy drugs with it.” There are good reasons to give something other than money if you can, hygiene products, food and clothing all rank at the top of the list before you give money. However, it is not true that most homeless men and women will just go buy drugs with any money given them. Before you give those things though, consider giving the thing that is of the utmost importance, dignity. Like Erin, ask their name, get to know them, sit at their feet and hear their story, it will challenge your preconceptions and break your heart, but every conversation is worth it. Treat a person who is homeless, as a person who is homeless, not as something less, an inconvenience, or lazy, they are neither of those things, they are human beings first.
Evangelicals love to talk about “The Dignity of Work” as if it is an essential doctrine of the Bible. While I do believe there is dignity in work, one of the problems with this approach is that it germanely intertwines work with dignity and dignity with agency. I love to work, but my dignity is not attached to my job at UPS or writing for this website. Working is a small part of where I gain dignity from, but it is not the only place I find worth and dignity. Primarily I find it in Christ Jesus, in being made in the Image of God and being reformed into the image of His son. Secondarily my dignity comes from my role as a husband and father of these two amazing little girls God has given me. As whole human beings made up of spirit and body we gain dignity from many different places, not just one. But separate from that dignity we also have Agency, God has given us the ability to work and the ability to do different things, we are fearfully and wonderfully made. But we have to be careful not intertwine dignity and agency which is what we do when we define and dignify each other based on what we do. If you say: “You have dignity because you are _____________” you are attaching a person’s worth to something other than the image of God, to their agency, their ability to provide for themselves A person’s worth and dignity are only slightly attached to what they do, their primary worth and dignity comes from being made in the image of God. Nor is there a “hierarchy of Dignity” that says the person who provides the jobs or has all the money has more dignity and worth than the homeless man he passes on the street every day. Even though our society sees our contributions as what gives us inherent worth, let me remind you that Jesus does not. In the Kingdom of God, that is, within the Church, the redeemed people of God, washed in the blood of the lamb, the exact opposite is true. The Rich man struggles to enter the kingdom because he has no understanding of how great his need is while the poor man who knows nothing but need enters first. It is upside down and backwards, just as Zechariah and Mary prophesied it would be in Luke 1-2. In the Kingdom of God, we all have the same worth and dignity, but the undervalued of the Kingdom get in before the rich ma. Or more accurately, the poor man is exalted while the rich man is humbled, the humbled man is lifted up while the proud man is brought low. If it does not happen in this life, it will certainly happen in eternity.
We need to unhitch the separate ideas of Dignity and Agency. A persons dignity is not primarily defined by their agency. Instead, we need to learn to see the homeless we encounter everyday as the greatest among us. There is a reason that James tells us in 1:27 that: “Religion that is pure and true is caring for the widows and orphans and keeping oneself unstained by the world.” It is because in God’s Kingdom the Widow and the Orphan, or the Immigrant and Refugee, or the Homeless or Disabled, they are the greatest, they are the ones God has lifted up and we should too. A person gains both their dignity and their agency from being created in the image of God, but also keep in mind that the agency of the believer is not found within the believer themselves, it comes from outside the believer from God the Father, it is part of our creation, part of being knitted together in the womb of our mothers. We should thus work to uphold both dignity and agency in people’s lives
I say that as I also think about the fact that sometimes God gives us the ability to bless others with agency of their own. A Christian who owns a business gives his employees agency, but you also give a person agency when you help build a bridge out of poverty for a low-income family. Again, the agency the business owner gives is not from him, but from God, God has blessed the business owner with the ability to hire employees. Business owners then should walk in humility, knowing that nothing they have has come from themselves, but from the hand of God who sustains all and when those blessings are used to curse others or provide comfort for the owner at the expense of the poor they can be removed by God. Everything God has given is to be used to bless those around us as we are able. We take on the call of Israel to be a light to the nations and one way we do that by caring for the poor among us. James will go on to say that if we acknowledge the orphan and the widow but send them on their way without helping them (merely saying: “Be warmed and fed.” we have not done what the life of faith demands of us. We can have all the right doctrine in the world, know Nicea and Chalcedon and say the Creeds and miss heaven because we do not have right practice that stems from a relationship with Christ. If we are the continuation of Christ’s presence on Earth, then we are the continuation of Christ’s mission on Earth, meaning we are still to “Open the eyes of the blind, proclaim freedom for the oppressed and declare the day of the Lord’s favor.” If we are negligent in this twofold calling knowing Jesus and being Jesus, then God spits us out of his mouth. It is a hard truth, but it is the truth.
Now, my two-year old understands none of this, but her interaction with the two homeless men at Fairview Park is a reminder to us all that dignity starts at the throne of God, and is more easily seen through the eyes of a child than those of us who have been in Christ for decades. Perhaps this is one glimpse of where the Children lead us, where the most humble elevate the other most humble. Perhaps Erin saw Christ in these two men, perhaps she just likes to make friends. Whatever was going on in her mind, I know what Erin saw and it is something we all need to see more often.