When I went to the national United Methodist Association of Communicators annual meeting in Albuquerque in mid-October, I didn’t expect a spiritual challenge. I looked forward to greeting colleagues from across the country, to learn new communication techniques, to do networking and to absorb the local culture.
My enjoyment was interrupted during the first session by a short young clergywoman who spoke as our keynoter. She took Jesus literally by selling all her possessions and by becoming homeless to minister to the homeless of San Antonio, Texas. She is now in her eighth month of this appointment made by Southwest Texas Bishop James Dorff at her request.
You may have heard about her, the Rev. Lorenza Andrade-Smith, who gained attention when she was arrested earlier this year in the office of U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson in San Antonio, protesting on behalf of immigrant young adults who were brought as children to this country by their parents entering illegally. The bill she was supporting is known as the DREAM Act now shelved by Congress. See Andrade-Smith's story.
While in jail, she saw life through a different perspective and felt God’s call to a unique and sometimes dangerous ministry to the poor, to street people, to homeless residents.
Through her witness and personal stories during the next few days, I heard a perspective of life foreign to me. The question that haunted me most was: “Does the church reflect all the people of the community?”
As we head toward the cold of winter, many of our congregations will be offering a warm bed, meals and fellowship. Some will even offering large Thanksgiving dinners and hand out presents at Christmas during another special meal. All this is good, but does our community of faith reach out to include homeless residents into our fellowships?
We are so accustomed to doing ministry to homeless residents, doing ministry with them is quite different.
I and the other communicators said good-bye to Lorenza as she climbed aboard a midnight bus back to San Antonio, carrying all her possession in two small cases on wheels. But her message continued to replay in my mind. What are we doing for homeless residents as children of God and our brothers and sisters, remembering Jesus was homeless and ministered to many homeless, as well as challenged the comfortable with their many possessions?
Remember in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus said to the young righteous man with possessions who was searching for Jesus’ spirituality, “There is still one thing you haven’t done. Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). That’s Lorenza, who now walks the streets of San Antonio, who ministers to homeless men, women and children praying with them, baptizing them, serving them Holy Communion – being their pastor.
Lorenza challenged my understanding of the homeless and how we, as the church, can minister to and with them.
Returning home, I began to understand “the homeless” in Indiana through experience and by searching known facts. Through Meridian Street Church in Indianapolis, I have experienced the Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN) and Soup’s On (Sunday meals) at Roberts Park Church in downtown Indianapolis.
Many Hoosier United Methodist congregations reach out to homeless residents through IHN in Indianapolis, Lafayette, Goshen and Fort Wayne. Bloomington First participates weekly from November through March in an Interfaith Winter Shelter. South Bend reaches out through a Center for Homelessness. The South Bend cluster of Clay, First, Grace and Northwest churches plan to open a new winter shelter for homeless residents to make up for a shortfall of available spaces during the winter. There also are nearly 150 shelter ministries across Indiana to men, women, youth and families known to United Methodists.
But the recession is swelling the numbers of homeless people, a number that’s very difficult to capture in the first place. According to government statistics, there are an estimated 29,000 homeless residents in Indiana. One fourth of these are children under 18. The average age of homeless children is 9. The number of homeless residents is growing rapidly. Most figures are of homeless residents in shelters or actually counted on the streets, but actually numbers are probably higher because homeless people live in hundreds of locations across any city; many are hidden.
The Indiana University Public Policy Institute in April of this year published an extensive report about the homeless population in Indianapolis. It reports that during the course of a year, it is estimated that between 4,500 and 7,500 individuals will experience homelessness in Indianapolis. Again one-fourth of those individuals are children. One third are part of a homeless family. One sixth are individual children under the age of 18. One in five are veterans. Fewer and fewer are employed and homeless.
Reports show governments try to “control” homelessness by criminalizing it through vagrancy or loitering laws. From time-to-time, city governments will destroy the “living quarters” of homeless residents that are too public. This is only a temporary and harassing remedy. City governments have more success when they work with non-profits, like the church, to work with homeless residents helping them find a place to live.
We need to understand homelessness is largely temporary for many and caused by loss of employment, chronic illness, loss of employability which leads to loss of permanent residency forcing individuals and families literally to the streets, living in cars or under bridges. The aching question returns. Who is their pastor? Where is their church?
If we are serious about making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, we can begin by ministering to the needs of homeless residents, especially with the oncoming winter months.
We don’t need to go to the extreme Lorenza has been called to serve, but we can listen to Lorenza and others in street ministries to see how we can answer Jesus’ call to minister to the poor.
– Daniel R. Gangler