As I walk in downtown Lynchburg, sipping my café mocha, an old man comes toward me. He is dressed in rags and pushing a bicycle with two flat tires. I turn to my friend and say something irrelevant in order to drown out his pleadings for spare change and avert my eyes from meeting his desperate stare.
Later, I’m sitting at home and I realize that I have blatantly ignored one of the “least of these.” Just because he is not little and cute like the children that are so easy for me to have compassion upon, I pass him by. Completely failing to see the image of God within his old, worn-out soul. Neglecting to offer any assistance, to share the love of Christ or in any other way offer the hope that is within me.
The homeless. I would like to say that I have not forgotten the conversations with the homeless men I met in Penn Station while in New York City a few years ago. However, even those conversations that first put a face to the term “homeless” have been put aside. I no longer walk the streets of Boston, where those faces confront me on every corner. I’ve spent the past three years living in Lynchburg, nestled safely in an environment that has been created to give my parents ease of mind and in an attempt to nurture spiritual growth.
Yet this existence within my safe, middle class college campus has resulted in the dirty, the destitute, the desperate and the dying becoming a faceless mass in my mind. It seems to be a common plight within the Western church. If it is not personal, if it does not invade our minds, it is simply too easy to ignore.
Like most suburban cities, Lynchburg is good at hiding its homeless. Unless one meanders downtown after dark, it is easy to go all four years of college without ever encountering a homeless person, let alone engaging them in a conversation. That does not mean that Lynchburg lacks a homeless population. On the contrary, Lynchburg’s homeless population has grown by 66 percent in the last year. According to the Homeless and Housing Coalition, there were 192 homeless persons in 2005. The number has increased to 289 in 2006. These numbers are small in comparison with neighboring Washington, D.C., which included 5,500 persons making up 1,700 families in 2005, as reported by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. This is excluding singles, which generally make up a much larger, though more difficult to count, demographic.
The most common cause of homelessness is extreme poverty. For homeless singles, their living condition is often brought upon by a severe battle with alcohol and drug addiction. Within homeless families, there seems to be a direct correlation between their living condition and the responsibility of Christians. Single mothers head most homeless families and only half of the parents in homeless families have a high school diploma or equivalent. These parents are also much more likely to have grown up in foster care or had a parent with addiction problems than parents of housed families, according to the NAEH. Within our nation, these are the distressed widows and orphans that we are commanded to look after in James 1:27.
Children who have grown up homeless are less likely to receive a quality education, as is the case with impoverished children throughout the world. The lack of an education results in low-income jobs. Low-income jobs result in the inability to afford housing. It is a cycle in need of immediate attention.
The majority of American evangelical Christians identify themselves among the conservative right in political matters. Conservatives are generally not in favor of big social spending by the government. And rightly so, it is not the responsibility of the government to provide care for the destitute. The responsibility clearly belongs to the church. Not the church as a generic term, but the church as in you, as in me. The responsibility is entirely ours.
The NAEH does report that shelters and aid offered to the homeless is provided almost entirely by faith-based and other not-for-profit organizations. Lynchburg shelter directors told ABC Channel 13 News that, despite their best efforts, they still lacked the supplies needed to care for the homeless. Throughout the summer, shelters were at capacity with long waiting lists, an occurrence that is usually limited to the cold winter months. This is evidence of both an increase in the homeless population and a decrease in funds. It is obvious that we must do more.
There are plenty of opportunities available. The local chapter of United Way has a complete listing of homeless shelters in the area. Our own Christian Service office also works with Miriam’s House and the Gateway program. Encourage your church to become involved. Be an advocate of affordable housing, and especially for the education of the next generation. I also recommendreading the book “Under the Overpass” by Mike Yankoski, a college student who took a semester off to live on the streets and examine his faith. Most importantly, see the image of God in all men. Do not turn away from those in need -- what you do unto them, you do unto Christ.
Contact Hilary Dyer at firstname.lastname@example.org