by Cranford Joseph Coulter
Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (Luke 12:27)
Idelight in daylilies. We have about a half dozen varieties in our backyard. They are so amazing! They produce enormous, brilliantly colored blossoms. Each blossom is a work of art superior to any likeness an artist could ever produce. Then it’s gone in a day.
Anyone who walks with me into our backyard while any of these lilies is blooming will hear me say: “Consider today’s lily!” The daylily blossom is a reminder of God’s great care for us. He made them beautiful for us to enjoy. He made them to wither in a day to be replaced by another blossom as uniquely beautiful as the last in order to illustrate his abundant provision for us. They also instruct us as to the urgency of doing what is good today.
The passage goes on:
But if God so clothes the grass which is alive in the field today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O men of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well. Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Luke 12:28-34)
Jesus is telling us that giving alms is a more secure investment than the stock market. It is not an investment for your old age, but for what comes after that, or could come at any time. But, by the same token, God is promising that if we truly obey Him in almsgiving by faith, we will always have what we need in this life as well: “and all these things shall be added unto you.”
The idea that giving to the poor is giving to God is all through the Scripture. In Proverbs it even says that God will repay with interest. Just read Proverbs 19:17. Banks fail. Stock markets crash. The Lord is steadfast forever!
In none of these passages is there a mention of giving only to those poor who are deserving or worthy or poor through no fault of their own. No. Giving alms is a mercy. What is mercy? It is when one is spared the negative consequences of one’s misbehavior. The poor are not presumed to be innocent, nor are we to judge them to be guilty. When we are confronted by them, we are given an opportunity to respond as we would hope God will respond to us in our poverty. It is the tender mercies of God that lead men to repentance. (Romans 2:4) When you give alms to a sinner in Jesus’ Name, you are making an investment for both his and your future in the Kingdom of God.
The problem of homelessness is embarrassing and puzzling. In American cities, it became a widespread phenomenon in the late 1970s and early 1980s. More recently it has spread to Europe. There are varying and conflicting theories as to the causes of homelessness. Some blame homeless people themselves for bad lifestyle or other choices. Others blame the system that has eliminated lower standard, cheaper housing, while not increasing minimum wage or assistance. There is truth and error in both approaches, but I don’t find the usual discussion particularly edifying or fruitful. The research is scant and largely flawed.
We don’t have a good handle on even how many homeless people there are, much less how they got there. Many homeless people will deny that they are homeless, either because of the shame that has been attached to homelessness or because they are in denial of their situation and see it as very temporary. The only real cause of homelessness is sin and there’s plenty of that to go around to all concerned. Sin, according to Jesus Christ, is falling short of perfect love. To fulfill the whole Law, we need to love the Lord with all of our hearts and our neighbor as ourselves. So whether it is the particular sin of a system that is willing to treat labor as a commodity that can be manipulated and controlled so as to make people work at wages that are lower than what they can live on; or the particular sin of laziness; it starts from a failure to love.
I started The King’s Jubilee in 1989, having been sent to assist urban churches to minister to the homeless and poor by the inmates in the Bible studies I led in State Correctional Institution Graterford. It is called The King’s Jubilee, as its mission is to call the Christians who have benefitted by white flight from the city to let some of that wealth flow back to assist those left behind, doing this in Jesus’ Name. At the core of our ministry is serving a hearty meal once each week to 75 to 150 homeless people on the street in Philadelphia’s center city. We have been catalysts to start other ministries to the poor in seven towns and cities from Pennsylvania to South Carolina, that were adopted and continued by local churches.
Every human being starts life with a wonderful potential and hope. Each person is a unique, unrepeatable reflection of the glory of God, made in his image. Each person we meet uniquely reflects the glory of God, whether he is homeless, addicted, in prison or singing next to you in choir. Each person was once a beautiful baby in someone’s arms. God loves each one we meet and sees something in each one of us that is worthy of redemption. It is not God’s will that anyone be thrown away. I suggest to all of our volunteers to use this simple prayer: “Lord let me see what it is that you love about each person I meet.” It is a powerful prayer.
Let me tell you about some of my friends from the street.
I will start with Oscar. I met Oscar years ago. He didn’t fit the stereotypical expectations of a homeless person. He was a white guy of about 45. He enjoyed talking about philosophy, history, art and music. He always made it a point to stay and thank us. He had an easygoing manner, a twinkle in his eye and a wry wit. We would see him regularly for a while, then he would miss a couple of weeks.
One time Oscar returned just as we were handing out clothes that had been intended for hurricane victims in Florida but had arrived too late. The truck had left without these particular bags. It turned out that some of the church people who had donated the clothing had tucked money into the pockets, knowing that the hurricane victims badly needed cash. There was a corduroy sport coat with suede patches on the pockets in one of the bags. When the guys pulled it out of the bag, they made fun of it, but Oscar grabbed it and said, “Hey. I’m not proud. It may not be stylish, but it’s warm for the cool fall evenings.”
Later that night he found $50 cash in one of the pockets and later came back to tell us the story and to thank us. He said he wished he could tell us that he spent it wisely, but he went on a three day drunk. I told him that I was glad he found the money and that he was free to use it as he pleased. If it eased his pain for a few days, well, praise God. God commands me to not condemn Oscar, but to show mercy. And I cannot help but to remember him fondly and hope and pray to see his face again one day, though it won’t be in this world. He didn’t make it to 50. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “We need to relate to people less according to what they do or omit to do, and more according to what they have suffered.”
Tyrone was more your typical young black homeless man. I had seen him in the Philadelphia prison system, before we met on the street. When I saw him on the street I said, “I’m glad to see you in the land of the living, but sorry you are in need of our service.” He wanted to talk about the Lord, so we did. This was during the time when crack and crack violence was very big on the streets. One night a fight broke out between two of the folks we served. Immediately Tyrone and a dozen others formed a human chain barricade between those of us serving and the fight. Others went in to restrain those fighting. One of the brawlers had broken a glass bottle and was trying to cut the other with it. The men around us hollered at them: “Take this away from here. This is not these people’s fight.”
After the fight was broken up, many of them apologized to us. They were amazed when they saw us back there the next week. Tyrone asked us why we came back. I told him that God doesn’t give up on me when I misbehave. He still reaches out in love to save me. God’s love compels me to be here. I thanked him and the others for their bravery to stand in harm’s way to protect us.
Let me tell you about a volunteer, Nanci, who had come a few times to help us in Philadelphia and wanted to do something similar in Pottstown, where she lived. She asked if we could help her start something. I told her that I would be glad to help her find an appropriate way to serve the poor in Pottstown in Jesus’ Name. But I told her that it might not look just like what we do in Philadelphia.
To find out what was needed in Pottstown, I spent two weeks in Pottstown. I interviewed the various social service agencies that were serving the poor, the churches that offered free dinners, etc. At different hours, early and late, I went to see who was hanging out where. I talked to the people I knew in the house churches there. I asked the prison inmates who came from Pottstown what was needed. I also discovered that there was a sizable population of homeless teens, kids who were very secretive out of fear of being incarcerated or returned to abusive homes. In the end I learned that the only day there wasn’t some kind of free food available in Pottstown was Wednesday and that this was a real problem for quite a few people, young and old. We also found that there were two main sites at which to serve food, especially emphasizing children’s needs, along with a drop-off location to give clothes, food and toiletries to the teens.
Nanci and I approached her church and recruited more volunteers. Within a week, we had a full crew, including some sandwich makers, an occasional soup maker, and two drivers with vehicles. The next week, we did a trial run in an empty lot in Pottstown and on the street in the project in Stowe. We served beanie-weanie, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and fruit drink. We served over 100 people, mostly children, and left the leftovers for the teens to pick up. It went well. The people were grateful. There were a lot of kids. Nanci took it on and served every Wednesday night from then on.
There were times she panicked. There were times when Nanci would call me the next day, Thursday, saying, “I am all out of peanut butter. What am I going to do for next week?” I would say: “We don’t need peanut butter for another six days. ‘Be anxious for nothing.’ God will provide.” The next time Nanci ran out of peanut butter, she waited until Friday to call me. We had a similar conversation. God always provided.
I reminded Nanci that it wasn’t her problem – it was God’s. “It is acceptable according to what a man has, not what he has not.” If she didn’t have peanut butter, it was because God was providing something better for the children that week.
Nanci got better with this, until she wouldn’t call me until Tuesday morning if she was out of something. Then one week I got a call on Thursday morning. Nanci said, “I had to call you. Last night as I was on my way to serve the people, I was worried, because I had used the last of the peanut butter. I knew I was wrong to worry, so I asked God to please supply more. Well, when I got home, I couldn’t get into my apartment, because the entire front step was covered with jars and cans of peanut butter! O me of little faith!” She continued to serve every Wednesday until she passed away of a heart attack at age 50. May her memory be eternal!
Her story includes some important lessons as to how to start a ministry. I will try to flesh this out a bit. I have a basic philosophy stated in a personal motto: If I can’t do it in Jesus’ Name, I don’t have time to do it. Our ministry never solicits government funds or accepts money from any other agency that would restrict our freedom to share our faith in Jesus Christ.
A lesson learned: If you want to have staying power, leave the idealism behind. The first sin I confessed to my priest when I became Orthodox was the sin of idealism. At the time I was talking about disputes over the causes of homelessness. Homelessness is embarrassing to an affluent society. It is easy to develop a theory as to the cause and assign blame, then say, “If we only did thus and such, we could solve the problem.” I have come to see idealism as a form of idolatry, because it substitutes something less than the love of God as a solution for a problem. Idealism expects certain, quantifiable results. It sees social ills as problems that need to be solved instead of diseases that need to be healed. It is always saying “if only.” But poverty and homelessness cannot be solved. There is no simple “if only” that will fix this problem. I have seen too many people burn out in ministry among the poor because they were motivated by idealism. Invariably, they were disillusioned. Their “if only’s” either didn’t work or could never be implemented.
I am not hopeless. I believe that it’s possible for homelessness to end or at least become much less common. The high tide of homelessness we’re having is a recent phenomenon and we should not expect it to go on indefinitely. But it is a complex disease caused by sin. The cure is simple to state, but humanly impossible to orchestrate. Let go of idealism, but trust and obey God. Don’t work to end homelessness. Just serve the poor in Jesus’ Name. In so doing you will help end homelessness.
Homelessness is not houselessness. It is a lack of a home. Houselessness is a symptom or result of a lack of a home. We have been hearing about the alienation of the modern age for the last several decades, along with increasing divorce rates, and more single-parent households. We live in an increasingly depersonalized society. The television replaces dinner conversation and supplants personal contact in many homes. We can order everything we need over our computer. We don’t need to talk to a human being to pay for groceries or gas. We have used technology to isolate ourselves, because we increasingly see those around us as people to be feared and avoided. Both capitalism and socialism treat people as a commodity or resource of more or less interchangeable parts, denying the Christian perspective of the unique, intrinsic value of every human being. Add to that the volatility of technological change and globalization and we have a recipe for disaster.
Both capitalism and socialism are idealisms that are variations on materialism and are antithetical to love. (I happen to think socialism is the more redeemable economic system of the two, but that is because I grew up in Minnesota and saw Christian socialism at its best.)
Just look at police dramas on TV. They teach us that there are a lot of evil people out there who need to be thrown away – most of them young, black men. By the nature of our economic systems and technologies that have reduced the need for manual labor, we don’t need so many people to keep the rich in their castles. We also have developed an intolerance for people who are odd. We used to make room for oddballs and the out-of-step, allowing them a place in our world.
Divorce has become common and easy. It is no big thing to throw a spouse out of the picture. Why can’t I just walk away from a brother or sister who is difficult or messy, or from a mom or dad who is needy, or from a son or daughter who has issues? Don’t I deserve to be happy? Life will be so much easier without them.
The most important element of the cure for homelessness is to love God – and let God help you to love your family. Be a home-builder. Be the ounce of prevention. Then love your neighbor. We know an 83-year-old woman living on the streets the last few months. She never had children. Why were there no neighbors to take her in? That’s the way it used to be done. She would be someone’s Aunt Margaret and live in Bobby’s old room. This is not a radical concept.
How to get involved? According to Ephesians 2:10, God has prepared good works for us to do. The best way I know to find what is right for you is to go out and do something. Do anything good. Don’t expect God to lead you into the ministry that is right for you if you aren’t doing anything now. Have you ever tried to steer a parked car? It is next to impossible and fairly pointless. So get out and volunteer doing some good works in Jesus’ Name. Do it as soon as you can, while the dew is still on today’s lily. You will be amazed at how God leads you to what is right for you.
Cranford Joseph Coulter directs The King’s Jubilee, a ministry among the poor and homeless in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He owns “Come and See” Icons, Books & Art. He and his wife, Bethann, live in Souderton, where they attend St. Philip Antiochian Orthodox Church with their four daughters, two sons-in-law and five grandchildren. He is webmaster for comeandseeicons.com, shoutforjoy.net and www.orthodoxdelmar.org.
From the Pascha / Spring 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 49