Give Me Shelter

Oh, a storm is threat'ning
My very life today
If I don't get some shelter
Oh yeah, I'm gonna fade away.

So begins “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones – a classic Vietnam era song that reminded us that war is just a shot a way and love is as close as a kiss.

Shelter is a thing that most of us take for granted, but the word itself implies vulnerability. On a basic level we seek shelter from the elements. On a deeper level, perhaps a primal level, shelter means protection from harm. Whether it be from bombs or abuse, seeking shelter is a basic survival instinct.

Talking about hospitality, particularly hospitality from a Biblical perspective, flips the conversation from seeking shelter to offering shelter. Now we can talk about the metaphor of safe spaces and relationships of care, but the scriptures are pretty clear that sheltering others is about offering a safe place to live.

In fact the Prophet Isaiah talks about shelter as a basic human right and describes offering it to someone as an act of worship. The Letter to the Hebrews describes hospitality to strangers as a means of grace, and in Mathew’s Gospel, Jesus describes our care for the needy as an indicator of our separation from or communion with God.

So, I think we need to give some serious consideration to the opportunity of faithful worship through offering shelter to others. To begin with, I’m going to share with you a little of what I’ve learned this summer, because I’ve had a personal shift in in my understanding of the issue of shelter as it relates to faith.

To begin with, I want to take you to Portland, OR for the General Assembly of the PC(USA). Never before have I felt like the Priest in the story of the Good Samaritan than when I attended the General Assembly. Every day I walked past – and road public transportation with – the largest number of homeless people I’ve ever seen in one place. As I began to ask around with friends I knew from the area, I found that Portland has had similar problems to most major cities – the existing systems of care were slightly overrun but functioning. The tipping point was not the attractiveness of the city or its climate (it rains quite a bit), but rather it came in the form of mass evictions when several single occupancy buildings were torn down in an effort of redevelopment. There was simply no where else for these tenants to go.

Fortunately for my fragile conscience I had signed up for the luncheon for the “Presbyterian Network to End Homelessness.” In that lunch we introduced ourselves and discussed programs in local congregations. There was a panel discussion. The rock star on the panel was a guy named Israel Bayer, the director of “Street Roots”, a group that advocates on behalf of the voiceless poor in Portland.

To get the full force of his message you should look up his Ted Talk, “Homelessness in America: The Journey Home.” Some of the eye opening points that he shared were facts supporting the claim that homelessness in America as we know it is a modern phenomenon. Sure, there has always been poverty, and there have always been people without homes. Yet before the 1930’s we did not see homeless people occurring in large numbers with the exception of certain crises like the Civil War or migrant workers. In 1933 homelessness reached a crisis level by itself with over 1 million people in a condition of chronic homelessness.

The Federal government stepped in and created programs that some of you may or may not agree with, but homelessness as a social demographic essentially ceased after World War II. It did not see a resurgence until the late 70’s and early 80’s. Now, we can debate the cause and the solution all day long, but the reality is that there is a direct correlation to the uptick and and continued presence of homelessness in the US and the dismantling of federally funded mental health care and affordable housing initiatives.

The question that all of this raises is not about the role of the government so much as it is about our responsibility toward one another as a society. The question is whether or not we –as people of faith – believe that shelter is as inalienable a right as food and clothing.

Hold that thought and come back with me to Lafayette. Over the last year I have been involved with the Downtown Faith Alliance, and one of our chief concerns is caring for the vulnerable. If there is anything that unites people of faith, it is compassion for those in need. As a part of that group, I’ve also been a part of the conversations of the Downtown Homelessness Taskforce. This task force has only met three times, but in those few conversations there has been a shift from venting anger over public defecation to recognizing that there’s nowhere to go, and if you live on the street you are more vulnerable to illness. Sometimes the library bathroom just isn’t enough to cover the need.

In the midst of this we had a guest who speaks and consults nationally on homelessness and poverty. He essentially confirmed that it costs more to allow someone to be homeless than it does to house them. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, HUD estimates the cost to tax payers to be around $40,000 ea. Not only can housing be provided in some situations for around $10,000, but cities such as Portland and Los Angeles have found savings of 75-79% in their mental health and addiction services. Why? Because people who are not in a state of constant risk are healthier mentally, less likely to use drugs and alcohol, and more likely to seek support for recovery from community based resources (like a church or AA).

Meanwhile, back in Lafayette, we have about 60 people on the streets any given night, and the folks at Catholic Services of Acadiana know them all by name. Why? Because they have a staff person that combs the streets to get to know them. Why? Because they don’t want to shelter anyone any more than they have to; instead they see themselves like a hospital. Their role is like the ER: diagnose, treat, and street (well, house actually).

And when we hear that Catholic Services of Acadiana is helping people, and the Extra Mile is screening and assisting with mental illnesses and other areas of social support, and Louisiana Avenue United Methodist is holding outdoor services for those that feel unwelcome, and the Destiny of Faith Church is helping people buy and refurbish homes, and Family Promise is helping vulnerable families, and there are 67 food pantries in Lafayette it’s so tempting to say that we should just let them handle all of that. The problem is so much larger than anything I can do anyway.

I used to think that way. In fact, I used to think – I was raised in a culture that taught me to think – that people without homes only needed shelter because of their own choices. And while chronic homelessness can break down a person’s ability to function in society – no one chooses to live that way. So, I used to think that homeless shelters and soup kitchens were the best answer we can give, but I have come to understand that the only solution to homelessness is to find a way to house people. Sure there will always be some people that burn too many bridges or fall into addictions or end up homeless for one reason or another, but the solution to homelessness is found in our expectation that shelter is a human right and providing it for others is nothing less than an act of devotion to God.

This isn’t my opinion. This what I believe scripture compels us to believe and to do. That meddlesome Prophet Isaiah responds to the whining of the faithful with this very same argument. He told the people that fasting and prayer mean nothing without actions of care for one another – especially the refugee in their midst. He essentially said, “If you have food, clothing and shelter, then so do they! These are not some category of people. These are your brothers and sisters. This is your mother, your son, your daughter.”

Isaiah promised that their “light” would be seen by others if they could just recognize their relationship with one another. God told them that God’s healing presence would be with them and that security can only be found in repairing the breach between themselves and those in need. Isaiah told them to stop arguing about entitlements and immigration and staying safe. Sound familiar?

It should, but not just because of the Syrian refugee crisis. According to the Washington Post, for the first time in history there are more Christians south of the equator than north. And as we talk of a declining church, it’s really more about a declining European influence. Since 1965 the most constant growth in the Christian Church in North America has been from immigrant populations. Of the 43 million foreign born residents in the US, 43% are Christian. Only 5% are Muslim. Churches from African countries are now sending missionaries to the US, such as a Nigerian based congregation in Dallas that has 10,000 members. And in the PC(USA) the fastest growing population is made up of 1st and 2nd generation Koreans.

What does all of this mean to us? Well, if we are to be called “repairers of the breach” we have to do a lot more than repair a wall. We have to do as the Letter to the Hebrews instructs. We have to see the opportunity of offering hospitality as a means of grace. We have to expect that those we take in are none other than “aggelous” – messengers, people who are sources of proclamation from God. At the core of all of our actions must be a sense of empathy. We must consider the imprisonment and torture of another person’s life to impact our lives.

Now, perhaps you have heard all of this and are thinking, “What can I do?” Well, I’ll tell you. First off you can become better informed. Talk to others. Pray. Do what you can to look for resources and solutions to the lack of affordable housing – even if it’s just a letter to a government official. Go to eat lunch at St. Joseph’s Diner and have a conversation with someone. Put yourself in a position to understand what someone else experiences, and let them know that you have heard their story.

We are continuing to discuss what we can do as a congregation, and I continue to invite you to make your voice heard in those meetings. There are things that we can do that we do not even know we can do if we open ourselves to a God sized vision.

Is God calling us to redevelop the Education Wing to include affordable housing, Arlington Presbyterian Church did with their sanctuary? I don’t know, but as for me, I want to be sure that I recognize God in the hospital, in the prison of the mind and of the body, and in the naked and oppressed. The thing is, God is not waiting to condemn us or trying to scare us into action. God is promising to be with us, and to be especially known in our care for those in need.

War is just a shot away, when we decide that our fate is separated from those in need. Love is just a kiss away, when we realize that faith results in relationships of mutual concern.

Let our prayers ring out as we continue to seek the face of God in the one next to us, for that is where we will find shelter from the storm at last. Amen. Amen. And again I say Amen!
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