Strengthening the Body While Serving People Who Are Homeless: 10 Steps for Churches
By Rachel Parker
Many of us, as individuals, know that God has called us to serve the poor and homeless in our communities. Some of our favorite biblical texts are Matthew 25:40 (“… Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”) and Isaiah 61: 1-3 (“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, … to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit”). We respond in obedience by volunteering at soup kitchens and homeless shelters, by writing letters to politicians, by staying in or moving into low-income communities and worshipping in inner-city churches.
But how many of us—as pastors, deacons, or lay people—consciously work to make our churches more effective in serving the least of these? Do our churches represent the Body of Christ as welcoming sanctuaries to people who are homeless, and do we know how to respond as congregations to the needs of those who are homeless in our communities?
In Beyond Charity: The Call to Christian Community Development (Baker, 1993), John Perkins says this: “You see, the church is the body of Christ. It is to literally be the replacement of Jesus in a given community, doing what He would do, going where He would go, teaching what He would teach. Local churches…ought to show that the followers of one God live together as one people in fellowship with that one God.”
While service to people who are homeless begins with an individual commitment to Jesus’ call for compassion and justice, it is within the community of believers that this work can be truly effective. Was it not within the early church that believers sold their possessions and gave to everyone as needed, and “there were no needy persons among them”? (Acts 4:34)
Granted, it is much simpler to serve people who are homeless on an individual level. Mobilizing a congregation is difficult, time-consuming work. But if we accept the call to represent the Body of Christ in our congregations, then we must work together, and when we do we will be joyfully surprised when our collaboration yields greater fruit than our individual efforts ever could.
In Boston, such a collaborative effort exists, spearheaded by Starlight Ministries, a part of the Emmanuel Gospel Center. For the last 25 years, Starlight has been serving men and women who are homeless and also equipping churches to reach out to people who are homeless in their communities. The following story shows, in very practical terms, how this collaboration sometimes works.
It’s 7:30 on a Wednesday evening, and Rev. Roberto Miranda is in a meeting with his elders at Congregación León de Judá (Lion of Judah Church) in Boston’s South End. A stranger is knocking on the door of the church. His name is Matthew, he’s homeless and intoxicated, and he’s asking for help. Miranda puts his elder meeting on hold while he listens to the gentleman’s story, and then welcomes him into the church to spend the night.
The following morning, Miranda calls Paul Daigle, the director of Starlight Ministries a few blocks away, to ask if he can help him get Matthew into a detox. Daigle willingly escorts Miranda and Matthew to Room 5, an office in Boston which makes referrals for people in need of substance-abuse services, and successfully assists Matthew in getting admitted to a detox. A week later, Miranda calls Daigle once again, saying, “I tried calling you yesterday because another person who is homeless came to my church needing a detox. But then I realized that I didn’t need your help, because you had already gone with me and shown me what to do.” Rev. Miranda had followed the steps that Daigle had shown him the previous week, and successfully referred another individual to detox.
Starlight Ministries provides outreach services to people on the streets by bringing food, blankets, and companionship to people right where they are; by offering case management, hospitality, and recovery groups at a daytime resource center; and by building relationships with homeless youth through arts activities and employment/education counseling. But Starlight recognizes that it’s not enough for them to work on their own, isolated from the larger Body of Christ. Inherent to their ministry is the call to equip churches to meet the needs of people who are homeless, thus expanding the network of resources available to people who are homeless while building community, cooperation, and strength among the larger Body across the city.
As part of its work to build capacity among churches in Boston, Daigle has developed 10 steps for churches to take as they respond to the reality of homelessness.
1. Pray. We often consider prayer a trite duty rather than a sacred privilege and fundamental necessity in our lives. But when we recognize the profound need for churches to mobilize against homelessness, we realize how great is the need for prayer as our congregations learn to represent the Body of Christ in all its fullness. Pray specifically in three areas:
• For individuals who are homeless. In Colossians 4:12, Paul describes Epaphras “wrestling in prayer” for the members of the church at Colosse. Imagine the dignity and value you ascribe to someone who is homeless as you wrestle in prayer for his or her well-being.
• For direction as you and your congregation respond to homelessness. Pray individually and corporately for common vision. In Philippians 2, Paul tells the church at Philippi, “[M]ake my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.” Pray to receive the mind of Christ corporately.
• For policy changes that will reduce poverty in our nation. Homelessness can be caused by a myriad of factors, and unjust political structures play a role. Pray for our political leaders to enact just laws and policies.
2. Mobilize your congregation for advocacy. Take your prayers a step further and make them active by educating your congregation on political advocacy. In Proverbs 31:8-9, God commands us to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Many of us are familiar with this on an individual level, but imagine the impact of an entire congregation simultaneously advocating on behalf of people who are homeless.
3. Find out what your church is already doing in response to homelessness, and then make a plan for what you want to do. Don’t start moving ahead with a new plan of action until you have evaluated what you are already doing. Many churches will be surprised to recognize the steps that they have already taken without realizing it. Perhaps you have welcomed a person who is homeless into your congregation. Perhaps your church operates a food pantry or soup kitchen. Perhaps your church financially supports a local Rescue Mission. Evaluate the things that may already be happening, determine how effective they are, and then begin making a plan for future steps. Proverbs 29:18 says,“Where there is no vision, people perish.” Make your vision realistic by finding out what resources you have available and setting limits accordingly.
4. Discern real vs. illegitimate needs. Take the time to ask questions, and pray for wisdom as a story is presented to you by someone who is homeless. Scamming does take place, and it is wise not to enable future scams. Giving money or other resources to an individual who is scamming does not help the individual, and it can lead to cynicism, judgmental attitudes, and burn-out among congregations. It is well worth your time and energy on the front end of an encounter to clarify the real story.
5. Learn about local resources. There are likely many trained professionals in your area who are equipped to serve people who are homeless. These may be employees of a homeless shelter, food bank, or advocacy group, or there may be published or online materials that you can access.
6. Form strategic partnerships. After familiarizing yourself with local resources, learn how your church can partner with local organizations. This is especially useful if you feel ill-equipped to discern real needs from illegitimate ones. Imagine the scenario: A person who is homeless comes to your church office on a Wednesday morning and asks for some money to take the bus to another state to attend his mother’s funeral. You’ve never met him before, and have no way of knowing whether or not he is legitimately trying to attend a funeral. This problem has been successfully addressed by one church in Boston that has formed a partnership with the local branch of Traveler’s Aid. When the church is confronted with this exact situation—a person needing travel assistance—the pastor gives his business card to the individual and shows him or her how to make the short walk to the Traveler’s Aid office. The staff at Traveler’s Aid then assess the situation and, because of their training and resources, are able to verify whether or not the travel need is legitimate. If they determine that it is, they will call the church, which will then make up the balance of the transportation costs not covered by Traveler’s Aid.
7. Appoint individuals to be points of contact for those in need. In Acts 6 we see deacons appointed to the ministry of providing food for the widows who were neglected. This benefited the entire church community—not only were the widows given more attention and a known group of people set aside to meet their needs, but the disciples were given more freedom to minister to the larger community. In your congregation, who are the points of contact for people in need? Is it the receptionist or janitor, who may be the first to encounter guests in the church building? Is it the pastor? A deacon? The head usher? Make more efficient use of the Body by utilizing these people as resources and giving them proper training, rather than haphazardly allowing the responsibility to fall on someone who may not be equipped to respond.
8. Establish an accepting and welcoming culture in your church. James makes this unquestionably clear in his second chapter: “Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand here,’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” Practice nondiscriminatory hospitality to all who enter your church doors and sit in your pews. Establishing a welcoming culture means that the entire congregation is responsible for hospitality, not just the greeters on duty. Some of Starlight’s greatest success stories of people coming off the streets have taken place when men and women—some of whom had been homeless for 25 or 30 years—became integrated into a local church.
9. Support the work of other organizations that are doing the work. Do what you can as a congregation to support the work that is happening in your area with people who are homeless. This builds cooperation, and it also expands the capacity of the current work that is happening. Pray as a congregation for other organizations, ministries, and churches that are active in serving people who are homeless. Give to them financially. Support them physically by sending out members of your church to volunteer with them. (See the resources list below for ideas on groups to support.)
10. Provide spiritual as well as tangible resources. Beware of extremes. Churches tend to fall on one end or another of a broad spectrum: They either hand out tracts and preach while neglecting people’s physical needs, or they feed and clothe the hungry and naked without addressing spiritual needs. Neither extreme is acceptable in holistic ministry, which recognizes that individuals are meant to be in shalom, in overall wholeness and well-being. See how biblical texts complement—rather than contradict—one another. For instance, in Matthew 25 we see the need for feeding the hungry, hosting the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the prisoner as if they were Jesus incarnate. A few chapters earlier, in Matthew 16:26, Jesus asks, “What will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” Jesus commands us to meet the physical needs of people, while also providing opportunities to respond to his life-saving grace.
We are the Body of Christ. In I Corinthians 12 we read, “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body… If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” As a Body, the godly response to the suffering of our brothers and sisters who are homeless is for us to grieve alongside them. For not only do they suffer in body as they survive on the streets, but they suffer in spirit as they encounter rejection and exclusion at our church doors. However, as we learn to serve them and incorporate them into our congregations, we will find ourselves rejoicing together as our Body begins to experience the wholeness that Jesus intends.
Rachel Parker is the operations coordinator for Starlight Ministries and lives in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston.
Starlight Ministries is part of the Emmanuel Gospel Center in Boston.
Bread for the World has excellent resources for churches interested in congregational advocacy.
The National Coalition for the Homeless has online directories point- ing to local resources.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness provides legislative alerts about policies related to homelessness.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development has an online library with links to nationwide resources on homelessness.
AffordableCollegesOnline.org has a comprehensive guide to higher education for homeless and low-income students.