Living in Santa Barbara puts me constant contact with the homeless population – there is no such thing as avoiding the homeless. Even though there are routine attempts to “remove” them, the homeless are simply displaced because like every human, they need a place to live, to commune, to belong. It may seem odd to us who have the privilege of a house, routine meals, etc. We often look at those who are on the streets differently than we look at ourselves. But their suffering is simply more obvious than ours.
For many on the streets it is not their sin or vice that has placed them without a permanent home; it is the greed of others, the selfishness of society, and the fallen nature of the world’s culture. The bottom has simply fallen out. We are no holier than those who find refuge in a shelter, on a bench, or with others who have suffered the same tragedies. We have simply learned image control, we avoid our suffering, we ignore the homelessness of our hearts.
Every trip to the grocery store, gas station, or walk down the street connects me to those who have lost their homes. Yet, there is the potential that this constant contact will inoculate someone from the real unholiness of homelessness. As we build up barriers in dealing with our own homelessness, we become insensitive to others. Seeing suffering without a relationship might create pity, sadness, or charity, but more often this absence of a relationship is the impetus for callousness.
The books of Matthew and Luke offer a response to poverty through the wisdom of the beatitudes. In Matthew the phrase is “blessed are the poor in spirit:” while in Luke it is “blessed are the poor”. The point isn’t that Jesus said different things or that the disciples “heard” them differently – that is the beauty of the particularity of the gospels . Ultimately Jesus’ words of poor and poor in spirit are one in the same.
Too often we dichotomize poverty. We focus on physical poverty, while underestimating the impact of spiritual poverty. But the poverty of those living on the streets reflects poverty that we experience. It is manifested differently and with more urgency for those on the streets, but it is the same emptiness. The “Kingdom of God” belongs to both the physically and spiritually impoverished, because only God can truly satisfy and fill the impoverishment of humanity. God utilizes us – physically and spiritually – as his hands and feet, to provide shelter for the others’ homelessness. But it is through the awareness of our human poverty that God provides, delivers, and enacts the process of liberation.
We become callus and indifferent to our friends on the street when we place ourselves as “better” than them. When we view ourselves as ones who have it all together. Compassion only dwells within those who have the ability to empathize, while pity emerges from sympathy. We are not to become overwhelmed or over-focused on ourselves, but it isn’t until we lower ourselves, begin to be honest with our own need for home, for the hospitality of God, that we can actually be moved to love our brothers and sisters on the streets. When we see our own homelessness folks on the streets become friends as opposed to “the other.”
Let us all be humble enough to find permanency in the shelter of God.