Monday, June 1, 2009

Homeless Shelter Spirituality

A significant number of my friends at seminary are dedicating their summers to homeless shelter work. I am humbled and warmed by their selflessness, especially at a time when sniping large-profile church internships is so en-vogue. Which is why I stopped to think about a recent blog entry that caught my eye: in a less-than-nuanced tirade against Christian brainwashing, Rev. Jessica Sideways poses the following intriguing question: 'why is it that Christians run homeless shelters...[while] atheists do not do anything for humanity?' For what it's worth, the aforementioned seminarians all do happen to represent different stripes of Christianity: Lutheranism, Disciples of Christ, Presbyterianism, etc.

Obviously, the question presupposes a dangerous level of generic abstractionism - many Christians do not work with the homeless, and I'm sure many atheists charitably donate their time and energy to such noteworthy causes. Yet, as Rev. Sideways continues her diatribe, an unsettling array of additional enigmas surface. She writes:

I know that this sounds quite paranoid but they ARE trying to get to people in their most stressful, weak states in order to brainwash them into believing the Jesus nonsense. They ARE abusing people in their most vulnerable state...I have seen homeless shelters that require their clients who want to have a bed there to attend classes to implant ideas into their head about Christianity that are just not true...This is very manipulative and it is a very dark, creepy thing that these religious people do.

A couple thoughts come to mind: while I remain highly skeptical of any mandatory religious instruction, I am hard pressed to categorically dismiss Christian shelter work as a subversive plot to 'abuse' and 'brainwash' the most vulnerable sectors of society. For one, this description fails to account for the countless venues that offer life-saving services through federal funds (hence, work or sobriety requirements replace religious ones). Secondly, as my good friend Jeannie playfully and insightfully asks: 'where are all these homeless converts'? Further, it is only from a position of privilege that we can adjudicate the worth of 'a consciousness free from contact with Jesus' in comparison with the basic human necessities of housing, warmth and food. What violence do we perform when we write such work off as worthless - even harmful - merely because it offends our personal cognitive sensibilities?

I am much more inclined to take Rev. Sideways' probing inquiry as a call to action. At their inception, many religiously-based homeless shelters came into existence to meet a dire (and theretofore unfulfilled) human need, benefitting in turn from the sustaining faith of parishioners and the circulating nature of church volunteerism. In turn, most have become secularized or disconnected from their spiritual origins. Today, whether Christian, atheist or any label in between, we should build our theologies (or philosophies) from the ground up, as we donate our lives to the betterment of others. Let us discover what the Jesus-of-the-homeless-shelter looks like first hand. We might even be transformed in the process.

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Diggitt said...

I invite all comers to join the First UU Society of Westchester on one of its "Midnight Runs" into New York City. The Run takes food, clothing, and personal items to the unsheltered homeless living on NYC streets and has done so for 25 years.

The Run was started in Westchester County, north of NYC, by an Episcopal priest and a Presbyterian minister. Our UU congregation was the seventh to join its work. I served on the Run's first steering committee when it became a 501(c)(3) organization and its first board of directors afterwards.

Today as many as 150 different school groups and religious organizations do a Run each month. Thousands of people have been volunteers. And one of the first rules of the Run is NO PROSELYTIZING. I did not invent this rule; it was in place when I started 22 years ago and the UUs joined the team because of it.

Not everyone gets the point. For many years we shared our Run with an Episcopal congregation whose priest was forever pressing tracts into our hands. My co-leader in that congregation just as steadfastly pressed the tracts back into the priest's hands. This rule is honored. Since so many volunteers are on the streets night after night, there are lapses, and word of them finds its way back to the board (half of whose members are on the streets). An offending congregation will be told that we can't keep it from doing what it pleases on its own but it cannot be affiliated with the Midnight Run if it persists.

Early on I learned how denominational politics must be played. Roman Catholic congregations that work with the Run operate through interested congregants. The priests will not go on the Run unless they go as active, reaching-out clergy -- so they don't go; they're not invited. Other clergy go in plain clothes.

Atheists are as welcome on the Run as they are in our UU congregations. Nobody asks. Service to others is the point. We treat people on the street like they have rights too, and one of their rights is not having to sing for their suppers.

The Eclectic Cleric said...

When did Jessica Sideways become a "Reverend?" I think you'd better go back and read her profile a little more closely, before you start handing out honorary ordinations. Or maybe she can clue you in on this quick and easy shortcut out of Harvard and into the cyber-ministry of the blogosphere.

(the Reverend Doctor [PhD]) Timothy W. Jensen

The Eclectic Cleric said...

When did Jessica Sideways become a "Reverend?" I think you'd better go back and read her profile a little more closely, before you start handing out honorary ordinations. Or maybe she can clue you in on this quick and easy shortcut out of Harvard and into the cyber-ministry of the blogosphere.

(the Reverend Doctor [PhD]) Timothy W. Jensen

Jessica Sideways said...

I have no problem with homeless shelters that are run by Christians who keep to a NO PROSELYTIZING rule. Mainly because these people are in no place in their life to be hearing this stuff. This stuff that encourages homophobia in communities of colour. This stuff that encourages people to not give a shit about the environment since the "end times" are coming. This stuff that makes people look forward to death instead of making the most out of the here and now. It is much easier for people to fall for this stuff at the harder moments of their life, and this is why it is reprehensible.

Service to others is a good thing in and of itself, but when you arm people to harm the world around them, you are creating a force in the world that is anti-social and quite dangerous. Christianity is very anti-social and dangerous to the progress of any egalitarian and free society.

By the way, my ordination comes from the online First Church of Atheism. I do not deny this and I do believe I make that known on my website. If not, then feel free to let me know and I will make it known. Hell, until just recently, I thought that there was a page on my website that just was not there.