This blog is part of my ongoing series of reflections on how the Wild Goose Festival gave me a glimpse into the just what the new emerging Christian church is becoming.
The steady bubbling of the French Broad River served as the soundtrack to one of the best theological discussions I had heard since leaving seminary 10 years ago.
“My liberation is tied up with my homeless brothers and sisters,” one of the panelist remarked as I made my seat (a little late, of course) on the fallen tree lying just outside the perimeters of the full workshop tent set up at the Wild Goose Festival. I perked up, took notice and began to jot notes into my phone as fast as my fingers could fly over the tiny touch screen.
Four panelists — Hugh Hollowell, Terry Smith, Bec Cranford Smith & Shannon Spencer — all of whom work creating faithful community with homeless people, turned the usual discussion about helping “the least of these” on its ear. (I apologize that my notes were not good enough to accurately attribute these quotes to the correct panelists. However, I believe I faithfully represent the big themes.)
“Homelessness is a relationship problem. The opposite of homelessness is not ‘housedness’, it’s community,” one panelist commented. The reality, he said, is that if any of us returned home to a home burned down, we’d immediately be able to make a list of the people in our lives who we could call and who would give us shelter. Not so for everyone.
As a seminary-trained progressive Christian clergy person, I’ve certainly heard discussions before about the systemic issues — racism, sexism, poverty — that create homelessness in the U.S., the most affluent country in the world. I’ve heard and even led numerous discussions that remind us of our Christian responsibility to clothe, house and feed one another. But, these panelists, who live day after day as friends with people who find themselves without housing, turned that discussion on its ear. They reminded me that our call as Christians is not to simply provide temporary “fixes” by providing housing, food and clothing, but to really meet people where they are, in deep relationships. Those relationships inevitably reveal the brokenness of each of us; they reveal that we all have wounds God need to heal; they reveal that we need each other desperately and powerfully.
This discussion transported me back a dozen years to my seminary experience as a street ministry intern with The Night Ministry in Chicago. Twice a week for about nine months, I went out with the organization’s health and outreach bus begrudgingly wearing a clergy collar to meet with the many folks who came for cookies, coffee and lemonade at each of their four or five nighttime spots in strategic locations in various Chicago neighborhoods. I remember learning many things about doing pastoral ministry during that internship; but what I remember most is the joyful community that gathered around food each night; I remember being lifted up by the very folks we set out to “help;” I remember my own spirit being buoyed by the community that provided remarkable stability despite that each stop lasted less than an hour before the bus packed up and moved onto its next stop.
A vision of “beloved community” has existed in Christianity for millennia, but I think now is trying to emerge profoundly in the spiritual revolution in which we find ourselves. These Wild Goose panelists point to the desperate necessity of community for “the least of these.” And we are ALL ‘the least of these’ — whether we have homes or not. We all have brokenness to repair; we all need the community to hold us up when we can’t stand on our own two feet; we all need relationships.
Perhaps these experiences point out that justice, real, deep justice, does not happen through protests, acts of civil disobedience, or policy change (though those things are important). Real justice comes when we deeply engage in relationship with one another and emerge as wholly different people because of it.