Who is My Neighbor?
- Mar 9th, 2012
“’And who is my neighbor?’” Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him….Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You go, and do likewise.’” – Luke 10:29-37
These days, the homeless are almost unavoidable.
Take a drive through downtown Columbus, Toledo, or Cincinnati, Ohio, and you’ll likely see a handful of men, standing on the side of the street, holding cardboard signs that detail their plight and ask for money. Having come to tolerate the homeless as part of city life, we barely flinch upon encountering them.
These days, the homeless are almost invisible.
On that same drive downtown, you’re unlikely to encounter any of the growing number of families, women, and children who have no home to call their own. One-third of the U.S. homeless population is made up of families, and almost half of the 3 million people who experience homelessness in the U.S. each year are children.
In many places in West Ohio, United Methodist churches and ministries have implemented creative, highly effective strategies to combat homelessness and break the cycles of poverty so many children experience today. Whether an urban ministry – such as Toledo Area Ministries (TAM) – or rural – like Good Works ministries in Athens – United Methodists are taking the lead on the issue of homelessness.
In Franklin County, where the city of Columbus is located, the number of children experiencing homelessness grew from 1,400 in 2010 to 1,700 in 2011, two-thirds of which were seven years old or younger. A total of 8,000 Franklin County residents were homeless at some point in 2011, including 1,144 women and 876 families.
“Some might call homelessness ‘evil’ or ‘a sin.’ But I think that removes our own responsibility,” states Rev. David Meredith, pastor at Broad Street United Methodist Church in downtown Columbus. “(Homelessness) is evidence of an economic system that fails to provide sufficient affordable housing and a living wage to everyone who works, and to provide support for those who can’t work full-time.”
Almost half of the homeless population in the U.S. works but does not earn enough to pay for housing. According to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, “There is no jurisdiction in the United States in which a full-time job at the prevailing minimum wage (federal or state) provides enough income to allow a household to afford a one-bedroom home at the region’s fair market rent.”
In Franklin County, nearly 40% of renters are ‘housing cost burdened,’ paying one-third or more of their income for housing. Add to that the continuing economic crisis, and the result is a 5,000% percent increase in the number of overflow beds needed to shelter families in 2011. Sixty-two percent of the families entering emergency shelter in 2011 had never used a shelter before.
So, what is the Church’s role in all of this? “To be the incarnational presence of Jesus, the embodiment of Christ in the world,” Rev. Meredith believes. “Specifically, we need to see people how Jesus sees them. By calling them ‘neighbor, sister, or brother,’ they become more than victims. They become our community, part of us.”
At Broad Street United Methodist Church, where Meredith serves, this community-building happens in several ways, including a family-style meal served four days a week, an arts program that encourages the creative capacity of guests and church members alike, and a transitional housing program for single mothers with children.
The Inn at Broad provides temporary housing (18-24 months) for women attempting to move their families toward housing security by working or attending school. Broad Street UMC also forms a team of people to walk alongside the residents as they progress. The Inn at Broad houses two families at a time who must learn how to share the communal kitchen, play space, computer lab, and laundry facilities.
“My advice for other churches is, open your eyes to see,” Meredith remarks. “If you believe there are no homeless, look again. If you don’t think you can learn from them, open your heart. The homeless are everywhere. If you can see that, it’s a question of how. And how is about relationship, about listening, about trying and failing and trying again. And not blaming failures on the homeless.”
At Good Works ministry in Athens, Ohio, Founder/Executive Director Keith Wasserman encourages United Methodists to remember that caring for the poor was always at the center of Jesus’ ministry. “Growing up, I didn’t get that in church. But it’s critical to our witness for the Gospel,” Keith insists. “The larger question is how we love our neighbors. We need to connect relationally with people who are not like us, and Good Works tries to facilitate these relationships.”
Founded in 1981, Good Works provides shelter for the rural homeless and long-term residential care for the chronically homeless, among other community ministries. Rural homelessness is often less visible than that in urban areas, and has its own set of challenges, such as lack of public transportation and the availability of fewer services and financial resources.
Still, Wasserman points out that serving the rural homeless does allow for the development of more intentional relationships: “(John) Wesley saw a class system within the church, and he said we needed to go where the people are, to learn from them.”
“It’s impossible to love your neighbors if you don’t know them,” remarks Andrea Horsch, Good Works’ Director of Caregiving. “We need to encourage (parishioners) to not just be accepting of people when they come to church, but also to reach out where people are, to figure out how to love, to listen to the vulnerable, and to ask God to help you see the potential in people.”
“You can’t decide that certain groups do or don’t deserve to receive love and support,” adds Chris Linscott, Director of Community Development. “Scriptures teach us to reach out to people who are marginalized. Sometimes it’s like we stop seeing all people as children of God. If we’re not reaching out, we’re falling short of what it means to be a Christian.”
Yet that doesn’t mean that every church should start a homeless ministry. Individual congregations have a variety of strengths that can be used to reach out to people who are poor and marginalized. “Churches can address injustice politically, refuse to participate in unjust systems, welcome the vulnerable in their midst, and get to know their neighbors,” Linscott adds. “In this way, God uses us to be the answer to people’s prayers.”
Good Works uses simple strategies to work toward this goal, such as planting gardens, mowing lawns, building wheelchair ramps, cooking and eating dinner together, laughing and crying together, and giving people a place to stay.
“It’s about relationship, not a ‘program.’ It’s about building trust,” Wasserman explains. “It’s being the voice for people who don’t have a voice.”
While homelessness is often one result of persistent poverty, homelessness itself is not inexpensive. Studies have shown that the cost of an emergency shelter bed is about $8,000 more than the average annual cost of a federal housing subsidy (Section 8 Certificate), and that placing a family in transitional or permanent housing costs the same amount or less than emergency shelter.
At Toledo Area Ministries (TAM), the largest and oldest ecumenical organization in northwest Ohio, 125 different congregations and non-profit organizations work together to provide support for those living in poverty. At the heart of a number of these ministries is a concentrated effort to prevent homelessness.
“We attempt to keep people in their homes by freeing their own resources that can be used for rent and utilities, by providing food and personal needs items,” explains Rev. Steve Anthony, Executive Director of TAM. “Every TAM program since 2008 has been working on prevention strategies so that we can swim upstream and shut off the flow of people into poverty.”
Some of TAM’s homelessness prevention strategies include pre-qualifying those eligible for food stamps; giving away mobile homes to people who can’t afford market-rate housing; reaching out to runaway youth living on the streets; ministering to women engaged in prostitution; running afterschool and summer day camp programs for children; and teaching classes on the importance of healthy relationships.
The key, Anthony believes, is not whether the Church cares about such issues, but how much the Church is willing to get involved: “Every person who is homeless was born into some kind of family; every person who finds themselves in poverty was a part of some kind of education system; and every person who ends up with an addiction or mental illness was served by someone.”
“If the Church wants to be part of the solution to end homelessness, (these) systems must be invaded by well-trained and highly motivated members of local congregations. How much are we willing to change? How many people can we engage? How many church members will volunteer to be on a board? How many church members can we get elected? These are all ways we can change the system other than just giving money and doing what we’ve always done,” Anthony states.
As United Methodists – and as Christians – God invites us to be part of a Kingdom of tax collectors and sinners, of prostitutes and runaways…to come alongside those who live on the margins of society and love them as God does.
Who is your neighbor? The better question is, who is not?
“'When you put on a luncheon or a banquet,’ Jesus said, ‘don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you.’” – Luke 14:12-14
About This Blog
Read and comment on a range of personal reflections and perspectives about poverty and Ministry with the Poor. Our goal is to attract diverse voices and points of view from United Methodists and friends, including people and communities living in conditions of poverty, other experts, religious leaders, community organizers, advocates, policy makers, volunteers, and all engaged in Ministry with the Poor.