By, the Rev. David C. Bloom, The Church Council of Greater Seattle
Remarks Presented at People’s Institutional Baptist Church Seattle WA Faith & Family Homelessness Project Kick Off on January 6, 2013
There exists in America today an ever-deepening fault-line that is dividing Americans between those who have a living income, heath care insurance, and a safe and secure place to live and those who do not.
One of the most severe and troublesome manifestations of that fault-line has been the increase in family homelessness. Not even those formerly in the middle class have been unaffected as the mortgage foreclosure crisis and rising unemployment have invaded the lives of working families. Between 2007, when the Great Recession began, and 2010, the number of homeless families in America increased by 40,000 families, the fastest growing portion of our nation’s and the Puget Sound region’s homeless population.
This includes more than 26,000 children in the public schools of the state of Washington who have been officially identified as homeless. And that 26,000 number includes only those that we know about. The actual number is surely much higher.
How do those of us who are called by God in Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and welcome the stranger, how are we to respond to this growing human crisis?
Most of us see homeless people, usually single adults, at exit ramps on the freeway or panhandling on our downtown streets, but in Seattle and King County, homeless families, who are mostly single mothers with children, are largely invisible. They may be living with friends or relatives, in shelters, in campgrounds, or in their cars. Imagine what it must be like for a child to live in that situation and then to have to function in school, without adequate sleep, without adequate nutrition, without adequate health care, and without adequate protection from the elements.
Every night around the Puget Sound region – in one of the wealthiest regions of our nation that has some 63,000 millionaires – in this region more than 10,000 men, women, and children sleep in shelters, on the streets, in cars, in parks, in downtown doorways – every night. And every year their numbers increase. When we confront this reality, we have a choice. We can turn away, and like the priest and the Levite who passed by the injured man on the road to Jericho, we can say, “that’s not my problem,” or worse, we can say that they are to blame for their homelessness because of their laziness or their addictions or their “poor choices.” We can turn away, ignoring that low-wage jobs and the high cost of housing and domestic violence and untreated mental illness and substance abuse are driving increasing numbers of our neighbors into homelessness.
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The Gospel at its best deals with the whole person, not only a person’s soul, but also (a person’s) body, not only spiritual well-being but also material well-being. A religion that professes a concern for the souls of humankind and is not equally concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them, is a spiritually moribund religion.”
So what is true religion?
“The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed….The Lord is merciful and gracious,” says the Psalmist. It is the church – you and me, not somebody else – it is the church, rooted in this vision of God’s Kingdom, that is called to live out the promise of God’s vindication and justice. It is our responsibility to establish a moral consensus about what the right thing is to do by lifting up a vision of what a just society should look like. It is the church, more than any other institution in our society, that has the moral imperative to proclaim that something is terribly wrong when women and children especially, in this most abundant of nations, do not have a home to go to at night.
And they are our neighbors. For most homeless families their last permanent address – their last home – was right here in our community—right here in KingCounty. And they are also most assuredly the people of God—the people of God who call the church to both repentance and action. They are the hungry we are asked to feed, the strangers we are to welcome, the naked we are to clothe. They are the sick and imprisoned we are commanded to visit. The homeless are our neighbors, often living closer to our churches than many of our own members.
As we respond, we must do more than house the homeless and feed the hungry. We must build community. We must strive to make the kingdom or the reign of God—or the beloved community, as Dr. King called it—evident upon the earth, by making it evident right here in Central Seattle.
We must seek solutions that both ease the pain and ultimately heal the wounds of those who suffer the indignities of poverty in our community and nation. We must seek justice—the kind of justice that not only welcomes the stranger, but also that builds a society in which everyone can enjoy the fruits of God’s creation. The church must be the voice that calls us all to account for what we have done and to covenant together around what we must do. And what must we do? We must be about building Dr. King’s “beloved community” where all and each belong and everyone has a place at the banquet table.
So we can begin right here in the Central District in Seattle, a neighborhood that has known more than its share of troubles, a neighborhood where for many years families with children have struggled to survive and thrive. But this is also a neighborhood that has been served by People’s Institutional Baptist Church, a congregation that cares about its neighbors and stands ready through the cooperative efforts of the Faith and Family Homelessness Project to engage in the important work of building the beloved community right here in this place.
When families face poverty and homelessness, we know what works: a community that is willing to stand with them and not turn its back on them. And more often than not that community is the church, the church that is ready to provide a safe place to live, food for their tables, education for their children, child-care for working parents, access to health care—in short, those essentials of life that everyone needs to thrive.
As we launch the Faith and Family Homelessness Project at People’s Institutional Baptist Church today, we celebrate the relationship that is developing between People’s and the Village Spirit Center, just a few blocks south of here. Village Spirit Center is a program of Catholic Community Services to provide housing, services, and community economic development focused on the local Black community. Your opportunity to provide volunteer support to Village Spirit director Evelyn Allen and her staff will represent an important ecumenical ministry here in Seattle’s Central District that exemplifies the goal of the Faith and Family Homelessness Project to create new faith-based partnerships to foster systemic political, social and cultural change around the issue of family homelessness.
Remember, physical poverty and oppression are ultimately signs of spiritual poverty, not of the poor themselves, but of a society that makes and keeps them poor. Our God is portrayed in the scriptures as a God of compassion and justice, a loving creator who wills a life of personal fullness and corporate justice for everyone.
“And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Truly, those families in our midst who struggle against poverty and homelessness every day are members of our family; they are members of God’s family. God bless you as you respond in faith to God’s call to welcome them and to surround them with the love of God that is their gift – that is our gift – as children of God.