*This amazing, long picture is by a talented good friend named JP*
On the 14th of August, at around 11pm, I moved out of my home of two years in Israel. I spent the preceding weeks sorting through clothes, cleaning floors and surfaces, trying (with what can only be called “limited success”) to sell various pieces of furniture and household items, emptying drawers and cupboards, packing our belongings into boxes and suitcases, and carrying armfuls of papers to the recycling bin. It was even more tiresome than reading the list I just wrote. That night on the 14th, when I finally closed the front door after a day’s worth of hellish labor (primarily due to the fact that our landlords insisted at the last minute that the entire house be repainted), I became homeless. At least in the physical sense.
I began to more deeply understand what it means to be homeless when – as is the case with most words – the concept took on flesh and made its dwelling within my reality. Or rather, when I made my dwelling amongst its reality. Prior to this, “homelessness” conjured the typical modern associations (not to mention appropriate doses of pity, guilt, and apathy) that come from being all too familiar with the sight of those people who dot the margins of the urban landscape. You know the ones, though like me, you probably don’t know their names.
Things changed especially in the winter of 2008, when I found myself living in the North End of Winnipeg at Flatlanders Inn, an intentional Christian community where those at risk of homelessness live together with those who are not. At the outset of my six month stay in Flatlanders, the boundaries between those who were at risk and those who were not were fairly rigid in my mind. The former had a dire need for a roof over their head; a need which they could not meet on their own. And I was definitely not one of them. I had come to “help.”
Over the course of six months, all of us worked, prayed, ate, and played together regularly. We shared life and stepped into each other’s revolving doors of sorrow and joy. I began to realize that homelessness is not just a matter of housing and economy, but a matter of the heart. It is a profound and deep-seated desire for relationship, for belonging, for home. And this desire was just as much in me as in those who, apart from Flatlanders, would otherwise have no roof over their heads.
With each passing day, the boundaries which once seemed so rigid between us began to dissolve in, to use Richard Foster’s phrase, much the same way “a grain of sand in an oyster changes things.” By the end of my stay, categories gave way to names and I was sad about leaving my friends Kenny, Eric, Cynthia, Justin, Jacqueline, Adam, Luke, Jeff, Amanda, Chelsea, and Sarah. After all, they had been my home.
Mother Teresa once said the following:
“Today it is fashionable to talk about the poor. Unfortunately, it is not fashionable to talk with them.”
We can fill the palms of those who live on the street with coins, build bigger and more accommodating housing units on their behalf, and even provide them with some stable means of employment. These charitable acts are important to be sure, but without talking with them, being with them, and establishing relationship, the gnawing sense of homelessness will remain. This is plain enough, especially if we put ourselves into their weathered shoes and walk around for a moment.
Perhaps more mysterious, even God’s homelessness seems to find relief solely within this context of being together and relationship. In the penultimate chapter of the New Testament, John describes a new order of things where “Now the home of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” It is the reality and feeling of being truly with someone that warms and furnishes the chambers of our itinerant hearts.
So, the next time you see one of those people, ask them their name and tell them yours. I know it’s a risk to build this sort of invisible bridge, but in doing so you’ll both come a little closer to home.