by Kris Coffin Stevenson | 17 September 2021 |
I pass her every morning as I drive to work. She sits in the shade on the bike path next to a six-lane road. Her shopping cart is piled high with Grinch-like bundles, and she’s wrapped herself in layers of gray clothing, a turban around her head. We know her name is Layla. She’s homeless but not destitute and determined to live her own way. As I drive by, she’s either asleep sitting up (it’s safer to sleep in the day), or grooming herself and rearranging her belongings. She doesn’t want human interference but stays close for safety. She will take contributions of food and water, but has resisted going to the shelter because she says it’s not safe.
Every time we drive by I pray, “God bless Layla,” and a piece of my heart is wounded. I imagine her backstory; mental illness, abuse, addiction, dysfunctional relationships, all of the above. Her story may be unique, but her circumstances are not. She is a visible reminder to me every day of the breakdown of our society and the consequences of our political, economic, and social choices. I feel frustrated and helpless. I don’t want to ignore her, but I have no idea how to help her in a lasting way.
What has God commissioned us to do in the face of the overwhelming and complex issues of homelessness? How can we be a good neighbor when our neighbors live in the Walmart parking lot?
Layla is just the tip of the iceberg, as far as the homeless population in this area. I live in Los Angeles County, where our homeless population in 2020 was estimated to be at least 66,000.
In one country!
These are the things I have encountered here:
- Someone living in a tent in the dry river behind my community.
- Homeless encampments on the streets that rival refugee camps.
- Panhandlers at many intersections.
- Individuals living in their cars at my health club, Walmart, and nearby streets.
- Homelessness among members of my own local church.
- People like Layla pushing carts or on bicycles throughout town.
- A homeless lady dying under a bridge two miles from my house.
Everywhere I go I see someone talking to themselves, someone wearing ragged clothing, someone whose car is piled high with their belongings, someone asleep in a public place, someone wandering aimlessly, someone with a cardboard placard asking for money. On our last trip to Chronic Taco, we encountered a man who could have easily played the part of the demoniac in a Jesus movie. Behind these visible signs of distress are many people who are couch surfing, living one paycheck at a time, deep in debt and about to lose their home, or living as a family in one room to save money.
Those are the legitimate needs. But there are other scenarios. Here’s an example from last week:
Just five minutes before our church service started, an unknown family of four showed up outside the main doors holding a sign that read: Homeless, need food for children, God Bless. They stood there in a row as our members walked in. Our church doesn’t give out cash, so we hunted up some gift cards. The family eventually sat down inside. But as soon as church finished, they rushed back outside and unfurled their sign as people streamed out.
Amidst the huge needs around us are the scammers, the careless, and the repeat offenders. How do you have the discernment to sift out the true needs, and how do you treat people who will never be free from addictions or unhelpful behaviors?
Certainly God has something to say about all of this. After all, he organized the children of Israel’s society.
In the Old Testament, God laid out a whole system for tithes and offerings. The core of all these regulations was that everyone was cared for and that the land produced optimal crops. God’s system was based on giving and sharing to make sure the whole community thrived. As they received the blessings of God in the form of rain, sunshine, an abundant harvest, increased herds, healthy bodies and relationships, they gave back through their tithes and offerings, festivals and feasts, and the jubilee system that gave rest to the land. The result was a community where the less fortunate–generally widows, orphans, and foreigners–were well treated and able to survive.
There were three tithes that undergirded this system and showed God’s priorities. The first was a sacred tithe that sustained the work of God (Genesis 14:18-20). The priests and Levites were not given land when the Israelites entered the Promised Land, so the first tithe provided for them and their families as they worked in the temple.
The second tithe was like a forced savings for the family to take a vacation trip to Jerusalem to sacrifice and join in the festivals (Deuteronomy 14:22-27). And the third tithe, collected every third year, was directed to the Levite, sojourner, fatherless, and the widow (Deuteronomy 14:28,29).
Summarizing the three types of tithe in the Old Testament period we find a much broader concept of giving than we generally assume, giving that included first, God; second, man’s own physical and spiritual welfare; and third, their neighbor’s need. God, you, and your neighbor is a good trinity in planning one’s giving (C.G. Tuland, Ministry, Sept 1958).
Repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, the call is given to remember those who are less fortunate.
There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land (Deuteronomy 15:11 NIV).
No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless (Isaiah 58:6-10 NLT).
I will speak against those who cheat employees of their wages, who oppress widows and orphans, or who deprive the foreigners living among you of justice (Malachi 3:5 NLT).
In the New Testament James points out that “pure and genuine religion in the sight of the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27 NLT). And Paul adds, “God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others” (2 Corinthians 9:8 NLT).
The Old Testament theocracy was a corporate response to poverty and homelessness. Our corporate system today includes ministries, shelters, government programs, mental health systems, nonprofits, etc. It’s a huge unwieldy octopus of systems that are struggling to work together to make a difference. I can’t do much about the whole tangled corporate mess, but I can control my personal response.
Worthy in God’s eyes
When I study Jesus’ interactions with those who were needy, I see a dominant theme: Jesus always acknowledged people as human and worthy of the love of God. Sometimes people accepted his grace and healing, sometimes they squandered it and walked away. It’s not the giving of material things that is most important, it’s acknowledging that someone is there, that they matter, that they are a child of God.
When I see a homeless person like Layla, I immediately feel the weight of the whole broken system. I want to fix it, which is impossible, and I feel angry, fearful, and hopeless. It’s easy to turn my eyes away and pass on the other side of the street in order to lessen the discomfort. I’m also tempted to judge and rationalize why I shouldn’t help. On the other hand, my Christian desire to “give a cup of cold water to the least of these” means I sometimes hand out “guilt money” indiscriminately.
I’m not called to fix all of society’s wounds. My mission is not to every homeless or hurting person around me. However, I need to reach out my hand to help whatever it touches. If God trusts me by bringing a person into my path, I need to listen to the Spirit’s nudging and respond. As Peter said, “I don’t have any silver or gold for you. But I’ll give you what I have” (Acts 3:6 NLT).
My husband and I were traveling out in the desert one day and saw a young man on the side of the road. My husband was impressed to turn back. The young man was a 17-year-old boy who needed a ride to the nearest town 20 miles away. His friend had gotten angry and left him on the side of the road with no water in 80 degree-plus heat. We took him into town, fed him some lunch, and answered his questions about ministry.
Ask God to trust you with his business. Acknowledge people as human.
When the people with the sign appeared outside the lobby, one of the young families from our church was sitting outside. Immediately, the father jumped to his feet and approached the people with the sign, his kids crowding around him. He politely asked some questions and then prayed with them and invited them inside. He did not give them any money. I was impressed with his response. He acknowledged them as human, he prayed for them, and he gave them an invitation to join the community, but he didn’t play their game. I’m sure our friend’s children have filed away these principles for further use.
Here are some tangible ways to help:
- Be aware of your personal thoughts and attitudes when you see homeless people.
- Smile and make eye contact
- Listen for the Spirit’s leading
- Pray silently or with them, if appropriate
- Find a way to help that’s not cash. Carry bottled water and gift cards for food in your car.
- Get involved in the corporate response to homelessness by joining a food bank or soup kitchen, working at a homeless shelter, or being on your city’s council.
- Find people who already have the systems and contacts in place to help and add your energy to their existing enterprise.
- Consider remodeling your charitable contributions to include God, your family’s spiritual needs, and those less fortunate.
A future for Layla?
Will she ever agree to move into housing, or will her life eventually slip away while she sits on the side of the road? I don’t know. But I do know that I can connect someone who needs work done on their house with a man desperate for work to support his family. I know my 90-year-old neighbor needs an air conditioner, my friend with five cats could use a box of cat litter from Costco, and a discouraged church member would appreciate sharing a meal. I can give money to programs that work in the community. I can take potato salad to the old man down the street who just lost his wife. I can hand out bottled water to people with signs at the intersection and buy a burrito for the “demonic” at Chronic Taco.
Is it enough? No. But I will acknowledge these humans in distress and keep moving forward with my eyes searching for places to help and my spirit tuned to the Spirit’s directions.
Kris Coffin Stevenson is an author, teacher, editor, and scopist. She loves living her eternal life starting now. She and her husband reside in Santa Clarita, California. You can follow her writing at bthelove.net or bthelove on Facebook.