Virtue & The Homeless — Life at the Compound & Elsewhere
“Persons with severe addictions are among those contemporary prophets that we ignore to our own demise, for they show us who we truly are.”
For many, The Compound exists as a place where both arranged interaction and simple human connection is found — distinction and kinship. The lines drawn between “us” and “them” are evident, and in no need of redundancy. But what about the similarities? The resemblances?
It’s easier to see difference, for all of us, but there is more that connects us than separates us. Fortunately, I live among a community of people who know this to be true. This piece, consequently, has been written over the number of years by them. Like for me, sometimes all we need is for someone to pull back the curtain.
To be homeless is no badge of honor. In fact, no modern class of people are more despised, more patronized, or seen more as an inconvenience to both the economy at large, and our general welfare. However, to be homeless exposes you to the most rudimentary principles of what it means to be human and that’s why we should pay attention; why Jesus himself mandates us to pay attention. Their kingdom has fallen. Self image to protect, gone. Life in status quo society, they blew it. Money or material as security, their life won’t allow it. They live in the shadows of society; likely to have the broad stroke of ‘addict’ or ‘worthless’ painted across their backs with no words or time to explain.
So much has been written to try and convince us that those in our alleys are worthy of our time and attention — ultimately, to me, an argument considering what scale we use to grade our use of time. My contention is what stands in the way when we see them. I would never ask someone to go serve at the local humane society if they didn’t care for animals. Likewise for those who are homeless. My point isn’t to disregard the humble act of service and the reward that follows, but service in every form isn’t necessarily a force in the right direction. It’s to question the ways we’ve distorted so many acts of service, and that maybe, the paradox of serving is to, well, yourself be served. The conversation of virtue is unable to be had until the industry of bad service is first torn down.
You may be thinking, “why critique a good thing like “serving” just because it has potential to be done poorly”. Think of it like trying to break a bad habit. For every ten steps you take forward, one mishap is twenty in the other direction. In this case, ten steps back for you and ten steps back for that person — reinforcing to them that they are still, in your eyes, duty. Guys, we didn’t just miss it on this one. This isn’t one of those times where we can just start back peddling and see where it went wrong. We must physically turn around and walk in the other direction. We went down the entirely wrong tunnel. We are as a society further removed from the poor than ever before. A person could physically set up their life in a way that they never again have one interaction with someone who is poor other than when they are serving “them”. This is not what it means to be found among the poor. What Jesus longs for in all of us is far beyond concern or charity, but is solidarity. The simple fact, that in each other we encounter Jesus. It’s that unseen treasure that causes someone to say, “Oh, I could never do what you do.” Nothing epitomizes the false belief that we are ok without the poor in our lives more than that statement. It is the virtuousness of the poor that show us Jesus, who helps us recognize the poverty of our own souls; our own lack of freedom to love, to share what we have and ultimately, to live life in true abundance. But we have been lied to. We have been told that the poor need us, our stuff, our busyness, our… addictions.
I’d like to believe that if all abilities to serve the poor were taken away and instead, we sat at the same table as them, removing our masks as they have, that our eyes would regain vision. That yes, we would see more than a dirty person, but see them for who they are. The Imago Dei imprinted on their face.
The poor are unlike any other group of people for one specific reason: Jesus chose a side when he came to earth and he chose theirs. They are not a people to be reached out to, to be accepted into your little society or even advocated for — at least in the ways we do so often. They are heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven. This is not to say we should all quit our jobs, forget about our responsibilities, and become homeless (although, that would be a choice you would get to make). It is to become conscious of the very ways we disassociate ourselves with them. Without even realizing it, we have become our own worst enemy, driving the wedge of separation between us and the very gift God gave to bring freedom to our lives. To be confronted with our own bondage and ways we have rejected the identity God spoke over all of us, which is child of God, with whom I created and am well pleased.
My prayer is that we would find the courage to fully associate our lives with the poor, so that we could understand the damage we do, not just to that person, but inevitably to ourselves, when we save our interactions only for times where we have something to give. I am praying for kinship and that we would recognize the sweet acceptance offered to us by them. That we would find in their touch and in their presence the gentleness of Jesus.
My good friend Jon Dengler runs an organization in Tampa called The Well, a community of people committed to living in direct relationships with the poor. The Well, as does The Compound, acknowledges in every way possible the beautiful irony in that Jesus asked the woman at the well for a drink of water. Jon once said, “Some come to the Well to get a sandwich, or find a place to rest. Others come to serve or volunteer. The truth is we’re tricking everybody. Because our goal is to get them to the same table, cause that’s what Jesus is doing. Bringing us to one table, to heal, and encounter him in one another.”
I suppose this is the true power of God. That starting points and intentions stand no chance when met with the fullness of God’s desire for us. He knows what he is doing anytime we find ourselves in the same room with one another. Will our hearts only be shaped by this truth, so that eventually it’s not trickery that brings us together, but union.