Jon Kuhrt writes: It is a matter of historical fact that a huge number of the charities established to address homelessness were set up by committed Christians. Some retain a strong link to their founding beliefs; others have retreated from them.
Some may be tempted to assume this is just a piece of history, a natural consequence from a previously more religious age. But actually, faith-based activism has continued to re-invent itself over the last 15 years, with Christians along with those of other faiths, developing new ways to respond to poverty and housing need.
Despite this reality, faith has continued to be something of a contentious issue. Some of this is due to historical baggage: for example, in their famous books about rough sleeping, both Jack London (The People of the Abyss, 1902) and George Orwell (Down and Out in Paris and London, 1932) were highly critical of the coercive and condescending approach of Christian organisations .
From Suspicion to Engagement
In 2013, the Lost and Found report was based on 75 interviews with people affected by homelessness about faith and spirituality. Although the research was led by an atheist, Carwyn Gravell, it sharply challenged how the homeless sector views these matters:
Faith and spirituality is a dimension of life that is largely ignored within the philosophy of mainstream service provision, regarded as irrelevant, or as a private matter best avoided, and even perceived by some in the sector with suspicion and outright hostility.
I would say that in the last 8 years, helped by reports like Lost and Found and agencies like Housing Justice, there has been a lot of positive change on this issue. There is a growing acceptance of the role of faith and spirituality and a growing mutual appreciation between local authorities and faith-based organisations. Faith is much less of an ‘elephant in the room’ than it was 20 years ago.
The most significant factor
But, the question I want to focus on, is what are the reasons for the enduring commitment of people of faith towards homelessness? Why is a subject like theology even relevant to the issue of homelessness?
I would argue that the most important factor is the Bible itself. Whatever someone’s personal beliefs are, I would argue that the Bible has been by far the most influential document in shaping society’s response to homelessness. It is therefore worthy of attention and analysis at an event like this.
I will share eight key themes, each supported by one example from the biblical text, which underpins the enduring commitment of Christians to this work. I hope this is helpful to both Christians who need reminding, and also to non-believers who are interested in understanding better the motivations of people of faith.
1. Every person’s individual worth
So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27)
Every single human being bears the image of God and is endowed with intrinsic, infinite value. However scarred and marred it may become, nothing can obliterate this mark of the divine.
2. Systems of welfare and justice
When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap all the way to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the foreign resident. I am the LORD your God (Leviticus 23:22).
The Hebrew law included in-built welfare systems relating to how crops were to be harvested, debts cancelled and limits put on accumulating land. These were all designed to curb the excesses of greed and address destitution.
3. Direct action for justice and compassion
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice…to set the oppressed free…Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
The Hebrew prophets, such as Isaiah, continually railed against the oppression of the poor and express God’s contempt of religious practices which maintain injustice and ignore the plight of the vulnerable.
4. Loving your neighbour in need
But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds…put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him (Luke 10:33).
In response to a clever, academic question designed to catch him out, Jesus tells a story to show that anyone in need, of whatever ethnicity or status, is your neighbour.
5. The homeless Christ
Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head (Luke 9:58).
Jesus, the ‘author and perfector’ of the faith himself faced the insecurity of no permanent address. Solidarity with human suffering is fundamental to Jesus’ victory – and a radical example to his followers.
6. Welcome and hospitality
Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:2).
The early church expressed its convictions about Jesus’ resurrection by being an outward-looking community, displaying grace and hospitality across racial and social divides. This was a radical new way of being human in the ancient world.
7. The basis of God’s judgement
Come, you who are blessed by my Father…for I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me (Matthew 25:34-36)
Jesus’ story of God’s judgement at the end of time emphasises the ultimate importance of how we treat those in need.
8. Grace, truth and redemption
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him (Luke 15:20).
Whatever people have done, God’s grace is always available to all who turn and accept the truth. Redemption and reconciliation are at the heart of the Christian gospel.
These are my eight examples of why the Bible has been so influential in motivating generations of Christians to provide practical help to people affected by homelessness.
Whilst I do not believe that people of faith have any monopoly on compassionate action, it is important to acknowledge the roots from which generations of activism have grown.
I will end with another quote from Carwyn Gravell’s Lost and Found report because it speaks to the direct relevance of faith to those who at the heart of this issue:
For homeless people, religious belief, practice and doctrine can help them come to terms with a past that is often characterised by profound emotional and material loss, enhance and give structure to the present where time hangs heavy for many, and create a purposeful future built on hope, fellowship and a sense of purpose.
This article is based on Jon’s lecture at the British Academy conference at Lincoln University on ‘Representing Homelessness’ where he spoke on ‘theological representation’. You can download the lecture’s powerpoint presentation here. See also Jon’s review of Lost and Found: faith and spirituality in the lives of homeless people and you can download for free the Lost and Found report. See also Jon’s discussion of Homelessness, faith and the future.
The heading illustration is Rembrandt’s preparatory sketch for his famous painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son.
Jon Kuhrt was Director of Community Mission for Livability (formerly the Shaftesbury Society) from 2002 to 2010, and Chief Executive of the West London Mission from 2010 to 2018, leading their work with people affected by homelessness and addiction. He is now Rough Sleeping Adviser to the government, specialising in how faith and community groups respond to homelessness. He lives in Streatham with his wife and three children, is a member of Streatham Baptist Church and is involved each summer with Lee Abbey Youth Camp. He is an avid cricket lover. He blogs at ‘Grace + Truth’ where this article was first published.