October 9, 2016 Matthew 25: 31-40
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 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.”
When I was in seminary I took a class on youth ministry from an amazing pastor who had been working with teens for years. During one class we played a game that taught us how someone becomes homeless. We were divided into different size family groups and assigned roles. There was a designated bread winner or winners in each family, and we drew cards telling us what the annual income for our family was. We had to work out a budget to live on.
And then each family drew a card on which was written an event that impacted that family’s life. It might be a new job or a raise in salary, winning the lottery, but more often it was an illness, a death, a natural disaster, a lost job, a mortgage payment that never should have been taken on, a landlord who sells the building we were living in to developers - all those unanticipated life experiences we’d rather didn’t happen to us. And with them came a price tag that influenced our income, and required us to re-do our budgets. What could we give up? Where could we find extra income?
We kept playing until each family became homeless. It was a great teaching tool for teenagers, but it served as a wake up call for us adults too, many who live paycheck to paycheck. We saw that you don’t have to be suffering from PTSD or a mental illness or drug or alcohol addiction to become homeless. It can happen to anyone.
But it happens to certain segments of our society more than others.
The typical sheltered homeless family is comprised of a mother in her late twenties with two children.
84% of families experiencing homelessness are female headed.
Families of color are overrepresented in the homeless population.
53% of homeless mothers do not have a high school diploma.
’29% of homeless families are working.
92% of homeless mothers have experienced severe violence and / or sexual abuse during their lifetime; 63% report this abuse was perpetrated by an intimate partner.
Homeless mothers have three times the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder.
About 50% of homeless mothers have experienced a major depressive episode since becoming homeless.
Over one third of homeless mothers have a chronic physical health condition, and ulcers at four times the rate of other women.
Children experiencing homelessness are sick four times more often than other children, including four times as many respiratory infections, twice as many ear infections, and five times more gastrointestinal problems.
Children experiencing homelessness have three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems compared to non-homeless children.
36% of homeless children repeat a grade.
* Homes for Families
These are shocking statistics, ones that most of us don’t think about in our day to day lives. We live in an environment that shelters us from coming face to face with those who have no permanent housing, who live below the poverty line.
The same year that I took the class on youth ministry, I was hired to pastor a small youth group in Oakland. These were teens who didn’t have to worry about where their next meal was coming from. One Sunday I took them to a worship service in the Tenderloin district of SanFrancisco. This is an area with streets lined with soup kitchens, homeless shelters and drug rehab clinics.
As we were walking from breakfast to the church we passed a man sleeping in a doorway. The youth walking next to me started to say something, then stopped himself. A few steps later I asked him what he was about to say. He said he didn’t like coming here, with all these bums on the street. I knew there was some work to be done.
Soon after I took the group to volunteer at a soup kitchen in Berkeley. They were required to eat and converse with the guests after they served them. As we were sitting on the stoop outside the church waiting for his parents to pick him up, that same youth turned to me and said, “That was probably the only good meal they get all week, wasn’t it?” The people he had just served were no longer bums in his eyes, but people just like all of us, only going through a difficult time, in need of compassion, a listening ear, and a helping hand.
It makes a difference to meet people where they’re at. That’s why we’ve been doing the cookouts for the families in the motels, and hope to continue to find ways to reach out to them. It’s why we’re encouraging each one of you to sign up to do an act of service, or hopefully more than one, as part of our 200 acts of service celebrating City Mission’s 200th anniversary.
Their focus this year is on preventing homelessness. A single mom who participated in their A Lift Up program wrote this: “Being part of A Lift Up has redirected me and given me hope. At one point in my life, I felt hopeless and thought nothing would work out. This group has made me realize that I am not alone and you can get help. This program helped me in so many ways, not just financially but emotionally. Even though these are hard times, my goal is to work on being in a better financial situation and maintaining it. Thank you.”
Next Sunday during worship, Sandy, a woman from Haiti, and Ron, from here, both who are part of City Missions’ Public Voice program are coming to share their experiences of becoming homeless, and then once again moving into stable housing. Sandy was part of A Lift Up program. They will be joining us in the parlor after worship to answer questions and continue the conversation. Others from City Mission will also be joining us.
It’s getting to know people, hearing their stories, finding out how we can help, that opens our hearts, fills us with compassion, and moves us to action. But two kinds of actions are necessary if we are to truly address the problems facing this country. One comes in the form of charity. We are already doing that. The other is political, addressing the systemic problems that underlay the need for charity. This is the difficult task, but one that needs to be addressed as we approach this political season. It’s one that happens in the voting booth, and through pressure put on our representatives in the state house and congress.
On September 12th Reebee, Marge and I attended a Moral Revival Action at the State House. There were about 1,000 clergy and lay people there. They read, and then presented to Governor Baker a lengthy document entitled “The Higher Ground Moral Declaration.” It covered Democracy and voting rights; poverty and economic justice, workers rights, education, health care, environmental justice, immigrants rights and xenophobia, criminal justice, LGBT rights, and war mongering and the military. It covered everything Jesus covered in his parable this morning - and more.
People rallied and presented this document to our politicians at 25 state houses around the country that day. I included a link to the entire document in my last columns article for anyone who wants to read it.
The Higher Ground Moral Declaration on Poverty and Economic Justice began with Isaiah 10:1-2 “Doom to you who legislate evil, who make laws that make victims — laws that make misery for the poor, that rob my destitute people of dignity, exploiting defenseless widows, taking advantage of homeless children.” You have to ask yourself “Has nothing changed since those words were written? Are we still struggling with the same injustices?”
Each part of this document ended with questions to the politicians and candidates. I think they are questions we need to be asking ourselves as we enter the voting booth this November.
Do you support a comprehensive approach to economic democracy?
Do you believe that poverty and racial and gender inequality must be ended?
Do you support a guaranteed annual income for those who are not working or underemployed?
Do you believe in a robust public investment program that will create jobs, and that will address our critical infrastructure needs?
Do you oppose the criminalization of poverty and homelessness and attacks to demolish homeless encampments?
Do you support programs that provide affordable housing to anyone who needs it?
We believe poverty is a moral issue. Do you? If not, please explain why?
And remember Jesus’ words: “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.”