This is an article I wrote for the Coalition on Homelessness “Street Sheet” publication.
A basic moral test is how our most vulnerable members are faring.
Faith communities have proven to be a significant force for creating positive change in San Francisco. They have modeled effective ways of responding to the challenges of our times and promoted methods to put their teachings into action. It is an effort that requires continual reevaluation to assess the ways in which we are responding to the poor and marginalized among us.
To witness faith in action in our City all one needs to do is step foot into the sanctuary of St. Boniface Catholic Church in the Tenderloin on any given weekday between 6AM to 3PM. As you walk through the door you will see beautiful stained glass windows and an ornately painted ceiling, but what makes this particular parish unique from other sanctuaries in our City is that two-thirds of the pews are providing a place for “sacred sleep” for about 100 people on any given day. One of the guests stated, “Here we can sleep with both eyes closed”, which sums up the atmosphere well.
The Gubbio Project has been facilitating the support needed to provide an opportunity to put faith into action since 2004. Laura Slattery, the Director, explained, “Everyone is welcome, regardless of their sexual orientation, mental health status, chemical use habits, or gender identity – everyone is welcome to come in, get warm and sleep without worry.” She stated that Rabbi Heschel captured the philosophy behind welcoming anyone into church to rest with the quote “Just to live is holy; just to be, divine.” There is no earning that needs to happen to enter the gates of the church.
In 1998 the Interfaith Council organized a collaborative to provide shelter from the cold and wet winter weather by providing space in churches where people could rest for the night. St. Boniface Parish, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, St. Mary’s Cathedral, and First Unitarian Universalist Church host the Interfaith Winter Shelter. There are approximately 1,300 beds in shelters for adults and families – or less then one bed for every five homeless people.
Faith communities have a long history of responding to the needs in the community and have established numerous social service organizations. These organizations have been advocating for human rights, housing rights, and providing direct service to those in need for many years. Currently the needs greatly outweigh the available services.
Establishing social service organizations has provided the ability to serve many in need, but an unforeseen social consequence is that our culture has become accustomed to outsourcing charity to agencies rather than experiencing a direct encounter through serving others. This is not addressing the social stigma, isolation, and marginalization experienced by those struggling with homelessness.
With the innovation of the Internet, people are often more aware of issues in other countries than issues plaguing their own community. This disconnect and lack of awareness can numb ones ability to see clearly and be truly empathetic. One can easily become spiritually blind to the dignity and rights of others in a culture where the excessive pursuit of power or pleasure dominates. Consciousness of the suffering of others inspires people to create change.
Pope Francis has set a very clear tone, not just for the Catholic Church, but also for the world. He is challenging us to raise our consciousness and join together to make change. We save ourselves by helping each other. Pope Francis articulated this well when he said,”When the church does not emerge from itself to evangelize, it becomes self-referential and therefore becomes sick. The evils that, over time, occur in ecclesiastical institutions have their root in self-referentiality, a kind of theological narcissism.” The person being of service and helping the poor and marginalized is actually the true recipient of the charity. Stepping out of oneself to help another strengthens the connectedness and unity of humanity.
Throughout history faith communities have responded to the ‘signs of the times’ by coming together to fight injustice. History provides many courageous and inspirational examples of people of faith making radical change. People like Martin Luther King Jr., Bishop Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, and the Dalai Lama continue to be sources of inspiration and hope for further generations.
From a sociological perspective, our culture has a deeply engrained social stigma attached to poverty and homelessness. The gap between the rich and poor is increasing and has become more polarized. A recent study by the Brookings Institution found that the top 5 percent of San Francisco households earn more than $353,000 per year, while the bottom 20 percent of households earn less than $21,000. That being the case, the need for strong ministries with a focus on the social teachings to care for the poor and marginalized is vital for the spiritual health of those in San Francisco faith communities.
In our culture ones value is determined by their ability to contribute to society. Homelessness is perceived as a personal failure, rather than a result of systematic social and economic inequality. Social stigma is a result of an individual or group not meeting the social standards, beliefs, action, and/or behaviors of a community. So social stigma is directly related to a value system. Something that heavily influences and molds a person’s values is religion and that aspect needs to be explored.
The Interfaith community is an important voice to speak out against the stigmatization and demonization of people in poverty. The general public is largely ignorant to the reality of poverty and our culture labels people in poverty as lazy, crazy, moochers, freeloaders, junkies, etc. But the social teachings of faith communities are very counter-culture when it comes to this. They don’t teach that there are “worthy poor” and “un-worthy poor.”
It is an urgent moral imperative that we work together to lessen the suffering of those in our community impacted by displacement. The work of the interfaith community is commendable and we have a great opportunity for increasing our collective efforts to concretely serve others. Not only will this be beneficial for those being served, it will also benefit the faith communities by encouraging an encounter with those on the margins.