Faith & Values: Home is where the heart is

This column was originally published on December 12, 2014 in the Richmond Times Dispatch and can be found here

Posted: Friday, December 12, 2014 10:00 pm

It is that time of year when numerous volunteers will generously offer their time to prepare food and serve for those who find themselves living at a shelter or some other such place. As we observe the holidays, my prayer for the volunteers and those they serve is that they will listen carefully to the lives around them. If one person listens carefully to another, they may hear the life of a person experiencing homelessness shouting, “I just need a home!”

Regrettably, these seem to be days when people “look past” what they shouldn’t and pay too much attention to what they should simply look past. The world-renowned musical melodies of Joshua Bell and his violin filled the entrance of a busy Washington subway station in 2007 where close to a thousand people looked past the man playing the violin for 45 minutes.

As a Baptist pastor who has found himself working as an advocate for the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, “listening past” is essential for identifying the undertones of a given situation or meeting.

Unfortunately, it is not surprising how often some say people experiencing homelessness want to be homeless. This is not true. I often wonder if the person who says another individual wants to be homeless simply isn’t listening past what is being said with words.

I once spent a year getting to know a man who has spent more than 30 years living on the streets of Arlington and Fairfax counties. His entire demeanor and actions told me he did not want to live on the streets and in shelters. However, his everyday journey on the streets had formed who he is today like the way people form habits. Homelessness had become a significant part of his story.

If I asked him, “Do you want a home?” he’d simply respond, “No.” But our conversations often ended with him asking for a version of that which he denied only moments before. He would ask if I could get him a hotel room for the night.

The dissonance of competing stories is shattered when a person takes the opportunity to introduce an unexpected narrative into another’s life. The new story becomes a frontier of possibility. If the story is powerful enough to shatter the alternative, it may impassion the person to write an entirely new life story.

Such an event occurred in my own life when I became a follower of Jesus as a college student.

It happened again as I sat at my post, day after day in the office of U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-10th, more than a decade ago. Painful stories about human trafficking, genocide, religious persecution and other forms of injustice were introduced into my life regularly by advocates and the congressman’s stories.

But there are solutions we can lean into for our neighborhoods, cities and Virginia that help us listen past the injustice and pain of what is being said to what is desired in the deep recesses of a person’s heart. Home.

Introducing a home into a person’s life can shatter the homelessness story they’re experiencing and assist them in getting back on their feet. They will have water to take medicine, shelter from the elements, safety from threats and a stove to cook food. A home shatters the homelessness story and opens new frontiers of possibility for life.

One day while driving my friend to a temporary shelter, he asked if I wanted to see where his mom lived. A couple of twists and turns through neighborhood streets and we sat looking at a nice home in Arlington. It was his childhood home.

I asked him again as we sat looking at the house if he wanted a home. He did. He wanted to go home, and it wasn’t an option because of some events that occurred in his life. But he did want a home. He was not a homeless man. He was a man experiencing homelessness to the depths of his soul.

Until I started working for the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, I had trouble listening past what a person said to hearing what a person experiencing homelessness truly needed. It never occurred to me that seeing the same people on the streets or in a shelter, year after year, didn’t make sense. “Why weren’t they finding a home?” There are no “homeless people,” only people experiencing homelessness.

To be homeless is not what they want, even if they say it. We need to listen past the words and help find homes for those experiencing homelessness. Homelessness doesn’t have to be their story.

Jesus indicates in Matthew’s gospel that the poor will always be with us. Let us not pretend that means the homeless will always be with us. They are different stories and the dissonance between them must be and can be shattered with a home.

Tom Lynch works for the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness and is a member of Derbyshire Baptist Church in Henrico County.