Dr. Paul Farmer is a legend in his own time. His work in Haiti, providing health care in the very poorest areas of that poor country, and his creative, determined struggle to stop the spread of tuberculosis globally, have made him a hero in the medical profession. He wrote that working in Haiti was what he termed an “AMC” – an “area of moral clarity”. People were sick, they were poor, they needed medical attention desperately. He and his team showed up and offered it. The needs, and the needed responses, were blatant.
I read about Paul Farmer when I was the founder and later the executive director of the Urban Ministry of Palo Alto. Ours was an interfaith nonprofit that served low income and homeless people in the area south of San Francisco. At first, our effort seemed like an “AMC”. I had an invigorating sense of moral, and I daresay even spiritual, clarity about the projects we were doing together. Hungry people needed to be fed. Homeless people needed shelter and housing. We got together and provided it. What could be a purer expression of Jesus’ mandate to his followers to “feed his sheep”? Our organization received a lot of support from the Palo Alto community.
And a fair number of homeless and low income people hated the Urban Ministry. And hated me. I had my life threatened several times by some of the people I worked so hard to serve.
This anger amazed me. I was not accustomed to being hated by anybody. At first I externalized it as the moral failure of ungrateful, rude recipients of our charity. But when I explored it, asked questions of those who were so angry, I began to see that what I had assumed was an AMC was really an AMM.
Providing emergency assistance to homeless people, indeed, providing practically any kind of direct aid to poor people, leads us into “Areas of Moral Murkiness”. On the one hand, a person can’t do much about his or her lack of employment or housing or education if they are hungry and homeless. On the other hand, as soon as a person becomes dependent on direct aid, it can be a perverse incentive to stay stuck on the streets. The relationship of charity tends to create a power relationship which can debase the recipient. Every time charity is given, it is a reminder to the recipient of his or her lower status and dependency.
So it was that I discovered that the Urban Ministry was part of the problem of homelessness. I was part of the problem. What seemed clear now looked murky. I struggled with the huge disparity between the way the public saw our work and the way a significant number of our clients saw it. I had to accept the humility of realizing that I didn't have the answers to the problem of homelessness. And then I found that showing more humility made me more effective in being of service to homeless people.
Was I willing to hang in there and deal with this newfound Area of Moral Murkiness, or would I quit and seek out a Area of Moral Clarity in which to work? A number of events conspired together to induce a sort of conversion experience, a spiritual awakening, that enabled me to stay the course. One of them was a fistfight.
One of our most loyal volunteers was a member of a local evangelical church. She was a hard worker, willing to do the toughest jobs, and we could always count on her. She ran our clothing distribution for homeless people at our daytime drop in center. She could be testy at times, and overly preachy about her religious beliefs, but she was a good soul and we appreciated her.
One day, a woman came to the drop in center whom we knew well. She was a crack whore – she traded sex for cocaine. She was rail-thin, sleep-deprived, and unpredictable in her behavior. She had come to the drop in center to get some free clothing.
I stepped away from the drop in area for a few minutes, and when I got back, the homeless woman was crying and holding her bloody nose, and the volunteer was wailing with self-loathing. They had fallen into a verbal altercation and the volunteer punched the homeless woman in the face.
Both of them blubbered to me at the same time, each of them disgusted – not by the other, but by their own behavior. The volunteer poured out her truth to me. Her daughter was an alcoholic, in and out of the hospital several times for liver failure. She had not been able to save her daughter’s soul, much less her body, from the addiction. So she volunteered with us in hopes she could save somebody else. Until she took a swing at a homeless woman, she had not been in touch with her own inner rage at herself, at God, at her daughter, and at the world for this problem she could not solve.
The crack whore poured out her confession. “I can’t believe that I have gone this low,” she sobbed. “Arguing with a church lady about how many free clothes I can have! Who am I? What has become of me?”
They hugged each other while crying.
We had just strayed even deeper into the murk, with this incident. Yet there was divinity in it. The volunteer assumed I would fire her for her violent act. Maybe I should have done so, but I detected that this was a profoundly transformative moment for her. She stayed with us, a dramatically changed person – much humbler, sweeter, more compassionate, and no longer preachy and opinionated.
The homeless woman got on the phone at our drop in center and checked into a drug rehab program. She had her ups and downs after that, but her demeanor was markedly different when she came to our drop in center.
Through that fistfight, I saw that man, and woman, do not live by bread alone, as was said in Deuteronomy and again by Jesus. Dignity is more important than clothes. Self-respect can get higher on the hierarchy of needs than a roof over one’s head. A person’s sense of the divine word moving through their soul, a person’s inner certainty that he or she is the crown of God’s creation – knowing this, feeling this is step one on the road out of poverty. The homeless woman was abruptly brought to consciousness of her inner dignity, paradoxically through a bloody nose. The remorse of the volunteer who punched her had a big effect on her, too. Seeing the volunteer cry changed the fistfight into an awakening for both of them. To paraphrase I Peter 2: 24, by each other’s wounds, they were healed. Without words, without theological explanation, they had received the gospel. It is not a path I ever would recommend or condone, but in this case, it led to the light.
Now, getting that inner knowledge, that inner certitude of one’s essential divine value, happens in many different ways. Some people hear the gospel story, it uplifts them and transports them, and that is the turning point. It happens other ways for other people. St Francis of Assisi reportedly said, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.”
It happened when I worked with a group of tenants
in the "skid-row" type hotels of Palo Alto, to get a change in the city
housing policy so that the hotels would be preserved. One of them was
purchased by a developer who wanted to convert it into office space. I
gathered the hotel residents of downtown Palo Alto in a church social
hall and laid out the challenge before them. If this hotel was allowed
to be converted, it would be a matter of time before the rest were shut
down, too, depriving all of them of irreplaceable low-income housing.
When they stood up, one by one, and spoke at the city council meeting,
there was a dignity and a power in their voices that made me weep.
These were people who felt like nobodies, the very poorest people in an
otherwise affluent town, and suddenly they knew they were somebodies.
I knew they'd never be the same after that moment. They won their
cause. The city changed its policy, and the threatened hotel was
purchased, improved, and protected by a low-income housing
The Areas of Moral Murkiness into which I stumbled led me to advocacy for social change. Lots of Christians stay away from getting involved in politics. It’s too messy, too murky, too morally muddled. It involves compromising the purity of one’s Christian calling to serve. But our faith calls us to go beyond the safe zone where we can feel good about ourselves all the time because we’re doing such wonderful work. If we are really about following Jesus, it’s going to take us to the halls of city and state government, it is going to take us to Washington, it’s going to take us to confront the seats of power around the world.
Church-based charity is still essential – it’s the front line in the struggle. It’s where we meet the issues face-to-face. But having met the people who suffer from systematic injustice, we are then called to stand with them and go the distance and address issues at a political level. Charity and social activism go hand-in-hand.
Over the course of those years, I learned that the word “homeless” is not a very useful one. Many times, I noticed that there were plenty of house-ful people in Palo Alto who were emotionally and spiritually home-less. They had roofs over their heads, and good incomes, but they lived far away from family and had few if any friends, and had no real involvement in the local community. And there were quite a few of our houseless folks at our houseless drop in center who in fact had a strong sense of being at home in our community. They knew the streets intimately, they knew which dumpsters had good food in them at what times of the day, they knew where to get vital supplies like cardboard and scrap foam for making shelters and beds, they knew the cops on a first-name basis, they knew lots of shop owners. A lot of our houseless Palo Altans knew more about the town than the people who lived in its houses. In fact, on many occasions, I heard volunteers tell me that they never really knew Palo Alto very well until they came to work at our drop in center. Working with us, getting to know the houseless but homeful folks on Palo Alto's streets, helped them feel like they truly lived in our town.
This is hardly an argument for considering homelessness as something less than the terrible crisis that it is. On the other hand, it reminds us to question our assumptions about it, it reminds us to move beyond our facile clarity about it, and step into the murkiness, the many-layered reality of poverty, with its many ironies and paradoxes. There’s more to home than a house. And more to wealth than money.
“And a scribe came up and said to him, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head."” Mt 8: 19-20. Jesus was, technically, homeless. But this is the same Jesus who said his Father’s house had many mansions. Was Jesus a homeful man who was houseless? Do we put Jesus into the same social class targeted by emergency shelters and drop in centers? Jesus didn’t own anything but his cloak, tunic, and sandals. Yet he enjoyed wonderful hospitality, often eating very well and sleeping in comfortable quarters. Was he poor, or rich? If we met him today, would we categorize him as a charity case? Would he be one of the billions of people living on less than $2.50 a day?
The answers to these questions elude us. These questions lead us deeper into murk, and farther from clarity. But that is what happens when we do what the scribe said he was going to do, and follow Jesus wherever he goes. We follow him into the humility that comes with our ignorance about the nature of social problems. We follow him in following those who suffer, rather than arrogantly assuming we know what is good for them. We follow him in discovering what is homeful about the houseless, homeless about the houseful, poor about the wealthy, rich about the poor. We may be rich in resources but still poor in understanding, blinded by our sense of superiority, crippled by our misplaced faith in our assumptions. Into the unknown, into the unfamiliar, into tasks of compassion and action we never dreamed we’d engage, the Christ leads us….