This winter has been brutally cold! Subzero temperatures make it unconscionable to think of people sleeping outdoors. It is hard to keep warm in our home, let alone out on the street. It was under these conditions that we were approached by two young ladies who came asking for help. They have been homeless for over a year. We have helped them a few times with rides, with a motel room, and some food. Their story pulled at our social justice heart strings. They were a lesbian couple who had been ostracized from their families because of their gender identity, at least that is part of the story. We contacted the regional homeless shelter. No room. In fact there is a waiting list and it could be months before space becomes available. Some churches in the area, like ours, have been helping to pay for hotel costs. About the cheapest you can get is $80 a night. These girls needed a couple weeks before they were going to be able to get some assistance and a new place to go. Our discretionary fund couldn't cover that cost. So we made a choice to take them into our home. We didn't do it blindly. We called the police department to see if there were any known issues with these girls. We were told no. They came with their one bag of possessions and their platitudes of gratitude. We gave them their own room, their own bathroom, all the food they wanted and welcomed them into our lives.
Saturday we became suspicious that our house guests were taking advantage of us. Mitch's tablet that he uses for preaching was missing, my Nook was gone, a ring was missing. I had been away most of the week and upon return discovered that my jewelry box and dressers had been rifled through, my laptop had been stuffed back into its bag and haphazardly put back on the shelf. We were prepared to give them one last night at the house until the family gathered in the living room to watch the Super Bowl only to discover that our Ps3 was gone. Games that had been Christmas presents for our son - gone. When we confronted them they denied it, of course. They craftily tried to claim that our yippee dog had barked for about 45 minutes during the morning while we were at church. "Someone must have come in while they hid in the guest room." Things had already been missing, their story was lame.
We had set ground rules with them when they moved in. If anything went wrong, anything went missing, we would call the police. We kept our promise. The police were at our door within minutes and proceeded to extract a confession that broke our hearts. They had taken everything and sold it to feed a drug addiction. In fact, the police had been looking for them. They had a history of prior arrests for theft and drug possession. We had been totally, dreadfully betrayed. When the girls had learned that my ring was not valuable they had thrown it in the trash at a convenience store rather than bringing it back when they returned to sleep at our house that night. The lies, the tears, the attempts at apologies, the begging us not to press charges. It was heart wrenching.
We did file charges because we believe that accountability is important. We did because we knew we would help the police with their ongoing investigation. We did because we knew that as painful as it would be to go to jail, they would be warm and they will get the help they need with their addiction. We did because we did not want them coming back to our house. We did, perhaps above all, because we were angry.
Today I am feeling that the greatest harm done was not the loss of possessions, we can replace those - except for the ring whose value was sentimental, a symbol of our family story. The greater harm was to my soul, my sense of conviction, the voice within me that wants to stand up for the least who are so often misjudged, condemned and kicked to the curb. The greater harm is that this is not the first time we have been through this. In a different time and place we welcomed a young autistic man whose parents had kicked him out, unaware of his autism and unwilling to help him. We connected him with help, we gave him a place to live, he worked with us at our church food kitchen, and he helped himself to smaller, far less valuable items in the house.
Just yesterday I preached the words of Micah, "What does the Lord require of you? To seek justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with your God." I preached these words alongside the beatitudes and spoke of the importance of living as Jesus spoke; not to receive blessings, but to be a blessing. I also spoke about the challenges of living this, it is not always easy. I even spoke about reaching out and caring for the homeless asking, "Would we take them into our homes?" I admitted that I was uncomfortable with our guests, that it was testing me deeply. In hind sight, my intuition was wiser than my actions. Today I am questioning what I just preached. Today I laughingly quipped, "If someone takes your XBox, give them your Ps3!" I am questioning my conviction asking myself, "Self, what must you do to regain your conviction?" I'm not ready to answer that question just yet, because I know in the end it is likely that God will ask me to make people, not possessions, my priority. Today I am asking a different question. How do we arouse the conscience of those who contribute to the problem of homelessness? How do we speak against the economic disparity that leaves some painfully poor? How do we speak to our congregations, to people in the pews whose giving is determined not by their faith but by their satisfaction with the performance of the leadership? How do we change our society so that people are no longer ostracized and condemned because of their sexuality, race, gender, political views, and on, and on, and on?
In many ways I do not blame the girls for what they have become. I blame those who rejected them because they were lesbian. I blame the government for cutting aid that is making it harder for the homeless to find a place to live and a job to provide for themselves. I blame those who take advantage of the weak and lead them to drugs and theft and other corruption. I blame myself for not doing enough to stand up to broken institutions. All of these helped to steal the dreams of two young women who wanted to be good, and kind. One of the girls cried out through tears, "This is not me, I am not like this, I am a good person. I need help." Mitch responded to her cry, "If only you had told us, we could have done much to get you the help you need." Which leads me to the reality that while all of these factors contributed to where they are today, these girls also made choices. They did not take responsibility for their situation in legal and beneficial ways; and with responsibility comes accountability. It all comes full circle, doesn't it? We all have responsibility to care for ourselves and each other, respect each other, and work together for the common good. These two young ladies are a reminder to all of us of what happens when we do not live up to our responsibilities as a society, as communities of faith, and as individuals. So while I am angry and disappointed, I feel a level of sympathy and compassion for them and pray that they get themselves together and on their feet.
Tonight in our region about 40 people are homeless tonight. Snow has buried us and the cold is bitter. What can I do for them? Tonight, I just don't know.