*I want to name at the outset that I am going to be using the language “homeless” in this blog. The way that we use this language is often demeaning in this culture, and can be misleading because of how we understand the word “home.” I have struggled and dialogued about this with friends, as recently as Jerry Herships this morning. I am using the language in this situation for the sake of readability and because it is how the people I am discussing refer to themselves, but I want to continue to challenge myself and others to examine how we use our language and find better, and perhaps more blurry, ways of talking about this topic.
“I think you need to add more water,” Joe Synan, the Thursday afternoon art teacher told me. My friend Tommie had picked me up at the artists’ community in the Houston Heights just in time to catch the end of the weekly water color classes at St. John’s Downtown. While Lanecia and some of The Art Project artists finished up their masterpieces, I squeezed in some quick beginner’s pointers and tried my hand at creating which, as Lanecia is always teaching me, is good for the soul.
“See, add more water, and just let those colors float across the paper towards one another. Let the water do the work,” Joe said as I flowed my dark blue smoothly into my yellow. You could barely tell where the transition took place. “It’s unpredictable, and imprecise, but that is what makes it beautiful.” That unpredictable nature is also exactly what makes it difficult for those who like stark lines and contrasts. It was a medium that fit pretty precisely the leadership and congregation of St. John’s.
Watercolor became inescapably theological for me as I sat in St. John’s, a place where the lines between people are not thick and stark but thin and shifting.
This week, while I was helping serve the Saturday morning breakfast, I was working alongside a volunteer group from another church. The man who runs the breakfast program walked past and called out, “Food looks good,” as he went by. One of the volunteers replied innocently, “I hope you’ll enjoy it!” She had assumed he was one of the homeless community there for a meal. He may very well have been a part of the homeless community at some point, or, then again, maybe he has not. They were not certain, actually, whether I was a member of the homeless community or not when they asked me to scoop eggs; I was not certain myself. The lines are not clear here. Too much of the water of baptism has washed over this place for the lines and categories that dictate the kingdoms of the world to hold sway over the freedom of the kingdom of God.
Baptism – by which I mean the visible and effective sign of the love and grace of God – by which I mean the love and grace of God – has a way of changing people, changing categories, changing communities.
As someone who lives on the lines, rather than staying inside them, I felt comfortable in this place. A place where lines almost seem to disappear, washed away by a conviction that we ought to view one another as Christ views us.
Much like Peter at the gates of the Temple – healing the crippled man so that he can enter and worship, rather than merely giving him money – St. John’s seeks not just to offer charity to the homeless community of Houston, but acceptance and healing and confidence.
I have heard many people write and talk about the thin places in the world; the places where the space between heaven and earth is very thin. And here was another kind of thin, a place where the space between people was very thin.
St. John’s has made it one of it’s missions to eliminate classism from the worship space; and they do not simply dip their toe into that water. To say they welcome the homeless community does not quite capture what is taking place there, as I soon learned. They in fact welcome the people who are not welcome anywhere else – the registered sex offenders, the people with a criminal record, those involved in prostitution, those with alcohol seeping out of their pores – those beloved children of God who have both a past and a future, just like you and me.
Maybe the thing that sets St. John’s apart is not that it makes the lines between people and categories so thin, but because the leaders here understand how meaningless those categories actually are and, consequently, refuse to accept them. You may be homeless today, but you don’t have to be tomorrow. You may feel unloved right now, but we can change that in an instant; and if you are not ready for that to change, until the time comes when you are ready to receive love, you’ll just have to accept, as Rudy says, that “we love you and there is nothing you can do about it.”
Those words may seem like a cool catchphrase, until you see it lived out, until you see how hard it is, until you see how true it is. Once you have seen how it has changed just one life, you can no longer see it as a cute catchphrase – you have to see it as a declaration of war; a declaration of war on hopelessness, on despair, on poverty, on hate; a declaration of war on sexism, classism and racism; a declaration of war on all the voices inside your head that say you can’t, you won’t, you haven’t, and you never will be good enough. I would not want to be in the shoes of despair, disdain, or denigration when they have to go up against those words and the people who live them out.
Those words, that are so easy to say and so hard to live, are powerful because when you tear down walls and categories and boxes, you are tearing down the very things that protect you, the very things that make you feel different, better or safe from the suffering of those around you. When you float your water across the page and blur the lines, the water of others mingles with your own; and with it their suffering, their struggles, their liabilities, their strength, their beauty and their gifts. Water makes an us from an I, makes a we from a you, makes an ours from a mine.
In the artwork that is St. John’s, the words of uncompromising love form the pigment as God’s water washes it all over the page of this city. The words make a claim, the same claim God makes – I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it. The water blurs the lines of division so that those words do not stay in one box, do not remain applied to only one category of people.
The water takes away our ability to choose who those words fit. The water of baptism removes the lie that we have chosen – that we get to pick and choose who we will love and who we will see, and who we will accept as family. The water washes away the walls we build around our minds and hearts and eyes.
Somehow, when those lines of division and categorization are diminished, it makes it possible to move between them.
One of the men I encountered where I was staying in Houston had been homeless and a member of another church for years. That congregation loved celebrating his presence and the fact that they were inclusive enough to welcome him. They shared the fact with others and made it a highlight of their ministry. It was a source of great encouragement to them that they had a “homeless friend” and that someone from the “homeless” category felt safe in their community.
Pastor Rudy, however, did not see a “homeless friend” but a friend. He saw something that most of us can’t see – he saw the man, not the category or the box he fit in. Seeing the man and not the category, he asked him a very simple question – do you want a place to live? No one had thought to ask that before and, wonder of wonders, he leapt at the chance. After years of having his homeless presence celebrated, he finally was himself able to celebrate having a home.
I do not intend to oversimplify, and there are many complex reasons why people become and remain homeless, but they are not a category, a token, a triumph or a prize – they are people. They are God’s. They are ours. We are theirs.
Perhaps we would all be better off if we looked at all the lines that we draw between ourselves and others, all of the categories and boxes we place people in, and float a little water over that page. Let the lines blur and blend.
Living in the blur – not quite housed, not quite unhoused – not quite domestic, not quite international – not quite young, not quite old – I float on the waters of my baptism and wait to see where on the paper God will land me. While I wait, I look around to see where is there a need for more pigment, more texture, more detail, and – most importantly – where are there more lines that need to be blurred.