“¿De dónde es?” It’s the first thing most people ask me here in Guatemala. I wonder sometimes if my friend Delia notices that I don’t always answer it the same way. Sometimes I say Pennsylvania, sometimes I say Washington, D.C., sometimes I say Philadelphia. None of these are places where I have technically lived over the past couple years, but they are where my mail goes to try to find me.
I much prefer this question to the one I usually get asked back in the United States, “Where do you live?” In Guatemala, it does not matter what answer I give, the response is “Ah, Estados Unidas” and we can move on with the conversation. When I am asked in the United States where I live, there are always follow up questions about what neighborhood and for how long that I can’t really answer because I don’t really live anywhere. You never really understand how uncomfortable those kind of small talk questions can be until you no longer have a socially acceptable answer.
When I am feeling up to it, I just respond cheerfully, “The world is my parish” and briefly explain that I have been unhoused for the better part of the last 14 months. I do feel cheerful about it… now. It is a choice now; a journey with God; a journey of freedom in preparation for the next stage of my life which begins in May. Since October, it has been a period of saying “no” to every opportunity until God told me to say “yes,” and finding the courage to do the things that terrify me. I have never felt freer or braver or more hopeful. A year ago, however, my situation was not my choice; it was a stalemate, the result of stubborn competitions and miscommunications taking place far above my position in the institutional hierarchy. It was the decision to treat my passion and youth and calling with reckless abandon. So, I have known both sides of being without an address of residence, both the freedom and joy of it, and the pain and abandonment.
The question has arisen many times over the past year of whether I would call myself homeless. I have struggled with that question both personally and communally. I think that part of the way that I have arrived at an answer is the awareness that those who are asking the question are usually doing so in some kind of admiring tone, as if I am somehow making myself saintly. It strikes a discordant note in my mind that makes me want to protest that I am not attempting anything grandiose or self-promoting, just trying to make the most of the circumstances that come my way. That may sound self-deprecating – a “humble brag” as my friends would call it – but I have very strong personal reasons for feeling that way.
The biggest reason why it makes me uncomfortable when people ask me in an admiring tone if I would call myself homeless is that, in most cases, those that are unhoused or underhoused in our communities are neither viewed, treated, nor spoken to as if they are worthy of admiration. To accept that admiration, then, becomes irony in its deepest form. It feels like a theft of some form. Do not give to me the respect that you will not give to them.
Over the past couple months that I spent in Estados Unidos, I have struggled in conversation with those I respect who work in partnership and solidarity with their unhoused neighbors. I have dialogued with them concerning the talk I heard in 2010 at the General Board of Church & Soceity about the need to broaden the definition of homelessness in people’s minds. I struggled with whether I needed to claim the identity as the presenter from the Homeless Speaker’s bureau had said then, and whether it was empowering or dishonoring to the homeless community for me to do so. I have reflected on my life changing experiences living in intentional community in 2008-2009 with women and children transitioning out of homelessness at the Isaiah House. I have picked the brain of my pal Jerry Herships; received an education in homeless culture and women’s role within it from Rudy Rasmus; observed the empowering arts ministry of Lanecia Rouse; chatted to no end with my UMC LEAD compadre Brandon Lazarus; and broken bread with my former parishioner and current colleague Jordan Harris.
It was in my last conversation with Jordan that I finally found peace in my answer. As Jordan and I dialogued about ministry in Philadelphia at the Grace Cafe, a ministry of Arch Street UMC, he explained that many of the people in Philadelphia that people assume are homeless do not consider themselves to be. Whatever other people’s perceptions of us may be, no one has the right to categorize or describe or determine our status in a manner that overrules our own voice.
Consequently, I claim my voice. I have just as much right as anyone else to determine what I call myself, and I choose to say that I am not homeless. I am not homeless because people do not treat me the way that they treat those they call homeless. Christians walking by me on the street do not avoid eye contact with me. Friends and family are authentically thrilled to have me as a guest. People think my life is interesting and inspiring, rather than pitiable and discomforting. To claim the category would be to confuse the issue. I may have, at some point in the past year, legally or technically fit that category, and I may still fit within the spectrum of the definition; however, in practicality, I do not feel that to claim the category helps the cause. It seems to bring attention to myself rather than to the real issue. If I change my mind, I’ll change my answer.
For now, the strain of living on the road does get to me at times, but I always have a place to lay my head should I choose to accept the invitation. If my life were a Venn diagram, there would be places where my life would overlap with what we call homelessness; but because there is so much of the psychology of the experience that I do not have to endure, to say my circle does anything but minimally overlap would be disrespectful and unhelpful.
I have written before about the fact that we romanticize ourselves and objectify the unhoused when we find some kind of thrill in being close to someone who we see as homeless. I told the story of the church in Texas that was so thrilled to have a homeless man coming to their church that they trotted him out at Christian conferences and made him a mascot of sorts. Until, that is, the pastor of another church, Rudy Rasmus, finally did what should have been the obvious thing from the beginning and asked the man whether he wanted a place to live. Which he did.
We are all familiar with the concept of having a “safe” or “token” friend from a people group that is intimidating or uncomfortable for us. I am not interested in being the “safe” unhoused person who can be a placebo or go-between for people so that they do not have to deal with the very real responsibility Christ gave them to treat the truly and genuinely unhoused as brothers and sisters. Our sick souls are not in need of a placebo action, they are in need of the real thing.
Before I came to Guatemala, I was eager to learn and watched anything on Netflix that had to do with this country. The film that stayed with me – the one that I see when I close my eyes at night – was a documentary “Which Way Home” about adolescent boys living on the road, trying to cross the border by themselves from Guatemala through Mexico to the United States. The film raised the question: when you are living on the road, which way is home? Is it forward to what could be, or backward to where you came from? Most of the boys in the film, the ones who survive and live, are deported and do not have a choice in the matter. They have to return to a place that does not feel like home anymore. People tell me that I cannot be homeless because I always have a place to belong with family; but they are our brothers and sisters and they do not feel like they belong anywhere.
So many people are trapped in that liminal space. Which way is home? Is it going back to a life that took great courage to walk away from? Or is it figuring out how to move forward when you do not know the way? Because of the Venn diagram that is my life, I can identify with people who are living the journey in many different ways, and I believe I have learned something very important – home is where people treat you as though you belong.
As a result, I have found that I am in no way homeless. My home is in James Cistern, Eleuthera, Bahamas; my home is in Arlington, Virginia; in Houston, Texas; in Towson, Maryland; in Newark, Delaware; and in Hawley, Pennsylvania. All of these places became home because people there treated me as a valued member of the community and told me that I belonged.
But why me? We can do that for anyone. There is enough love to reach us all; enough beds to rest us all; enough clothes to clothe us all; enough food to feed us all.
Which way is home? You could be the answer. For thousands of people in your state that are sleeping on the streets, you could be a part of the answer. For hundreds of people in your state awaiting deportation, your voice could make a difference.
What if nobody was homeless? What if no one felt unwelcome? What if we treated everyone like they belonged, were welcome, and were worthy of respect.
What if you were the answer to “Which Way Home?”
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
(Isaiah 58:6-7, NRSV)
El ayuno que he escogido,
¿no es más bien romper las cadenas de injusticia
y desatar las correas del yugo,
poner en libertad a los oprimidos
y romper toda atadura?
¿No es acaso el ayuno compartir tu pan con el hambriento
y dar refugio a los pobres sin techo,
vestir al desnudo
y no dejar de lado a tus semejantes?
(Isaias 58:6-7, Nueva Versión Internacional)