Article  Human Dignity  Life  Human Dignity

5 principles for ministering to the homeless

I wore an uncomfortably tight checkered shirt as I walked into Re:Center Ministries for my first day. Climbing down the stairs to the Day Shelter, my ears perked up as a familiar melody played from the computer. Timidly, I kept walking by into the next room—yet, something pulled at me. I walked back. “Is that Gregory Alan Isakov?” I stuttered. A man with dark, messy hair turned and grinned at me with the familiarity of a brother: “You know Gregory?” And so, a friendship was born. The man I met that day, who I’ll refer to as “C,” became a dear friend to me during my time in homeless ministry at Re:Center, as did a number of other men who lived at the shelter that summer. 

Homelessness is a complex reality. It sounds simple, but it’s important: there is no one explanation of how people fall into homelessness. I sat with men who suffered from mental health disorders, who were recovering from drug or alcohol abuse, and who had experienced physical and sexual abuse. Ultimately, each man’s story held different tragic turns that contributed to their situation. We fail to honor the complexities of suffering when we oversimplify these contributing factors, or worse, quietly assign blame to the image-bearer on the street next to us. So, it’s important for us to understand this as we seek to care for those in this predicament. 

My time at Re:Center was life changing. While intensive, it was limited, so I dialogued with my supervisor, Jason Crigler, manager of the LifeChange Program at Re:Center, to help form this article. Together, we formulated five principles to keep in mind when caring for men and women experiencing homelessness: 

1. The importance of holistic care

The Christian witness is that the reconciliation that comes through Christ can begin to redeem all that is broken, so the calling for Christians to the homeless is not an either-or of “material” or “spiritual” care. It is a both-and. Those experiencing homelessness have often experienced a painful rupture of their relationship to God, others, and self. Our brokenness apart from Christ is a spiritual poverty that touches all parts of our lives, which is why restoring the homeless requires holistic care. The men in the program attended classes on financial literacy and interview skills. They were also taught the ways of Jesus through Bible studies and attending church. Crigler spoke on the importance of caring for the physical and spiritual well-being of each individual, saying that, “While we’re praying that the Lord does His deep soul work, we are teaching new ways of thinking and new behaviors.” 

2. Affirming dignity

Sociologist Brene Brown in her book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” The men at Re:Center described homelessness to me as a deeply lonely, marginalized, and vulnerable experience. It is undignifying, and often leads to having their dignity ignored by society.

The Christian witness is that the reconciliation that comes through Christ can begin to redeem all that is broken, so the calling for Christians to the homeless is not an either-or of “material” or “spiritual” care. It is a both-and.

However, as Christians we know that all human beings bear the image of God (Gen. 1:26) and thus have indelible dignity. This dignity is given not by a roof over our heads but by a Messiah on the cross. Christians have a duty to speak about and toward those experiencing homeless in ways that recognize this God-given value. The message of the gospel meets the homeless in their search for someone to tell them they matter deeply. As John Perkins says, “You don’t give people dignity. You affirm it.”

3. The power of empathy

My greatest fear about interning at a homeless shelter was the fear that my inability to relate would lead to an inability to connect. God rebuked this fear time and time again, teaching me an important truth: what’s required to love well is not similarity of story but empathy. It comes down to this: are we willing to do the tough and thoughtful work of imagining what it’s been like to be the person next to us? Will we love them enough to sit, listen to them, and work to understand? 

What most men in the shelter needed from me wasn’t solutions. It wasn’t advice. What they needed and craved was someone to look them in the eyes and ask them their story. They needed a friend. As Harper Lee writes in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point-of-view . . . until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” We Christians have a lot of walking to do.

4. Salvation comes from God—not you

This was the hardest lesson for me to learn. My friend “C” was a well-read atheist, and he loved to debate but did not believe the Bible’s teachings. I found myself inflating my own importance, practicing functional atheism in putting the pressure to save him on my shoulders. I had a timeline of two months, and before I left I wanted to witness his “Damascus Road” conversion. Pridefully, I wanted to escort him there. 

This led to an anxiety about my own ability to convince him of the saving power of the gospel, as if God could not draw his sheep to himself without me turning in an impressive, theologically-rich performance. Crigler told me he, too, had to come to understand the sovereignty of God in the work of salvation. Discouraged in the early months of ministry by seeing many men relapse and measuring a lack of success by this metric, he said, “The Lord helped me realize that my job wasn’t to save these men; rather I was to faithfully proclaim the gospel to them. Because even in my best efforts, I can’t change a heart—only God can save.” 

Scripture is clear that “salvation comes from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9), and this reality frees us to engage people with the gospel without the burden of “success.” Our response is not a passive mentality that shirks our responsibility to discipleship. Nor is our response apathy when people live apart from God. Our response is to trust and draw near to the Father who put the burden of salvation not on our shoulders but on his Son’s at the cross, while remaining faithful in our witness.

5. Learning from the marginalized

1 Corinthians 1:27 says, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” This upside-down pattern of the Kingdom means that those that society overlooks serve as God’s prophetic voices. Essential to loving our homeless neighbors well is recognizing that we’re all saved by the same grace, and it is only by grace that we are where we are (Eph. 2:8-9). 

In light of this, we should not be surprised, but should expect to learn from our homeless neighbors. It is not a one-sided affair but a mutual discipleship, and to see yourself as the only teacher is a grave mistake. As Dr. Andy Watts, my professor of Christian ethics has said, “We dehumanize people the moment we decide we have nothing to learn from them.” What my friend ”C” taught me was the gift of self-giving loyalty. His willingness to share generously of his story, and his eagerness to understand and affirm mine was a reflection of gospel friendship for me—whether he himself believed in the gospel or not. 

A calling for all Christians

Whether you engage with the homeless every day in your job or drive past a woman standing on a corner, to affirm the dignity of each image-bearer who is homeless and work for their well-being is a Kingdom calling. As Tim Keller writes in Generous Justice, “If [a person] doesn’t care about the poor, it reveals that at best he doesn’t understand the grace he has experienced, and at worst he has not really encountered the saving mercy of God. Grace should make you just.” And if you work or volunteer consistently with the homeless, hear the words of the author of Hebrews: “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them” (Heb. 6:10). And Paul adds this encouragement, “Brothers and sisters, your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). 

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