This post is part of today's Synchroblog on Serving Others in the New Year
"We can't solve hunger by throwing cans of food at people. We can't solve the homeless problem by sentencing vagrants to a life of unaffordable mortgage repayments." I said that a few months ago, as part of our Worldwide Dinner Party.
But what what can we do to serve the homeless?
I suggest in the New Year we rethink ministry to the homeless by taking a step closer, getting to know some homeless people as friends, not as targets of compassion. Maybe that means inviting them over for a meal or even better, get yourself invited to one of their meals. Hang out with them. Hear them out. Find out what their needs really are, not what you think they are.
Here's a crazy idea: Instead of a summer holiday in a nice safe place, why not go homeless with your family for a few weeks? Go to a squat. Park at the beach. Stay in your tent. Sleep in your car. Go without showers. Turn up to church smelly and unshaven.
And then try to tackle the problem of homelessness and the one billion people who live in the world's squats.
Many years ago, I met a homeless guy in Portland Oregon and he became my friend.
Paul had set up a tent in a large forested area near the Willamette river, about a mile away from our house in Sellwood. I invited him over for a meal but he actually didn't need food. He was quite capable of cooking for himself. Paul was a Vietnam vet and knew how to look after himself much better than I did. Food was not his problem. Neither was accommodation his problem - he was quite happy in his tent and had lived this way for a long time.
But he did have some needs. Two of them, actually.
Firstly, he wanted to use our washing machine. Washing clothes by hand is easy enough but when you don't want to be spotted on government land then hanging up clothes to dry can be precarious. Especially when you have a big load. So he turned up with a big bag of dirty linen and took over our laundry. Afterwards, he insisted on chopping some wood for us so we could be even, and stay even, in our mutual friendship.
Secondly, and more importantly, he needed a mailing address. Could he use ours? This was more of a long term commitment but we realized how incredibly valuable it would be for him so we agreed. Whenever mail came for him, we would put it aside until he turned up, which was every few weeks. It was a great gift for him. It was something he actually needed. He never stayed for a meal. He just took his mail and asked if he could chop some more wood.
That was 20 years ago when I had a house. These days, I am mostly homeless myself, with my wife and kids, as we travel from one country to the next on our itinerant mission. In the past 4 years we have spent most nights wild camping at beaches, parking lots, farms, gas stations, squats, and occasionally, when we have the money, a camping park.
I have become voluntarily homeless for the sake of the gospel. But that doesnt mean there is a shortage of places to stay.
Being nomadic and often homeless places me a little closer to those without shelter or the one billion people living in semi-legal or illegal temporary housing - thats one in every 7 people on the planet. I don't feel like I have all the answers but by taking living in a similar fashion, I can talk to them as one of them and we can discuss solutions together.
And thats a start.
This month we are heading up an experiment called Tent Village. We have invited people to join us in living in a paddock for a month. We managed to raise $1500 (not the $5000 we were looking for) to build an outdoor kitchen and we are about to buy the materials to construct it. If you are in New Zealand this month, come over, pitch your tent and join us in rethinking the problems of the world.