In the summer of 2017, a speaker at the National Alliance to End Homelessness Conference presented a video on how a systemic response to homelessness should work.
The video portrayed a drawing of a waterfall, representing all the people falling into homelessness. As the tape rolled, the artist erased parts of the waterfall and gradually replaced it with buckets. Each bucket represented different kinds of service providers. Some focused on families, while others were more prepared for singles or special segments of the population.
One by one, the artist lined up street outreach programs, shelters, prevention efforts and housing initiatives, essentially making the point that all parts of a homeless service system working together would stop the water (people) from trickling into the ravine (homelessness).
While the message of ending homelessness resonated deeply with everything I hoped and wanted to believe, the efficiency and simplicity of the model seemed far too perfect for the imperfect human lives that often face housing crisis.
Something was missing.
In full disclosure, I’ve led countless webinars and workshops of my own on the vision of ending homelessness. Some communities have even been crazy enough to invite me as consultant in their work to replicate the best practices increasingly touted by funders and advocates across the country.
But always, when I return to the day-to-day work of loving and living in relationship with our neighbors, I find myself tormented by the harsh truth of a need that far surpasses the best of systemic interventions.
After 15 years, I am still amazed at what happens when a person who could not succeed in any other program is given a set of keys and placed in the care of relational case managers.
Yet, I am increasingly troubled when the same four walls that keep some frequent flyers out of jail and limit their hospital visits bring about an isolation, a disconnection and a deterioration beyond anything others would have experienced on the street. The grief never grows cold when those who survived the unthinkable on the streets, are found dead and alone after just a few short months in a new apartment. These are the burdens that occupy my thoughts in the darkest hours of the night.
For all the progress in moving people off the street, building sustainability and ending homelessness, there remains a silent struggle for connection, belonging and community.
To think that homelessness could someday cease to be a societal ill would be the most miraculous of miracles in the hearts of many. But claiming that systems alone will heal our world from a plague of displacement that has haunted the human story since the beginning of time places the power of divine phenomenon in the palm of creation rather than the hand of God.https://c36bb4cbb6a51434ec247bea968369d0.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
So, too, is the holy spirit limited when humanity claims that some problems are too big to solve and some people are too complex to help.
Thomas was one such child of God who approached the miraculous with logic, reason and data. His fellow disciples had seen the risen Lord in John 20:24-29, and yet he would not believe until he could literally touch the wounds Christ garnered on the cross.
On one hand, Thomas is far too systemic in his approach to the resurrection. Jesus even comments on his inability to believe in the miracle despite a visual assessment of the situation. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe,” Jesus says.
On the other hand, we can applaud Thomas for being the only disciple brave enough to lean into the discomfort of what had actually just occurred. He had enough curiosity about social ills that had led to the crucifixion to reach out and touch that which made the miracle fundamentally real.
Many a miracle in Jesus’ time stemmed from a similarly persistent curiosity. Visualize the Canaanite woman insisting the disciples allow her an audience with Jesus, willing to accept nothing more than crumbs to heal her demon-possessed daughter (Matthew 15:21-28). Picture the bleeding woman, seemingly unworthy of public appearance for more than a decade, sneaking through the crowd just to find her healing in the hem of Jesus’ garment (Luke 8:43-48).https://c36bb4cbb6a51434ec247bea968369d0.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.htmlhttps://c36bb4cbb6a51434ec247bea968369d0.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
Perhaps, the miracles we desire in our world today are less about what we can actually do to inspire them and more about leaning into the discomfort of things we do not understand. Maybe, just maybe, our call to cultivate and care for creation doesn’t actually require us to fix anything, but to reach far into the places unknown and trust that even the smallest brush with the cloak of Christ will make us all well.
Might we have the curiosity of Thomas, the persistence of the Caananite and the faith of the bleeding woman to stick our finger deep into the wound of the world and believe, even when we cannot see it or explain it, that the miracle will occur.