A verse of Scripture has been haunting me. I hear it as an indictment of an aspect of my personal life.
It was read and preached on during Sunday worship in February. Then I found it in the unifying passage of a devotional book.
“Bring the homeless poor into your house,” the prophet Isaiah says (58:7) in a passage on genuine fasting.
It could be easy to dismiss this as specific to the people whom Isaiah was addressing. What’s more, homelessness is different in our time, we might say. Organizations are the best way to help.
Indeed, there are many wonderful places to support with our time and resources. Perhaps the first organization where I participated in responding to homelessness was as a child with my parents serving meals at Christ House in Washington, D.C. The 24-hour facility provides homeless men and women with a place to stay, hospitality and health care.
Addressing homelessness remains part of my professional life. The hospital where I work as a chaplain provides care to the homeless, and the church that sponsors our ministry donates clothing for patients, especially coats and boots in the brutal Chicago winters.
These kinds of responses, like those of many people of faith and good will, are needed. And collective efforts are fitting. After all, Isaiah’s words were addressed to the people, a nation, on what God desired as a moral way of life. Through these organizations, people with and without homes are part of the same circles of concern. That’s like bringing people into one’s house, right?
I was more or less satisfied with those collective responses until a particular encounter with one member of the homeless poor.
In the past couple of years my husband had struck up a friendship of sorts through conversations on the street in downtown Chicago. (Friendship may be the wrong word for a connection created from such an unbalanced situation.)
When I began sharing my husband’s commute several days a week, I got to know the man as well. (I omit his name for the sake of his privacy.) We would help him get food and inquire about jobs, but mainly we listened to his concerns. Like friends, maybe. A couple of months later, he became ill. It was lung cancer.
He has had several stays at the public hospital near our house. We visited and prayed with him. He had reconnected with his family and was staying with them sometimes. When a relative called the room, he said we were his “friends from downtown.”
Ironically, perhaps, in growing closer to this man, I have felt more strongly indicted by Isaiah. Why don’t we bring our friend from downtown into our house? Why have I been satisfied with collective responses without being willing to also make a personal sacrifice?
We have reasons for not inviting this man to live with us, some of them good ones. And we don’t know that he’d accept if we invited him.
In the end, such reasoning doesn’t seem to be what I ought to take away from this passage coming before me repeatedly. Isaiah speaks plainly, and it causes discomfort. God doesn’t call us to be wracked by guilt, but perhaps we are supposed to live with the discomfort rather than seeking the ease of rationalization. We are not excused from wrestling with the words of the prophets, words that do resonate in our own time.
We are doing something. We could be doing more. We live in between the two.
Celeste Kennel-Shank is a hospital chaplain, editor and community gardener in Chicago.