More Than “The Least of These”

*This piece was originally written for issue #280 of KAIROS – the student publication of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. 

I don’t remember how old I was the first time my dad told me that he’d spent Thanksgiving eating at a shelter—not as a volunteer but as a guest. I do remember how I felt. My throat and face went cold and my head got fuzzy and confused. It didn’t make any sense. Shelters and poverty and homelessness weren’t things that happened in my family—they happened to somebody else, somebody “other.” Since that holiday years ago, my father has struggled with poverty, hunger, and homelessness off and on. When he lost his apartment, our relationship became one of coffee dates and movie matinees and the occasional extravagance at Red Lobster. Most of his daily life became a fairly distant mystery to me. I told myself that I wasn’t asking questions out of respect, but I think that, really, I was afraid to see homelessness and poverty as a real part of my life. I was afraid to see that someone I loved was one of “those people.”

This summer I spent three months working with a worshipping community in urban Philly that is largely made up of those who are dealing with hunger, poverty, joblessness, and lack of housing. As part of my training, I served lunch at a men’s shelter near our church. I stood behind a counter for two hours and served bread to over 400 men. Nearly every second of those two hours, I thought of my father. I wondered what his experiences had been like—the ones I never asked about. And I wondered about these men and whether they had daughters who chose not to acknowledge their uncomfortable realities. Every time I offered a piece of bread, I thought of communion and the words haunted me: “this is my body… broken.”

During my time in Philadelphia, I came to know a number of the guests who came week after week for meals, social services, bible study, or worship. I learned about their stories. Some of them had been doctors and lawyers and scholars. Some were parents. They were diverse and complicated individuals. One friend, a man named Andre, had experienced homelessness twice in his life. The second time, he became seriously ill, and could only receive treatment if he gave up the housing he had worked so hard to acquire and re-enter the shelter system. I learned that no two people had the same background or the same story. The one thing they all had in common is that our society had reduced them to an adjective: the homeless. It had smothered the complexity of their humanity with a description of the traumatic circumstance they found themselves in.

I became frustrated with our callous language. At that ministry in Philly, we rejected such dehumanizing simplifications. We challenged religious language like “the least of these” (what makes them less?) and “I’m so blessed” (why does God favor you over them?). Lately, as the nights get colder and we enter a season so defined by classism, I have been thinking of my friends in Philly a lot. And as recent events around campus have made us more aware of those in our midst who are living in such circumstances, I have found myself growing angry and sad again.

I used to think that the word “homeless” was a misnomer. After all, home is about more than a roof over your head—it’s also about feeling loved, and claimed, and known. But it seems to me that when we reduce a person to an adjective about the trauma they’ve experienced—when we dismiss them as a social ill—we are, in fact, taking away their sense of home—of belonging. As the church, I believe that we’re called to be better than that.

They are not “the homeless.” They are not “transients” or “vagrants” or “criminals” or “hobos.” They are our family. And they deserve to be seen and respected in their full humanity—every single one of them.

It’s true that using “politically correct” language won’t solve poverty or homelessness or hunger. But I absolutely believe that we will never really solve any of these evils if we don’t start by recognizing human dignity. And even if it didn’t help at all, it is still what we are called to do.

It may seem unnecessary or too sensitive or too difficult. It may seem like it’s not worth the effort. What a privilege we have to feel that way. But if there is one thing I have learned from my father and my friends in Philly—it’s that if you have nothing else, the words that belong to you are worth quite a lot.

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2 thoughts on “More Than “The Least of These”

  1. Powerfully written as usual. One caveat: while we should not label people by their condition, we also should not become so euphemistic as to lose the power of language to describe problems that must be addressed. A person is not and should not be defined by their homelessness; however, a person who happens to be homeless has special problems unique to their condition that must not be overlooked because of a fear of naming the condition.

    • Gordon – thanks for this thoughtful comment. I absolutely agree with you. I believe the hard work *must* be done to both uphold human dignity and have these conversations that so need to be had. At Broad Street something that was said is, “What has happened to you is not all that you are.” This is an important phrase to me because it doesn’t say that what has happened to you is part of who you are or doesn’t affect who you are – just that you can’t be reduced to that.

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