The Faith-Based Dilemma

I have had some fascinating conversations of the past few months regarding the challenges of faith-based organizations working in the social services, and the underlying evangelical mandate.  However, that is not what I want to discuss in the post, rather I would like to highlight another short-coming I have found in working with individuals in the community who identify as ‘people of faith’.

Tim Huff has written the classic book for the Christian community on homelessness, called “Bent Hope“.  The book outlines Tim’s process of becoming engaged in street outreach with people experiencing homelessness.  I read it a number of years ago, and was disappointed with what I call the asystemic perspective of the book.  The entire focus was on individuals and working with individuals, and included no critical analysis of policies related to poverty, housing, and homelessness.

This focus on individual issues and individual solutions runs rampant with individuals who approach homelessness from a faith perspective.  I imagine that this reflects the individualism that is currently prevalent in major world religions.  Now, this isn’t to paint all individuals with the same brush, because groups like the Sisters of St Joseph do some excellent policy advocacy, but this seems to be the exception rather than the rule.  If faith communities and people of faith want to be allies in the process of ending homelessness, than they need to move their analysis up a level to systems rather than individuals.

8 thoughts on “The Faith-Based Dilemma

  1. Must disagree – I don’t believe “Tim Huff has written the classic book for the Christian community on homelessness” at all. I think he was wanting to tell some stories of people on the street he knew and his book has reached beyond the Christian community. I do agree there is a lack of challenging the systems by faith based groups and often that is not what their funders want them to tackle, all goes back to where the money comes from.

    From my experience it is the stories of individuals that often motivate groups of people whether of faith or not to force the system to make changes.

    • Fair enough. Is there a more widely read book on homelessness in Christian communities? I very much agree on the power of narrative to facilitate change, but would continue to postulate that this action is more focused on individuals rather than systems in faith communities (with some obvious exceptions, such as those working with the Homeless Coalition or CYN).

  2. Brian Walsh and Steven Bouma-Prediger’s book “Beyond Homelessness” is THE book (in my humble opinion) that shares a response to the individual, the system, AND begins to see ‘the rest’ of us in light of our homelessness as well…it shares that a longing for ‘home’ exists in many shapes and forms and many levels. It has striking ideas like we can give a person a fish..or teach a person to fish…but at some point, you have to ask, who owns the lake?

    • I’d love to kick around the idea of our homelessness at some point in time with you Gil, I don’t think I fully understand the concept, although I have heard you share it with our students.

  3. Yeah, I would also agree that Tim’s book isn’t the book, although I can’t think of anything that would be (Shane Claiborne’s first book has been more influential in the Christian street-work scene than anything written about homelessness per se). I think Greg Paul’s stuff has possibly made bigger waves than both Tim’s book and the one Walsh co-authored. Mostly, these books — not including the one by Walsh and Bouma-Prediger, which I haven’t read — fit into a long tradition of Christian books that are written in this way. Sort of the whole testimony/missionary biography/Christian adventure story thing. Christians used to read about “missionaries” who went to live with “savages”. Now we read about people who are “missional” and work with “the poor.”

    I share your concerns about the individualistic focus — as I stated on my own blog in a review of Paul’s last book and in a recent lecture I gave in Toronto (which I also emailed to you) — but to go from that criticism to this statement: “…this reflects the individualism that is currently prevalent in major world religions…” is a pretty significant leap. Methinks that most folks involved in all “major world religions” would argue that a focus upon individualism is pretty closely associated with the rise of modernity, secularity, and capitalism. I’m not here to take sides (although “A Secular Age” by the philosopher and social theorist Charles Taylor is sure worth reading in this regard), but to point out that your argument doesn’t need to jump from a very valid observation about Tim’s book to a very sketchy comment about all world religions!

  4. That’s a good point Dan, I guess I just didn’t want it to look like I was unfairly targeting Christians when I have had just as much trouble getting to local mosque to the table in terms of systemic solutions to homelessness.

  5. I’m also curious as to what you would take to be the classic book on homelessness? I’ve been thinking more about this and realized that my own thinking has mostly been formed by experiences and an interdisciplinary combination of resources. No one text really springs to mind.

  6. As I said, by impression is that from a faith perspective, “Bent Hope” is the most widely read, at least in Canada. From a general perspective, I would say that “Glass Castle” and “A Million Little Pieces” would be the texts that most have read. Interestingly, these both tend to be fairly individualistic as well.

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