Encountering the Hounds in Homeless Ministry
Howard Thurman wrote in his classic work, Jesus and the Disinherited, a series of observations rooted in Jesus’ identity as a poor Jew, living as an ethnic minority within the powerful Roman Empire. Jesus, speaking from the margins, declared that the Kingdom of God was in the world, casting aside the fear, deception, and hatred which grows in oppressed peoples. Instead, the way of Jesus forms individuals to love their enemies (1-25).
As I read through Thurman’s work, I thought back to my time working with Emmanuel Ministry, a homeless ministry at Liberti Church Center City and Main Line. We would first prepare a healthy and delicious meal. Then we would invite guests into our space. We would provide a brief Scripture reflection and, for those who wanted it, a reflection sheet to help them pray through the material during their week. Then, we would wait on tables and deliver food to our, on average, 125 guests. Afterward, we would play a movie in a side room to give those who wanted to stay out of the elements a chance to rest.
I loved my two year experience working with Emmanuel and have enjoyed going back as a volunteer on several occasions over the past year. However, I found myself far outside of my comfort zone. Every Saturday, I had a certain amount of fear about how individuals would react. There were several occasions on which we had to remove an individual for threatening violence, usually to another guest. While such events were rare, I found myself anticipating such an event and found my interactions with our guests were limited by this fear.
In interactions with my vocational mentor, who oversaw Emmanuel as the Pastor of Mercy Ministries, he regularly talked about how he handled being yelled at by a guest or a similar experience of a guest’s anger. “I do not know what happened to them the night before. They could have been raped. They could have been robbed. It might have been the last night in their shelter. They could be on withdrawal. Whatever it is, I know they are not yelling at me, but the baggage they bring in with them. I do not want to add to that baggage.” In his response, I think Vito recognized the role of what Thurman calls “the hounds” (26). While I struggled to appropriate it into my own work at Emmanuel, when working with disinherited persons, it is essential to remember the presence of the hounds: fear (26), deception (48), and hatred (64). People who have been oppressed struggle with profound difficulties and, when used to being treated as less than human, will react out of their pain. In ministering to such persons, the presence of these hounds is not as much an attack against us as it is evidence of the brokenness the other person as experiences.
Where I failed in working with Emmanuel was finding a way to react and interact with our guests that was not based on fear of the hounds. Thurman recognizes that the only way to defeat the hounds is through a love that recognizes no barriers between one another (79). I often thought about the differences between our guests and I. I did not try to do so in a way that denied their humanity. Yet I recognized that I did not know what it meant to struggle with an addiction or mental illness or the many other reasons that contributed to their situations. I rarely looked past what separated my experience from theirs. Those I developed a close relationship with were those who became volunteers as well as guests. We could bound over a shared mission and faith. Yet even with those who did not volunteer, I could have taken the time to find common ground whether it was over a favorite film, music, or book. I allowed my own fear to keep me from looking past the hounds of our guests and rarely recognized the other person. Merely finding some common ground, no matter how small, would have provided an opportunity to see them more fully and learn more how we could encounter the love of Jesus together as fellow image-bearers.