In the society in which our Bible emerged, extended families took care of their own. If a person was sick or disabled, if a young woman could not find a marriage partner, if children were left, for some reason, with no parents to protect and provide for them, the extended family was there to help. It was their responsibility, their obligation. There was no need for modern welfare and other safety net programs. Theoretically, at least.
Unfortunately, some people fell between the cracks.
“Widows and orphans” is a phrase repeated more than twenty times in the Bible as a summary term for the people who need protection from life’s cruelties. Their husband/father/bread-winner had died or abandoned them, or their mother was unable to nurture them because of physical or emotional limitations, but they had no extended family to take them in. It was a strong moral responsibility of every believer in the God of the Bible to see that these “widows and orphans” had food and shelter. This theme is repeatedly hammered home in the Old Testament Law (Exodus 22:22, Deuteronomy 10:18, 27:10), Prophets (Isaiah 10:2, 58:7, Zechariah 7:9-10) and Psalms (10:18, 68:5, 82:3), and it is expressed fiercely by Jesus (Matthew 25:32-48) and by the Apostles in the Early Church (James 1:27, 2:14-17).
In the course of Biblical history, a third category of needy people was often included, the “sojourners” (Deuteronomy 10:18, 14:28-29, Exodus 22:21-24, Psalm 136:9, etc.). Depending on the context, modern translators take this as a reference to immigrants who have been uprooted from their original society or to homeless people who are forced to live on the streets for a variety of reasons. Whether they’re immigrants or homeless people, today’s “sojourners” are not being welcomed or embraced in our modern American society.
This is the Bible we cling to for our salvation, and it tells us in the clearest terms that homelessness is our problem to deal with, not someone else’s. Each believer has an obligation to do something about it. We’re probably all familiar with the acronym NIMBY, which stands for “Not In My Back Yard.” It describes a person who agrees that an increase in low-income housing is needed to address the problem of homelessness, but definitely doesn’t want it in his neighborhood. As I understand the Bible, there can be no such thing as a NIMBY Christian!
Homelessness is one of the biggest problems we will face in the next few years. Here are some warning signs:
- You don’t have to drive to downtown L.A. to see tent cities; they’re just a few blocks away from you right now.
- The City of Pasadena is in an escalating fight with the CA State Attorney General over SB-9, a bill requiring cities to change their zoning laws to allow more dwellings on a lot.
- The L.A. Mayor’s race is heating up between 12 candidates, all promising to eliminate homelessness by some miraculous new program. We’ll be hearing ads non-stop.
- ABC has had individuals camping on our property or sleeping in cars in the parking lot. That’s not going to stop, because every night homeless people in our neighborhood look for shelter.
Dr. Jill Shook lives about a mile from ABC, and she is a nationally-respected expert on issues affecting low-income housing.* She has the ear of political leaders in Pasadena and Altadena, and some of her ideas are beginning to bear fruit locally. One strategy she has developed is to help churches see an opportunity at this critical time: dedicating excess property they own to build temporary or long-term housing units to help alleviate the problem, while at the same time, providing some of the human services homeless people need to move on to a more stable existence. Cities would have to cooperate by rezoning some of these church properties for multiple-unit housing, and Jill has persuaded some to do this. Of course, the congregation of a church entering such a venture will also have to deal with their own NIMBY instincts.
Members of ABC’s family have been actively involved in the Pasadena Bad Weather Shelter, Friends In Deed’s Women’s Room, the ACTS Food Pantry, or ABC’s Sunday morning giveaway of surplus food. Actually, some members of ABC’s family have been homeless themselves. We can all see how immense the growing problem is.
Frankly, after a lot of thought and many conversations, I have no answers. And neither do the LA Mayoral candidates or the Pasadena City Council. But the Jesus who said he himself had “nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20) won’t allow me to turn my NIMBY back and say, “Not my problem.”
— Pastor George Van Alstine
* Check out Dr. Jill Shook’s website: https://www.makinghousinghappen.org/