Homeless at Harvard: Part Two

In answer to the question about why I went to the margins, as you put it, I would say that I did it in hopes of gaining experiences that will help others do the same; not in the same way, but with the same spirit. Perhaps I can help other followers of Jesus build relationships that can help ultimately bridge the gap between the rich and the (generally unknown) poor. It is through relationship that Jesus did great works. It is through relationship today that we as his followers can help others know him.

I found this past year that the spiritual and emotional needs of the homeless are often left unmet. Christians in the mainstream have resources that can fill these unmet needs. Yet, too many Christians, I believe, don't know people who are not in the mainstream. My interest has been in thinking about how this gap can be reduced.

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Were you able to serve the homeless in a way you could not have served them if you had not lived among them? Did you learn anything about how to be the hands and mouth of Christ to "the least of these"?

Yes, I was able to serve the homeless in a way I could not have otherwise. However, it was not my intention to give tangible help or provide a certain kind of definable service to the homeless community this summer. I was living among them temporarily, actually living homeless myself, in the way that I could. So, with this in mind, the way I was able to serve them was by being present with them: service through presence.

One example of this is when one of our friends was drinking heavily and needed someone to talk to. After getting the phone call, I rushed to where they were at and sat with our distressed friend. I listened to her talk. She asked me to come to where she sleeps and I did and read scripture to her from her Bible. I know that her problems did not go away that night, but hopefully my time with her was somehow beneficial. She said that it was. And my other homeless friends, who left her in my care, believed I was the best one in our homeless community to be of help to her.

By living on the streets this summer, I made friendships I would not have otherwise made. My homeless friends and I relied on each other. While this may not qualify as serving, I would hope that it qualifies as something.

With that said, I think there are many other ways that the homeless could be served in more fruitful ways. Maintaining more of a presence in the mainstream while helping the homeless through nonprofit work, for example, would be a fantastic way for the homeless to be more tangibly served. I do this to some (minor) degree as a volunteer with the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter.

How do you understand your experience theologically? Do you see your experience as a part of the imitation of Christ, or kenotic self-giving, or as serving Christ in serving others? Or did God teach you more about yourself?

This is a difficult question to consider, perhaps because it forces me to think about my experience through a framework that was not my original intent. However, I did embark on the experience with a theological presupposition and motivation; the presupposition being that Christians are to build relationships with the outcast (as Jesus did); the motivation being that I desire to help educate Christians (and non-Christians) in order to facilitate more of this kind of relationship-building.

I did not think of my time living on the streets as an imitation of Christ, nor of kenotic self-giving, nor as serving Christ by serving others. I suppose that I would understand my experience as one of intentional interaction with the outcast. Yes, it is incarnational, in that as a follower of Jesus I incarnated Jesus' love and actions in my life. But it is just as much, if not more so, intentional. We can incarnate Christ's love and actions, but if we are not intentional about doing so, the incarnational aspect can be lost.

This summer, I shared life with the homeless. Anyone can do that; one does not have to be a follower of Jesus to do so. I thought of my experience less as a time where I was personally imitating Christ for my own sake or the sake of my homeless friends, and more as an opportunity to have an experience that I can share with others so that they, too, might be encouraged to be intentional about interacting with and loving the outcast.

Yes, hopefully those with whom I lived this summer did and do see Christ in me. But hopefully others will be encouraged to also be intentional about helping and serving others. My hope is to help others think and act beyond their own paradigms, beyond the standard, mainstream-centered ways of thinking. So my time on the streets was not only a time for me to learn about homelessness, not only a time for me to engage the outcast for a mutually enriching summer experience, but it was geared to allowing me to encourage people in the mainstream to build relationships with the outcast so that the receivers and the givers are both encouraged and helped.

10/13/2009 4:00:00 AM
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  • About Alonzo L. Gaskill
    Alonzo L. Gaskill is an author, editor, theologian, lecturer, and professor of World Religions. He holds degrees in philosophy, theology, and biblical studies. He has authored more than two-dozen books and numerous articles on various aspects of religion; with topics ranging from world religions and interfaith dialogue, to scriptural commentaries, texts on symbolism, sacred space, and ritual, and even devotional literature.