by Rev. Jennifer Toburen

Families are filled with stories. Some are joyous; some are hidden.

One of those hidden stories for my family comes from my early teens. Living in our small, rural hometown, one of my uncles had struggled since he was a teenager. He suffered from addiction and made some bad decisions. His life continued in a downward spiral. He was living with my grandma and others in the family were concerned that this might be an unsafe situation. Then my uncle was arrested. I remember my mom going to visit him at the jail. To be honest, I am not sure why we were not left at home but, while my mom went to visit him, we sat outside in the car. I was horrified and scared and ashamed. I did not come from a family where people went to jail, yet here we were. The family collectively decided that my uncle could not go back home to my grandmother’s. They convinced my grandma that this is how it had to be for her well-being.

When my uncle was released from jail, he was told he could not come back home. He was addicted. He was troubled. He was homeless. He was alone. I believe he went to the Salvation Army for shelter. I do not know the details of how he survived those years.

Today, he has a home and has remarried. I pray he has found healing. If he harbors resentment over what happened, I do not know because it is something my family does not discuss. My mom feels sad and ashamed that we did not know how to help him with the problems he had. She believes my grandma regretted the decision to not allow him to return to her home. As a family, we were ill-equipped and afraid. We did not have the emotional and mental resources to help my uncle.

In 2021, I joined the synod’s newly formed Homelessness Awareness Task Force for a variety of reasons but, mostly, because I knew so little about homelessness. You read that correctly. I know very little. I am not an expert. I have not studied this. I have not worked in this arena. But … I am concerned about homelessness. I want to understand it better. I want to grapple with how the wealthiest nation in the world has people who cannot access shelter.

I feel that my faith calls me to this inquiry. Through our scriptures, Old Testament and New Testament alike, our God of love, mercy, relationship, hospitality, and compassion calls our attention to anywhere there is suffering. God wants us to look for those who are marginalized and lacking a voice in powerful, complex structures. God’s holy people are called to shine a light into places that are often overlooked and hidden away. Our faith compels us to speak for those who cannot.

We know there are people experiencing homelessness throughout the United States. Whether we live in urban, rural, or suburban settings, there are homeless neighbors among us. What we may not realize is that it is not always easy to notice. Homelessness makes many of us uncomfortable, so we prefer not to see it. We hide it away. We want people off the streets where we cannot see them.

I am one of many who have walked city streets and kept my eyes carefully averted in order not to look at the person who is begging on the corner or sleeping on the sidewalk. Sometimes, I give money; often I don’t. Homelessness makes me feel helpless, so I want to learn how to help. Everyone who wants to live in a home should be able to do so. We need to find a way to make this a reality.

Some will likely read these words and believe they are unrealistic and contrary to “the American way” which is based so heavily on the premise that if you work “hard enough” you will have the money to afford somewhere to live. If we dig, even just a little, below the surface, we find that this is not always true. We also know that other issues in people’s lives can quickly lead them into homelessness. Like my uncle, people who experience homelessness often struggle with addiction, mental illness, or broken family relationships. We need to address these underlying conditions too. Making the problem of homelessness invisible does not help cure it or prevent it.

We may not see these folks, but God most certainly does.

We can address homelessness and its companion issues if we choose to invest in them. I am not naïve. It will not be easy. It is expensive, but my faith leads me, and my heart tells me that advocating to eliminate homelessness is the right thing to do.

To start, I need to learn more. I invite you to do so too. Join us on the task force, and we will journey together. If you are interested in more information, please contact our task force leader, Rev. Matthew Best at pastormatthewbest@gmail.com.  If you or your church is already involved in homeless ministries or advocacy of any kind, we would love to hear from you! In all things, we seek your prayers for growth in this ministry and for those who are impacted by homelessness today.

May God watch over those who sleep outside in the cold or who reside in shelters or temporary housing. Grant them strength and hope in these difficult times. Lead them to places where they can find help. Bless caregivers, counselors, and all who help those who are homeless. Embolden leaders to prioritize resources for the eradication of homelessness in America. In Christ’s mercy, Amen.

Pastor Jennifer Toburen graduated from United Lutheran Seminary in May 2020 and now serves with the congregation at Christ Lutheran Church in Duncannon, Pennsylvania. She is a second-career pastor, originally from southeast Michigan, where she had spent 25 years in corporate finance before attending seminary.