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When the Neighbor You Have is not the Neighbor You Want (part I)

Love your neighbor as yourself. Luke 10:27
Every Christian, even many who have not darkened the door of a church in years, can quote Jesus’ teaching concerning our neighbors. Love thy neighbor is the standard expected. That standard is found not just in Christianity but in most major religions, expressed in different terms, but all coming to the same basic conclusion. We ought to love one another. But who is the other that we ought to love? When Jesus was asked the question- “Who is my neighbor?”- he told the parable of the Good Samaritan leaving his audience that day (and us) rather uncomfortable. The neighbor we are called to love includes the neighbor that we don’t want. For Jesus’ audience that day, the neighbor included the Samaritans that the Jews despised. They were the ugly step-cousins to the north who were unclean, unsafe, undesired, and avoided at all cost. Not only did Jesus call his Jewish audience to love the Samaritans, he celebrated Samaritans as an important part of the community. I wonder if one of our modern-day Samaritans- the person who we see as unclean, unsafe, undesired, and avoided at all cost- is the person who lives on the sidewalk of our city streets. We call that person ‘homeless’ as if their housing situation is the only detail that matters. Our default response is avoidance. At best we pity them. How do we answer the call to love?

Last Tuesday, the Philadelphia Inquirer unwittingly exposed our heart struggle with this call to love the neighbor we do not want. The headline on the front page that day was Probe finds ‘deliberate’ OHS overspending. The article that followed exposed a 15-milliondollar overrun on the part of the Office of Housing Services. “Leaders of the office tasked with sheltering Philadelphia’s homeless knowingly overspent millions of dollars in taxpayer funds.” That overrun came in an effort to buy enough beds to provide for Philadelphia’s 4700+ population of people who are unhoused. The writer admitted that even after the overspend of millions, Philadelphia still does not have adequate safe housing to meet the need. The article left me with many questions. Have we overspent or underbudgeted? Does the city have a responsibility to provide safe housing for those who are on our streets? How do we balance the call to love our neighbor- even the neighbor we do not want- with the practical reality of limited taxpayer dollars and many competing needs?

On page 4 of the Inquirer’s front section last Tuesday was a separate article: Supreme Court hears case on homelessness. That article reported on a case before the High Court- City of Grants Pass v. Johnson that centers on whether people who are unhoused have a right to camp in public. The town of Grants Pass, Oregon is fighting to uphold its ban on camping in the city- regardless of shelter availability- a policy its leaders say is necessary to keep the streets and parks clear of encampments and preserve public safety. The plaintiffs are individuals who have been fined or arrested under the city’s policy. They are arguing that the camping ban equates to making homelessness a crime.

The decision of the Court will not come until sometime this summer, but the discussion before the Supreme Court last week raised many more questions. Is sleep an ‘inalienable right?’ Justice Elena Kagan said, “Sleeping is a biological necessity. It’s like breathing. ... But presumably you would not think that it's OK to criminalize breathing in public.” Those of you who know me can imagine that my soft heart resonates with Justice Kagan’s comment. But her thought is too simplistic. Having walked the streets of Los Angeles lined with encampments, I have to wonder: How can we balance the rights of those who have a home and safe place to sleep with the needs of those who do not? How do we preserve public spaces for community use, while still providing a welcome to the neighbors we do not want in those spaces? How do we handle sanitation and safety concerns while still remembering that what we would call ‘trash’ may be someone’s belongings? What should the government do when the rights of citizens are competing not complimentary? Community leaders on both sides of the aisle have asked the Court to give some clarity to help guide them in navigating what most of us call a ‘problem.’

When the Supreme Court renders its judgment on the City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, hopefully their decision will be rooted in the Constitution of the United States and 200 years of precedent based on our Constitution. But as Christians, our formational document is the Word of God. His Word holds us to a higher standard than any human Constitution no matter how well formed. His Word calls us to love our neighbor. ‘Love’ in this command is the Greek word- ‘agape’- a sacrificial, unconditional, godly love. And Jesus was clear that our ‘neighbor’ must include even those we would call our ‘enemy.’ The breadth of God’s command to love challenges our ‘me and mine’ mentality. In the parable of the Sheep and the Goats found in Matthew 25, Jesus reminds us, “Whatever you do for the least of these my brothers, you do unto me.” When we see someone who is unhoused, do we see the face of Jesus? Do we love that person as a ‘brother- sister’ of Jesus? Would we be willing to sacrifice our comfort, our space, even our rights to care for the neighbor we do not want? Do we love our neighbor like Jesus loves us and gave his life for us? So many questions that challenge how I treat the people God loves. Will we let Jesus shape our hearts to be more like His?

With you learning how to love our neighbors,
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Linda Curtis - April 30th, 2024 at 2:55pm

If If we could start a conversation with the people in charge of misusing funds, I would say, “Why can’t we house people instead of the stuff people have in storage that they pay every monthly. Let’s appeal to the basic need. Shelter

Peter Gregory - May 5th, 2024 at 4:14pm

2000 years of Christian ethics moral theology on the matters of homelessness or any other condition of personal suffering is clear. We need to respond to such in ways and means that require our personal commitment and sacrifice if required. On matters of homeless much like immigration or any other suffering only question is what are you going to do about it.

Are you willing to take a homeless person in your home? And you willing to make a meal for them and invite them in your home? Are you willing to hold the head of a drug addict over the toilet as they detox? If the answers to those questions are no. Not my job or personally convenient or not in my back yard NIMBY. Then don’t ask the secular government the police the courts to do things you as a Church or individual Christian will not do. Or pay your taxes and think you have discharged your Christian obligations. Bible Jesus don’t work like that. Sooner or later your run out of other peoples money to solve issues you as the Christian need to address.