This article is part of Mennonite Church USA’s Cost of Poverty: Learn, Pray, Join initiative.
Edith Yoder is the CEO of Bridge of Hope National. She is also a member of Frazer (Pennsylvania) Mennonite Church.
I graduated from Eastern Mennonite University in 1988, with less than $100 to my name. But what I had was community — a faith community and a lot of social capital from friends and family who were in my corner. I did not worry for one minute that I might become homeless. For a few months, I moved back in with my parents and returned to my summer job, waiting tables, while I looked for a “real job” and saved up enough money to share an apartment with friends in Philadelphia. My network of relationships in my life provided me with a safe place to live, a job and my sister’s old car. As a young adult, this was just part of the community of support I somehow had come to expect.
But in time, it became clear that my experience of support was not universal. Creating a community of belonging and support for families who are unhoused, who are without a place to call home, has become a lifelong work for me at Bridge of Hope. Working out my faith, in an Anabaptist context, is also a lifelong journey for me. And I find the two integrally interwoven.
Homelessness has a centuries-old history in the United States. But in the mid-1980s, we began to see mothers with children unhoused in unprecedented numbers, due to declining personal income, decreases in affordable housing and the increase in society’s acknowledgement of domestic violence. Shelters for women with children, instead of just for men, started opening. Bridge of Hope co-founders Linda Witmer and Sandy Lewis started a conversation in a Mennonite church in Chester County, Pennsylvania, to ask how the support that churches provided for refugee families could be replicated for mothers and children facing homelessness in their own community.
Today, Bridge of Hope calls churches to support families facing homelessness in a ministry of accompaniment and neighboring. Before the pandemic, an estimated 5 million children each year experience homelessness in America. Today, that number is growing rapidly.
Anabaptists don’t have a corner on the “loving your neighbor” market, but we do have a theology that calls us to a type of Jesus-love that can change the world. The Anabaptist theology I took for granted as a young adult teaches us to create community for those around us and, specifically, for the most vulnerable among us. In what ways does God call us to love our neighbors who are facing homelessness?
- God calls us to relationships: God longs to be in right relationship with us and to see us in right relationship with one another. And God reminds us to extend those relationships to our neighbors in need. Ronald Sider, in his book, “Genuine Christianity,” points out, “The Scriptures teach that God’s faithful people share God’s special concern for the poor. … God insists that if we do not imitate his concern for the poor we are not really his people—no matter how frequent our worship or how orthodox our creeds.” When we enter into authentic relationship with a mother and children who are facing homelessness, we begin to see through their lens. These relationships challenge our judgments, assumptions and individualistic mindset, and teach us much about our relationship with God and with all God’s children.
- God calls us to bless others: God’s directive throughout Scripture is that the provision we experience is not only meant for us but also for the sake of those around us. We are blessed in order to bless others (Genesis 12:1-3) and called to see our resources as kingdom resources. For the children of Israel, that meant caring for those around them who were in need, including those from foreign lands, those experiencing poverty and those who had become widowed. Today, the church is also called to be a blessing to families who are experiencing homelessness. As the Apostle Paul writes so clearly in 2 Corinthians 8-9, we are to use our riches to help others, and as we do, God, in turn, provides for the church’s needs. It is the mystery and joy of God’s economy.
- God calls us to vulnerability: Just as Jesus chose to give up power for the sake of God’s call to serve humankind (Philippians 2), we can also embrace and honor those people who have been marginalized and forsaken. We, as a church, will only be effective as we become vulnerable and humble, meekly caring for others both within and outside the church (Matthew 5:1-11). The vulnerability of those facing homelessness reminds us of our own pride. As we experience authentic relationships with families facing homelessness, we are reminded of our own need for God and that we are not ultimately in control. Neighboring relationships with families facing homelessness keep our hearts tender, open our eyes to moments of God’s grace and move us beyond self-centered purposes — bringing us back into a deeper relationship with Christ.
- God calls us to be a renewed community: When churches embrace the whole gospel, lived out in mutuality and respect in the world, families facing homelessness — and all of us — can experience physical, social, emotional and spiritual wholeness and in turn, renewal comes to the congregation. The grand vision of the New Testament (Revelation 7) describes a new community in heaven that transcends economic status, ethnicity, culture and language. The old dividing lines of housed or homeless, black or white, middle class or poor, unemployed or employed, are transformed in the realization of God’s intention for humankind.
Over the past 18 months of the coronavirus pandemic, most Bridge of Hope locations have seen a dramatic increase — between 50% and 300% increase! — in calls for help. Churches continue to step forward as Neighboring Volunteers, despite the pandemic — including churches in Mennonite Church USA. Neighboring is even more critical in this time of isolation and crisis! This past year, Bridge of Hope served 27% more families than the previous year.
At 22 years of age, when I finished college with less than $100 in hand, my faith community and social capital helped me forge my way through life. It was a starting point and a place of privilege that many people don’t have access to. At 22, Jada* has less than $100 in hand, is living in a shelter with her 3-year-old, and her only social capital is her 84-year-old great-grandmother, who is living in a county-supported nursing home. Jada and I might be worlds apart. But a group of Neighboring Volunteers could help her build a community of support with connections to housing, employment and encouragement along the way. They could share their lives with Jada, sharing social capital, creating community and living out neighboring love, in the way of Jesus.
*named changed for confidentiality
Mennonite Church USA encourages you and your congregation to participate in the Cost of Poverty: Learn, Pray, Join initiative as one way to learn more about the topic of poverty from theological and practical perspectives, as well as learn how to get involved.
Find upcoming webinars and ways to get involved at mennoniteusa.org/ministry/peacebuilding/learn-pray-join/cost-of-poverty/.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.