Compassion in Action: The Church’s Role in Addressing Homelessness

The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified a critical social issue in America: the escalating crisis of homelessness. With over half a million people in the U.S. lacking a stable place to sleep, this issue is undeniably pressing. Terence Lester, a former pastor and church planter turned nonprofit leader, is at the forefront of addressing this crisis, focusing on raising awareness about poverty, homelessness, and systemic economic inequality.

In his conversation with RELEVANT, edited for clarity, Lester discusses the barriers to Christian involvement in social causes and how believers can actively participate in addressing homelessness.

Overcoming Misconceptions in Christian Service

Lester emphasizes that Jesus’ life was marked by a focus on others. He didn’t just observe needs; he was present and engaged. This ministry of presence is what many Christians lack in their interactions with those who are suffering. The hectic pace of life often leads to an “event mentality,” where believers feel they lack the time to dedicate to such causes. However, Lester argues that it’s not about sacrificing one’s entire life but about being available for God to use in connecting with others.

Partnerships with Local Organizations

Lester advocates for church involvement with local organizations, including other faith groups, non-religious charities, and even local governments. He acknowledges the challenges in these partnerships but highlights the transformative impact when faith communities unite to extend God’s love beyond the church walls. It’s about joining existing efforts and collectively bringing more glory to God.

Integrating Faith and Justice

For Lester, as a Black man in America, faith and justice are inseparably intertwined. He cannot separate his experience and his faith, as both are deeply connected to his worldview shaped by justice and liberation. His faith in Jesus is central to his understanding of justice issues, drawing from the scriptural message that Jesus came to bring good news to the oppressed.

Addressing Homelessness with Compassion and Dignity

Lester challenges the notion of offering a “hand-up” versus a “handout,” pointing out the importance of relating to the experience of homelessness. He highlights the dehumanizing and criminalizing nature of many U.S. city laws against homeless individuals. These laws violate the dignity and human rights of those experiencing homelessness, ignoring the fact that they are made in the image of God (Imago Dei).

Lester emphasizes that being homeless does not make someone less of a neighbor. The commandment to love our neighbors includes those without an address. He points out the absurdity of laws that penalize life-sustaining activities like resting in public when there are no alternatives.

In response, believers are called to see people living on the streets as equals to those sitting next to them in church. God’s love extends equally to all, regardless of their living situation. The church has a vital role to play in leading initiatives that provide practical help, such as sanitation facilities, while upholding the dignity of those they serve.

Lester’s call to action is clear: the church must expand its table of fellowship, not build walls. By embracing compassion and actively participating in addressing homelessness, the church can truly reflect the heart of Jesus, who came to bring good news to the poor and set the oppressed free.