A few weeks ago I wrote about my increasing engagement with Freedom Fellowship, a faith community planted by and affiliated with my church. As I noted in that post many of those who attend Freedom are homeless or very poor.
Here's an issue the leaders of the church are currently wrestling with. How to address (if at all) the sexual behaviors of the congregation?
Among the homeless and very poor marriage isn't a common or stable institution. More, even if you wanted to get married there are hoops to clear that are incidental to middle class folks but significant obstacles to the homeless. For instance, paying for the marriage license. Even getting to and from City Hall is an ordeal--in effort and time--when you have to walk.
So what we have, in essence, is a church encouraging people living on the streets or tents to abstain from sex until they are married. But given the obstacles to marriage the homeless face along with the fact that the marriage would be built upon a very insecure foundation there hasn't been much response from the congregation. It seems that, even among the homeless, marriage should wait until life is stable. A good job and a place to live need to be in hand. But for many, these aren't happening anytime soon. So is celibacy required or realistic in the meantime?
A part of me thinks all this is just middle class hand-wringing on the part of the church. What do you expect two adults are going to do living in a tent together with a lot of time on their hands and little by way of entertainment? Sex with a person you care about is free and it alleviates some of the loneliness and burden of life on the streets. Is God in His High Heaven is looking to throw thunderbolts at these people?
So on the one hand my sense is that this focus on "getting married" is trying to get the homeless and very poor to participate in middle class institutions. This, from what I understand, is a common temptation among churches working with the poor, the effort to make the poor look like us, to live a middle class life.
But on the other hand, I do understand the concern of the church about speaking to sexuality in light of the Kingdom. Given the situation, my concerns are more about pregnancy and STDs than marriage, but I do appreciate the moral concern of the leaders of the church.
So what to do?
I'm new to all this. I don't have a lot of experience working among the homeless and poor. I'm a rookie. So I was curious to bounce this issue off you to get your take, particularly if you have more experience in these areas.
As I've pondered this, three "approaches" have come to mind:
1. Stay with pushing for pre-marital chastity and encourage marriage. But we do more than just verbally encourage. We get couples living together in classes or counseling sessions where the basic responsibilities of marriage are discussed. Support sessions or groups continue after marriage. We also help with overcoming the infrastructure obstacles: Help with the application, the fees, transportation to and from City Hall. Finally, we help them secure wedding rings and throw a wedding.Again, given how new I am to all of this much of what I've just written could be foolish. I simply share some thoughts looking for some feedback.
2. Set marriage aside as too ambitious a goal. Focus more on the medical and safety issues. For example, help provide access to birth control and condoms and provide education about safer sexual practices.
3. Consecrate marriages. Why insist that marriage means going through Uncle Sam? Why not let the church consecrate marriages on her own? True, these consecrated marriages might not have the legal teeth of a state-sanctioned union, but that's boo on the church. Still, point well taken. My idea here is this. Yes, consecrating marriages outside of the state might make divorce "easier," but the issue here has more to do with communal accountability. That is, if a marriage is consecrated in the faith community then that union has some accountability to the church. Given the promises made before the faith community those two people are married and should be held to that standard. If they don't meet that standard (e.g., infidelity, abuse) then the faith community has permission to meddle. That's the right you gave them for wanting the marriage consecrated by the church. You've given the faith community permission to hold you to certain standards. That's what baptismal and marriage vows are all about.
To be sure, I don't really want the church overly involved in monitoring all this and doling out consequences. Regular readers know me. The prospect of moral policing makes me queasy. What I'm kicking around here is how sexual unions could be recognized as holy--marriages--in a way that is less beholden to Uncle Sam and middle class institutions but that gets at the major issue: a degree of accountability within the faith community.