Marriage Among the Homeless

I'm looking for some insight.

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.

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. 
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.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

53 thoughts on “Marriage Among the Homeless”

  1. Dr. Beck, to be thinking so deeply about how to love and serve those who are different from you increases my respect for your intelligence and faith.  If your honesty is foolishness, then I'd consider being labeled a "fool" a great compliment.  I'm not a professional, but I'm not unfamiliar with poverty.  Never homeless, but close to it a few times.  So take my input with a grain of salt, as always.

    "So is celibacy required or realistic in the meantime?"

    I believe that, whether people are aware of it or acknowledge it or not, sex is equated with life and human connection.  Sure, there are all of those hormonal urges at play.  But, imagine, for a homeless person, feeling disconnected from society and living in a metaphorical state of "death."  Sex is kind of a good impulse, if you think about wanting to affirm life and connect with another human being.  It goes beyond the entertainment value.  Is it the same for men, as it is for women?  Or is this simply a "woman thing?"  I don't know...  Can't speak for men.  If it isn't, then it *should* be, imho -- if sex is to be seen as in any way a sacred act.

    I wonder if the focus is kept on affirming the worth and dignity of each individual, whether the church would be teaching the greater opposed to shifting into law-keeping?  (..."guard the image of man, for it is the image of God.")  Further, *if* one is going to have sex, whether inside of marriage or outside of it, honor the dignity of the other person by being an honorable person oneself.  We don't use and abuse another person in the intimate act of sexual union -- not cool with God.

    As a woman, I am thinking of the added vulnerability of women and girls on the street.  The temptation to "sell herself" for favors or safekeeping; and the temptation of men to exploit that.  And then, if the woman or girl becomes pregnant, the burden is on her to care for another human being.  That predicament, more than violating some biblical holiness code of celibacy until marriage, is the greater "sin" which could be addressed in practical ways.  Even then, if "suggestions" are made (e.g., use birth control, condoms, testing for STD's, etc.), then know where to refer these people to receive medical care.  Help them to get to their appointments, and all that.

    Consecrating a union in the church (in absence of a legal marriage) would be a nice thing to do, if a couple wanted that.  Do they want that?  Or is it that those serving at FF are uncomfortable with the sexual freedom of those being served, and are trying to find a way to reconcile the situation with their own faith values?

    God bless you for stepping in with both feet, taking the risk of getting a little "messy", and loving the least of these.  ~Peace~

  2. Most definitely. And no doubt what people want will vary from couple to couple.

    There are two issues I'm trying to puzzle out here. The first has to do with the normative expectations of the church regarding sex among its homeless members. What expectations are realistic and how much attention should be given them? I raise the question because among some of the church leaders this seems to be a bigger deal and I'm wondering if it should be. Given that we are wrestling with normative issues what people want, though important, is only part of the picture. I might want to have sex and be left alone about it. Should that wish be granted?

    Second, if a homeless couple wants to get married what's the best path forward? If these unions end up being unstable then pursuing the legal route might just create a lot of baggage for these individuals down the road. The consecrated marriage idea I kicked around might be "marriage lite" but it avoids those complications while bringing the couple as a couple into a pastoral relationship with the church.

    But at the end of the day, I don't know what the hell I'm talking about. I'm just sharing something my little faith community is dealing with. Should we address the sexual behaviors of the homeless? Or should we drop the moralizing on this issue? And if we do address it does it make sense to push for middle class institutions? Or something else?

  3. Marriage:  Well since Scripture has no authority because it might mean this or it might mean that I guess it would be foolish to see what Scripture has to say on this matter . . . .  Let's just collect the thoughts of us fallen sinners.
    God has defined marriage and nowhere asks for input for change of that definition.
    The state makes laws and Christians follow laws.  So that part is rather easy.
    God expects rich people and poor people to obey Him in all things.
    Marriage is simply something between a man, a woman, and God.  Ahhh, but we do like our rituals.
    The church has no part to play in marriage that I can find; well at least not according to God.
    The church is about purity.  So, sin has to be dealt with; even if it is between two poor married or unmarried people.
    This sure is hard!!!

  4. A combination of all three of your ideas seems appropriate, especially because different homeless individuals will be in different places in life. Just like every sphere of population of humanity, there are varying degrees of stability within the homeless community. Some homeless individuals have income, medical insurance, and organized documents. On the other end of the spectrum, some have just the clothes on their back, no identification, and no realistic chance of getting identification. Meeting them where they are at, learning their challenges, and going from there is a great place to start.

  5. This largely depends on how you view marriage and what you think qualifies as a marriage.  When I was married, I saw two things happen.  I was married (in the religious ceremony in the church), and I had a civil union (filing paperwork to make our union recognized with the state).  I see marriage largely as a religious union that occurs in the midst of the Christian community.

    I spent some time volunteering with an inner-city ministry that ministered with folks who were homeless, or near homeless.  In at least one situation that I recall, a marriage ceremony was consecrated (by an ordained minister), but the legal paperwork was not filed with the state, they could not afford it, and it would have caused more problems than it would have solved.  From my perspective, they were married: they made mutual commitments before a minister, in the midst of the Christian community, and openly within the view of God.  The couple was seeking to be faithful to what they wanted and what they thought was best, while also operating within what was possible for them.

  6. A fourth concern that I would think of is children. I knew locally a homeless woman who had four children. She's dead now, but her two of her kids lived through hell. The oldest was adopted out before I met her. Her middle children went back and forth between herself, an aunt, and the foster system. The older of those two eventually was tranferred to an uncle, and then a boys' home. The youngest has lived most of her life with her aunt. They aren't the most stable environment either, but at least she hasn't lived through what two of her siblings did. One, in particular, was badly and repeatedly abused, as the mother exchanged sex and access to beating her child for drugs.

  7. Before I can begin thinking through this question, I need to confront a more basic one. 

    The Jesus we encounter through scripture was a moral and social innovator--a progressive--in the context of his culture. But over 2,000 years the particular mores of the NT community define "conservative morals" in our culture. Moreover, conservative values and morals tend to be associated with wealth and power, whereas Jesus confronted injustices derived from self-serving power. So I have at least two layers of conceptual schizophrenia to sort through prior to feeling that I can even approach your question with confidence. Practically speaking the idea that Jesus would endorse casual sex has about the same traction with me as does the idea that he would impose middle-class American values on anyone. 

    But I really like the fact that you are asking this tough question...

  8. I recently posted on a Christian message board a question about what exactly constitutes a biblical marriage. I got few answers but the most frequent was that we were supposed to support our cultures ideas and laws on the subject. I would love to know what you folks think about it. I constantly struggle with what it means to love the least of these. I'm pretty sure that it doesn't mean that they first become like me.

  9. Ahhh, you're almost there.  But why does the church have any more right to regulate marriage than the state does?  I say if two people love each other and God binds the marriage, they're married.  How do we know if God binds it?  None of our business.

    Of course this implies that we should stay out of the sexual relationships of two people because we don't know if they're married or not.  Suddenly makes a whole lot of stuff easier, doesn't it?

  10. Couple of thoughts. I'm a bit tired of the worry that we are just trying to "make these people look like us"--after all, that's not a reason to never give people toothbrushes, since keeping teeth healthy is just "looking like us." If, as I believe, marriage is a more significant tool for making my life healthy than a toothbrush is, then sharing that tool with anyone, from any walk of life, is as appropriate as buying him a toothbrush.

    Second, I'm all for seeing marriage as a church-consecrated institution. I'm a bit puzzled at the idea that this is somehow "easier" and the state version is harder. If the church can get together and consecrate a marriage, it isn't particularly onerous for someone to give the couple a ride down to City Hall to register the marriage--if they wish. This is a minor legal technicality and means little to me. What means a lot to me is that a church marriage itself, done right, requires a certain amount of stability. So yes, marriage both requires and contributes to a life that is somewhat stable, and this is not easy for people whose lives are unstable. Yet the same could be said of employment, or home ownership--these both require and contribute to a life that is somewhat stable. Trying to help people move out of instability into stability, both in relationships and in finances, seems to me to be a helpful goal for any walk of life.

    Finally, as best I can tell no adults, homeless or not, are really asking the church whether to abstain from sex when unmarried. So if you're just talking about sex while unmarried, I'm not sure that the lack of entertainment is really that different from life with lots of cable channels (all encouraging me to have sex). Even Christian couples who get married fairly quickly have usually had sex while moving toward marriage. Each faith community can decide whether to keep chipping away at the lack of true celibacy outside marriage in our society; meanwhile, any social agency ought to be trying to make these sins as medically safe as we can. I wouldn't want to make these two issues sound like alternatives, and I wouldn't want to make them sound like they're any harder for the homeless than they are for anybody else.

    But marriage itself is, I'm sure, much harder for the homeless--precisely because it is hard to get stability in any area of life without getting stability in all areas of life. Yet for that very reason, I suspect that an integrated approach in which stabilizing family while stabilizing employment and stabilizing housing may be the most powerful path forward for many people.

  11. What state were you in? and what were the "more problems"?

    I'm just curious. I agree with your analysis, but the "civil" side of marriage looks pretty cheap, pretty easy, and doesn't cause problems that I can see--in the states I've married people in.

    BTW, this is an issue for some of my missionary friends, where the state marriage is truly expensive--representing months of wages.

  12. Yeah, but we wouldn't want to impose middle class values on those kids' family situations, would we?

    Thanks, Patricia, for getting real with this.

  13. I do think that biblically, anthropologically, and historically there is a "community" component to marriage. In our country we often associate "culture" with a certain image of white-middle-classness, and that is ridiculous. However, even among slaves there is a "cultural" recognition of what makes two people married, and IMHO this brings with it a community-based support system as well as the blessings of God.

    I could care less whether the marriage of a group of people fits the culture of some outside community. I do want it to fit their own culture--the culture of their own community. But any functioning community will have a functioning way of recognizing functioning marriages.

    People who are not part of a functioning community have, it seems to me, two options: join a nearby functioning community (and if that is their goal, then they should not complain about being asked to follow its customs/ values), or create a functioning community of their own (and if that is their goal, they can come up with their own ways of handling marriage, as every other community in history has)

    But the Bible is silent on most components of how to handle marriage, while preserving aspects of marriage that can easily apply cross-culturally--love, respect, faithfulness, commitment.

  14. I worked with the poor and homeless from 1967 - 2005 (education and healthcare).  Though I am now retired, both my wife and daughter continue to work in the criminal justice system, which deals with many of the same individuals.  The problem being discussed here today is only on the periphery -- the outskirts of these lives.

    The root problem is an inability to think "forward" and to take ownership of responsibility for their own lives and predicament.  They live in the "now".  A lack of personal discipline, self-control, and recognition of authority and rules.  This is one reason why the military is often seen as a way out -- it imposes structure and self-discipline, as well as goal-setting, without which life is nearly impossible to live productively and well.

    "Rules are for other people, I live life on my own terms".  Though rarely spoken aloud, this is the most common attitude I saw during my years of work.  Is this freedom -- or is it a lie?  Freely jump out of a ten-story window, and the rule of gravity will surely kill you.  A well-tended garden flourishes, while a neglected one is thorny and overgrown, producing little of value.  It is the same with any life.  Before anyone tries to assist and care for other people, or shuttle them into either a secular or religious rite, service, or institution, a person with little self-discipline and control must learn and internalize both.  Because at the foundational level, without these, no area of their lives will be functional.  Set this right, and the rest should fall into place.

  15. It's not ridiculously expensive, but sometimes requirements such as a birth certificate can cause difficulty.  Some folks, for various reasons may not have a copy of their birth certificate, and some find it quite difficult to obtain certified copies (even with help).

    However, beyond the practicality of this, I think that what this really comes down to is how we define marriage.   Does God only recognize a marriage when the state recognizes it?  I am not arguing that marriage is not important, or that it is "just a piece of paper".  When I reflect on my own marriage, the heaviness of the responsibility and the covenantal importance of it came during the religious ceremony, not the signing of the legal document. 

    I do not think that we should make our decisions solely based upon what is easiest or what is convenient.  However, I simply don't see how forgoing the legal recognition is just an easy way.  If this is the case, then the church is not doing its job.  Additionally, I have often had difficulty with the state recognizing marriages (as opposed to civil unions), and clergy signing a legal document as an agent of the state.

  16. As Walter Wink pointed out in a very fascinating article I read recently: "
    The Bible nowhere explicitly prohibits sexual relations between unmarried consenting adults -- a discovery that caused John Calvin no little astonishment. The Song of Songs eulogizes a love affair between two unmarried persons, though even some scholars have conspired to cover up the fact with heavy layers of allegorical interpretation."

    All I can say is that I think we need, as always, to start with the basics. In other words start with health and safety, prevention of unwanted pregnancy and STD's. Until we're ready to enter into real community with someone, anyone, we ought to keep our moralizing and our opinions about "sin" completely to ourselves. This should always be the case I think. Unless we're willing to actually "do life" with a person, just do that person a favor, meet their basic needs as much as possible, and keep our opinions about lifestyle to ourselves.

  17. Hi Sam. I currently work with the homeless population in Seattle and I want to start by thanking you for your decades of work with a marginalized community. 

    I think your overall point--that when a person internalizes self-discipline and structure, growth and wellness result--is correct, but I would say that this mindset that says "Rules are for other people, I live life on my own terms" is a mindset that almost all humans have. The major difference that I've noticed between homeless/housed populations, is that a homeless person is usually dealing with a host of issues (mental illness, addictions, childhood trauma, abandonment, lack of support system) that the housed population will never know. Does this mean that they are free from any call to self-responsibility and ownership of their situation? No. But, to me, it does mean that while the maxim of self-discipline and structure as a cure makes logical sense, it falls apart on the streets, in the daily reality of a person who is simply trying to survive.

    In Seattle there is a concept called "housing first". It is a philosophy of working with the homeless population that believes that a person will never be able to take the steps to regain their life (including structure and self-discipline) until they have a safe place to lay their head at night, and thereby be free from the crushing anxiety of basic survival. This philosophy is controversial, but it is also providing hope and change for the most vulnerable and forgotten members of Seattle.

    It is my hope that we might be able to offer a homeless person a dose of compassion and humanity, and from that point of connection and rapport, build hope and encourage self-ownership, discipline, and structure that will lead to more permanent change.

  18. Are the leaders of this church basically middle-class folks, and the attenders/members poor?  Is the church fairly young?  What I would suggest is that you find others who have already been down this road and can advise you.  You need people who have been homeless/addicted/whatever to help you and lead you, as well as those who have spent time helping them -- do you have any social workers as members? -- they can be really helpful as well.  

    I've been in a similar setting for many years, and our social worker, DJJ and formerly homeless members have been invaluable to us, both in how to proceed with those who come to us, and in encouraging us in what can be a very frustrating and tiring enterprise.  

    Not a direct answer to the issue of marriage, though.

  19. "The major difference that I've noticed between homeless/housed
    populations, is that a homeless person is usually dealing with a host of
    issues (mental illness, addictions, childhood trauma, abandonment, lack
    of support system) that the housed population will never know."


    Thank you as well for your valuable service and your comments here. Many, if not most people must overcome problems in life.  As for my own story, from the list you cite above, I personally experienced all but one (addictions), with the addition of a severe physical deformity.  I am living proof (see movie "The Help")!  It is this very background that led to my career, which I consider now as a success, both for me as well as those I served.

    Yet while I helped many, I could never help my college roommate, who was smart, funny, creative and gifted, and could have done almost anything.  He refused, however, to grow up.  His life-long addiction was the television.  He hopped trains and lived under bridges.  He eventually became a ward of the state (SSI) and died in 2005 of kidney failure after losing a leg to Type II diabetes, the result of years of inactivity and a fast-food diet.  I had plenty of sympathy and compassion, but was otherwise completely helpless in the face of his self-destruction.  It was then that I understood it is not the situation or obstacles, but rather the man.

  20. It is only "hard" for the sarcastic and arrogant -- those who are convinced that scripture means what they say it means, and that anyone else's interpretation is obviously wrong.

    "God expects rich people and poor people to obey Him in all things."

    Explained and taken care of: "God has locked up all men in disobedience so that He may have mercy on them all." Easy. God is responsible.

    "The church is about purity. So, sin has to be dealt with;"

    Once again, easy: "God demonstrated His love for us, in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us."

    Your part is easy too: "Love your neighbor as yourself."

    It's only hard if you choose to be sarcastic and arrogant, and always trying to find ways to judge others as less deserving of God's unconditional love. It's very easy if you instead choose to love others as you are loved by God - no conditions... just another "fallen sinner" whom Christ died for.

    Not that any of this applies to you, of course. I sensed no arrogance or sarcasm on your part. You were just trying to lovingly point out the misconceptions of others... were you not?

  21. "The church is about purity."  Unfortunately, this is too often true.  "Sin has to be dealt with."  Whose sin--the church priortizing sacrifice over mercy?

  22. Just a thought, why not have the church design an outreach program that will pay for the expenses of marriage to the homeless, as well as provide support in the way of non-abortion birth control (since bringing a child into a family that cannot monetarily support them is irresponsible.) I am sure, from the look of things, that you already provide food and shelter at least on some level. 

    It's important to remember that, as Christians, our perspective should bet toward Heaven. You do them a disservice if you compromise the Word of God in order to appear being understanding or loving. If we truly love them, we speak truth to them and encourage and empower them to live in that truth. Abstinence before marriage is a Biblical commandment and rather than try to compromise it, we should empower and encourage others to live by it. 

    Obviously take into account the cost involved in creating an outreach program like this and perhaps create a program out of it that will help them establish themselves and find a job or some form of income as they work toward building a new life. 

  23. All of which points to really hard issues "We" encounter when venturing beyond the safety cells of religion with its insulations and oblivions....the really uncomfortable ones. It's easy to understand why so many just throw money and stay pretty much aloof from the dilemmas of the truly poor. Too much pain....too many unanswered questions. But here's the big question....Are we truly followers of Jesus Christ? Dare we answer that question, hit the street, tackle the mess, enter the fray.....engaging poverty and need and pain where it is and getting dirty and hurt and bludgeoned in the process....without all the answers...crying out for help and mercy in the grind? No wonder Mother Therresa was a Winter Christian! But make no mistake...Compassion in the cause of restoration will find a way. And, yes...the personal price tag is very high. But it's worth it.

  24. Our church is in the early stages of starting a housing first program. I think that's key to providing stable infrastructure for couples moving in the direction of marriage. My sense is that we should keep away from these moral issues until something is done about the infrastructure. That is, once we get housing first up and running I think everyone--church and the couples--is better positioned to work through the moral issues.

  25. Thanks Patricia. I think it's important to not glorify the poor and see them through rose-colored glasses. Something, incidentally, I see a lot of middle class Christians do. People who like "the poor" in the abstract but not the poor in reality. Because poverty in reality is an ugly thing. There are saints and heroes among the poor, just like with every strata of society, but there is also a lot of brokenness that, it seems not me, can't get fixed.

    Which is to say I'm thinking a lot more about simple presence among and frienship with the poor, rather than seeing the poor as a project. And if we are practicing the witness of mere presence I'm wondering where the moralizing comes in, if at all? That is, should I not just simply be present among the poor and leave off any preaching about there sex lives? To be sure, I'd want to protect them from self-destructive practices but that seems different from moralizing about sex outside of marriage.

  26. I think a lot of arguments, from a lot of different perspectives, could be made to support abstinence before marriage. I think it's even possible to make scriptural arguments in this direction, although it's also possible to make scriptural arguments in the other direction. I don't think it actually ever shows up as a biblical commandment though.

    I know I'm the kind of person who would love having a diving rule book for life, but I'm afraid that God, in God's wisdom, has not chosen to give us such a thing. Which means that instead of a perfect map in hand, we have to instead wade into the messiness of life (and scripture) with a cross-shaped love as our only guide.

  27. Very well said. I couldn't agree more. Now if I could just move beyond my own paralyzing fear... lord have mercy.

  28. Good questions all.  In my experience, the press and oppression of homelessness often draw persons together.  I can think of many couples who, due to their depending on one another on the streets and their long travel together, were considered just that by everyone:  a couple.  I also have seen homeless persons find a way to be married legally.  For me the key to one's response is always based on deep relationships that take a while to develop.  Out of the nature and depth of the relationship comes all sorts of opportunities to naturally provide teaching, counsel and instruction.  The place to begin is radical acceptance of the other as valuable, not to be judged and always worth the price of any interruption, including the interruption of our our long-held beliefs and traiditons. 

    As you say, most homeless persons probably aren't in a position to commit to marriage, whether in church or courthouse.  I can envision times where living together might be less damaging than being married however that occurs.  I believe there is no fool proof canon/law that can be devised.  This is a deeply personal, one-on-one, case at a time issue/challenge.  The role of the church is to provide unconditional love and out of that and in that context loving teaching, counsel and prescence that just doesn't go away no matter what.  If we approach this like a problem for a Sunday School class to solve, we're likely going down the wrong road.  If we approach it as friends who really are commited to loving, understanding and supporting the other person, together we stand a better chance of finding the correct path a friend at a time.  Make any sense to you?

  29. I agree whole heartedly, Dr. Beck. I encourage you to google "Downtown Emergency Service Center, Seattle". They have 9 supported housing programs in the Seattle area that have been immensely successful, including one that received national attention, "1811 Eastlake", because it's target population is chronic inebriates (which is another discussion altogether). They have yet to tackle married housing.

    Blessings to your Church as your proceed.

  30. I think a lot of people like -or think they like - (at least in theory) what they don't really know for themselves. I think you're on the right track about just being a presence. Nobody, poor, rich, or middle class, wants to be somebody's Jesus project. But everybody wants and needs a friend. And a conversation with a friend about sexual practices, and any possible fallout, is a whole lot different from being preached at from a podium. Kids especially want to be included, loved, laughed with (not at), read to, and fed. This woman's children were often in our home, and it was tough at times. We had 3 difference episodes in which one in particular violently attacked our own son. Our son graciously forgave him each time, and kept being his friend. He went on camp-outs with us, spent the night when things were too gnarly with his aunt and sisters, and we went to his classrooms at open house to meet his teachers, because no other grown-ups in his life could or would be there. I don't know where he is today. The aunt decided he was "too much." He was very intelligent, but oh so angry. And he got preached at waaay too much on one hand, and physically abused by his mother and her boyfriends on the other. 

  31. Like you, Sam, I had a point in my life where I had to own my situation (I have bipolar type 1, and had 2 major manic episodes in 2001 and 2003 and a suicide attempt in 2003), and my experience has given rise to my career and passion to work with folks living with behavioral health issues, which the majority of homeless people are dealing with.

    Somewhere in the ownership of my own illness, I began to realize how little I know about the depths and nuances of another person's situation, because no one could completely understand the depths of my situation. Not in it's fullness.

    Along with that, brain medicine is in it's infancy. We know next to nothing about mental illness and even less about addiction. i have a feeling that in 50 years society will look back at our treatment of those living with mental illness and addiction and cringe, the way we cringe when we read about doctors practicing blood-letting in the 1700s.

    I think it's too easy to say it's not about the obstacles, but about the man. That presumes that we know the entirety of the man and his situation. I'm not ready to make that kind of declaration about the people around me, even the ones I know well.

    I've written at some length about my my experiences, if you'd like to know more about my journey, email me at, and I'll share my blog link with you.

  32. Marriage is a political act for people in a law-filled society. Marriage as the ideal is a union of a male and female where each places all past familiar unions as second to their own. The best basic unit of government.

    In contrast to marriage, I heard of this couple. All they had were the still-moist skins of a freshly killed animal on their back. They were  made for and from each other.
    Sex, stability and family can come before or after the union these days, as marriage is law, and law is imperfect.

  33. Richard,
    you might be interested in Jordon Cooper's blog:

    He is licensed Free Methodist minister in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and has been a "paid pastor", but for the last several years has been working for the Salvation Army and now an organization called The Lighthouse,

    He writes a lot about how to help homeless folks.  Compassionate person, compelling writing, no judgment - except occasionally on the idiocies of bureaucracies...  I'm sure he would be happy to correspond with you.


  34. Yes, that makes perfect sense. The one-on-one commitment to love unconditionally is the key. Start there and stay rooted there and the rest follows naturally.

  35. "Unfortunately, this is too often true."

    I guess we have different ideas about what a church pursuing purity looks like.

    "Whose sin -- the church prioritizing sacrifice over mercy?"
    Other than being a non sequitur I guess mercy is overlooking sin?  Good.  Got it.

  36. I work with people who are homeless /excluded from mainstream society in the UK and have turned these questions over in my mind many times. The mindset of most services here is to support an individual (for instance there are very few hostel spaces for couples) often ignoring the most important relationships in their lives.  

    My main approach is to try and provide people with the tools they need to sustain and develop the relationships they care about whether married or not: not speaking badly of each other publicly, arguing well, finding ways to show care and affection, sticking by each other when not 'feeling' love, addressing underlying attitudes towards women etc. The church has so much to share in these areas without worrying too much about who's having sex with whom and when.

  37. I think it's worth noting that when we find issues like poor impulse control, inability to understand cause and effect, and poor focus that don't respond to normal disciplinary measures in a middle-class child, we take them to a doctor. When we see them in the homeless, we consider them moral failings of will and enact or advocate for harsh sanctions. Same with issues like PTSD. If a homeless woman has undergone ten years of child sexual abuse that left her barely able to function, we heap more abuse on her, and by denying her access to proper treatment, we create situations in which sleeping with abusive, addicted men is her best bet for survival. A middle-class child who went through a similar trauma gets medical treatment.

    I've been very close to the streets myself and may very well die there. Right now, I'm temporarily able to pass for something close to middle class, even though I'm living on less than half of median income. My new acquaintances talk about poverty as if it was somehow amusing to be homeless, as if getting out was a matter of not being so lazy and worthless, as if getting necessary, effective intervention for psychiatric and substance abuse problems is as simple as walking in a door. They talk as if abusive, drug-addled relationships are deliberate choices to mess up one's life, not the best one can get under the circumstances, and as if leaving a violent spouse is safe, sane and responsible rather than an invitation to an even bigger, possibly fatal beating. They assume that because I'm disabled, I'm entitled to thousands of dollars a month of perks, not realizing that their own nasty attitude translated into regulations puts caps on what people can qualify for that guarantees people like me a life of poverty and substandard medical care. They talk as if the primary quality of a good parent is money (yes, I am dragging a kid through this nightmare). They think the poor should save, not realizing that if they try to, they lose access to the very programs that made it possible to put a little bit aside. They don't understand that the system is set up to punish saving, or any other form of planning ahead, for that matter.  They talk as if my life now is the result of my moral virtue and that everyone could do it if they tried, not realizing that I don't have the life they think I do and I've done a lot of things over the years that would disgust them just to survive. I'm passing for white, in a manner of speaking, and I'm revolted by what I see.

    To my mind, the real question is this: is marriage a holy union, or is it a reward for financial success? Right now, according to society, it's the latter. However, if we want to push it toward the former, I'd say that offering counseling and support, focusing on sexual health, and offering non-legal marriages are the way to go. Getting married can mess you up financially if you're very poor or homeless, and yet committed partnership can offer a measure of stability. Sex is a bonding and forgiving thing, not just a reproductive function. A lot of people end up homeless because they lack access to necessary medication, essential psychological skills or both. Right now, marriage is a trap or a burden for the poor. It ties them to abusers, wrecks their finances, and limits their options.

    Counseling appropriate to any underlying psychiatric problems combined with an IUD and a simple, free, non-legally binding ceremony would probably do wonders with some of these couples. But what would I know? I'm just another loser looking for a handout.

  38. I'd say you know quite a lot. And I'm grateful, Ann, for your take here. It's where my own heart and mind are going.

  39. Amen. I have nothing to add, but to say I see and experience the same things in dealing with the homeless and poor in Houston. 

  40. I love these questions.  I've been thinking along a similar line about how we deal with pre-marital sex in an age where no one gets married until the age of 26 on average.  This is a total new problem.  The idea of pre-marital sex is ridiculous when people got married age age 16, 17 and 18.  But to wait until 26 seems almost cruel.  These are powerful biological signals our body sends.  But again sex leads to babies....I have a lot of questions and no answers.  Luckily my kids are only 4 and 6, but I only have a few years before I need to decide what I want to teach them about sex.  

  41. 1) Maslow's Hierarchy on Needs suggest that the priority issue is physiological.  Even Jesus addressed the sinners physiological needs before beckoning the sinner to come follow me.
    2) The whole issue of marriage and pre-marital sex needs to be re-analysed.  Luke 20:35, what is good for the resurrection should be good for me now.  Even Jesus was born out of marriage.

  42. Whatever led you to that conclusion?  Could it be that you are falling for all the expressed anger that different views illicit from 'nice'christians here?  Take my word for it, I am very nice!

  43. Thanks, Richard. I think the real point is that we need to address all areas of life together, and I'm glad our church is tackling housing as a key infrastructure goal. Also, I'm glad you keep reminding us to be humble as we try to offer what might help other people, mainly listening to them.

    I suggest a study of people who have come from a place of homelessness into a place that they feel better about (whether or not it "looks like" anything I would expect is beside the point). How many times do they report having received purely institutional "help" (such as housing)? How many times do they report having received some sort of transformation (moral/ spiritual)? How many times do they report having received both--and is there any data that one of these ought to come "before" the other?

    I have my own guesses what such a study would show us, and they might be different from yours, but I'd love to look at the data. Is it easily available? Could you present it at Highland?

  44. One of the things that strikes me is the sense of what is marriage. As a lesbian, I'm told that the sanctity of marriage must be preserved--both in the church and civilly. Then I see a discussion of marriage in the church that basically says civil marriage's function is to make it harder to get a divorce. And church marriage could serve as "marriage lite". And I'm left wondering what's so holy about holy matrimony here.  And then marriage is really about permission to have sex (with the purpose of procreation?) for people who have no home, no sure next meal and probably mental illness and/or substance abuse issues. My partner works with the severely mentally ill, many of whom are homeless and it just seems like fiddling while Rome is burning. There are much bigger issues here and the church really needs to ask itself what was the point of planting this congregation and is it addressing those bigger needs or is this only about worship and sex. I think for me worrying about STDs and birth control is probably where it would stop.

  45. Having worked in this area for almost 3 years.. I have some basis for comment.  If someone values and desires to complete their union by completing the legal steps, and money or transportation are the issue, that would surprise me based upon what I have witnessed.  A call or plea to any church would provide help, if that is the necessity. Seems to be more of a theoretical question. 

  46. In the past couple of years, Los Angeles has also recently started utilizing a housing first model, and so far, it seems to be working - at least from a public policy and budgetary standpoint:  This is also a policy they've had quite a bit of success with in D.C., and every study I've seen on housing first seems to indicate that it works pretty well.

    If you've ever walked down Skid Row in Los Angeles, it's not hard to understand why it's incredibly hard for someone to address their other issues when that is where they are camped out on the sidewalk.  Almost everyone I know who has worked or works with the homeless thinks that the housing first model is a really good idea. (And it is generally much harder for couples to find housing than single people or single moms - so if churches want to promote marriage, that might be something to advocate for.)

    And honestly - in my experience - consensual sex between adults is not something I would put terribly high on my priority list when it comes to people who are sleeping on the streets. Getting people access to birth control, and encouraging them to use it - heck yes.  The church hasn't exactly been successful at keeping middle-class congregants from having pre-marital sex (I think the most recent numbers are the somewhere in the neighborhood of 80% of young evangelicals have had premarital sex.).  I don't know why anyone would think that the church would somehow be more effective at regulating the sexual behavior of homeless people.  So I think your instinct to start with the infrastructure is a good one.

  47. I served a church for ten years with many Liberian refugees who came on political asylum.  They were very poor but they worked hard as soon as they arrived from West Africa where they and their families had been brutally victimized.  I did several weddings and funerals for them.  One time, I had to wait an hour and a half for all the vital players to arrive.  As an incentive for pre-marital counseling, Minnesota offered a $60 discount (or break) on the cost of a marriage license.  But the couple had to meet for 12 hours with a qualified clergyman or counselor.  I required 6 meetings, but they were so motivated to save the cash that they wanted me to double the requirement.  I did every time and it doubled the fulfillment and helped cement the bond that was sealed.  I just had to work harder, that’s all.  If desperately poor and persecuted people straight from Africa can rise to a Christian standard of sexual fidelity and marital commitment (asnd they certainly did in all my cases with them), so can Americans, poor or not.   

  48. Marriage is not just a middle class institution, of course.  It is God’s idea and not just for any one particular class.  It is a man and woman making a covenant with each other—mutually.  Jesus and presumably his disciples did not have a place to lay their heads. Encouraging people living on streets or tents to abstain from sex until they are married is a standard Jesus applied for human beings then and it can work now too.  Human beings have a way of rising to standards, unless we shoot the standards out from under them. 
    Richard Beck wrote; “Sex with a person you care about is free and it alleviates some of the loneliness and burden of life on the streets.”  This is not necessarily true.  God designed sex to come with commitment.  When anyone takes it too cheaply, it usually creates MORE loneliness, burdens, strife and chaos. 

Leave a Reply