Who Are Our Neighbors? Who Are We?

Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto Sermons and Reflections
Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto Sermons and Reflections
Who Are Our Neighbors? Who Are We?

Demystifying homelessness — and exploding some myths about who “we” the people of UUCPA are.

Worship Leader: Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

Music: The Season of Us, guitar and flute

Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

September 9, 2018

Centering Words

Al-fatah Stewart, “The Mask”


Dan Harder, “At the Corner”

Tony Robles, “Crawl Space”


            What makes homeless people fundamentally different from those who have homes?

            It isn’t mental illness. Although the expulsion of people in need of mental health from mental hospitals, without the promised resources to fill in for these institutions, contributed markedly to the rise in homelessness in many of our lifetimes the perception that homeless people are usually mentally ill is drastically inaccurate. And the perception that their mental illness preceded their becoming homeless is also inaccurate. The incidence of mental illness in the general population is 20%, more or less. It’s about double that in the population of homeless people–though one wonders how much living in a state of chronic danger and worry might contribute to what are then diagnosed as anxiety and depression. How much is mental illness the cause of homelessness and how much it is the effect? How much mental illness would lift if people were secure in where they were going to stay and what they were going to eat? In any case, people living in shelters, their cars, or on the streets do suffer more mental illness than those who are not in these situations, but it’s common in both populations.

            Nor is the fundamental difference drug use. Drug and alcohol addiction are more common among people on the street than those living safely in houses. Again, it’s hard to know how much is cause and how much is effect–no doubt addiction contributes to homelessness, and homelessness, in turn, makes it more likely that someone will fall into addiction and less likely that they will be able climb out of it. But what’s clear is this: there are so many people who struggle with addiction among those with secure places to live, including, as we know, many right here in our congregation and in our families, that it can’t be called a fundamental difference.

            It isn’t domestic violence. Although the majority of women who end up on the streets are driven there by violence from intimate partners, this isn’t something that is rare in the wider population either.

            It isn’t laziness. At least ten percent of homeless people work; that number skyrockets to 25% when you talk to homeless people who are raising children.  Twenty-five percent go in to work and then return, not to home but to who knows where. One in four homeless people is a child: someone aged birth to 17,  who’s not supposed to have to work for a living. Hundreds of thousands of children in this country come to school from the cars or shelters or condemned buildings their families call their only home, and return there to do their “homework.”

            There’s no federal research on laziness; I can’t look up laziness stats at the National Institute of Mental Health website for you; but I do know this: like addiction and mental illness and violence, it occurs everywhere. Some of us slack off and never have to worry about becoming homeless. Some of us work hard and end up on the streets.

            Economically, of course, the main difference is poverty. About 13% of the total population of the United States lives in poverty. That’s pretty stunning, especially since it’s by the stingy definition that means “one’s income falls below the poverty level.” Obviously, most homeless people fall within that category. They are a tiny percentage of  the poor–between 1 and 2%. But even poverty isn’t a fundamental difference. It’s not a difference in kind among us. What makes us rich or poor is mostly accidents of birth (class mobility has come to a virtual standstill in our country, once famous for people’s being able to move up); or it’s economic factors such as the value the market puts on your particular line of work; or the political decisions we’ve made collectively, such as how and what we tax, and whether we fund programs intended to help people rise into the middle class.

            So what is the fundamental difference between people who are homeless and people who are not?

            I don’t think there is one. And the myth that there is one is a major source of the problem.

            There’s an old saying invoked when someone who is feeling fortunate looks upon someone who is less so: there but for the grace of God go I. And we need to recognize that grace is undeserved, unmerited–it falls upon us, we do not know why. Perhaps, as the hymn sings (my favorite verse in that hymn), grace might teach our hearts to fear when we don’t have the appropriate fear that those of us who are fortunate could easily, just as easily, find ourselves living on a street bench. Don’t worry–grace can relieve our fear as well, as we sang: by inspiring us to change things and cure the epidemic of homelessness.

            The myth of difference, the myth of otherness, is one that our religious teachers have been trying to unmask for thousands of years. It’s what the unknown author of Leviticus meant in saying “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” It is what Jesus meant when he called that verse one of the two Great Commandments, along with the commandment to love one’s God. You are your neighbor. Your neighbor is you. In the most important matter–how we treat each other–to deny others is to deny ourselves. To ignore them is to ignore ourselves. What are our sages trying to tell us, if not this?

            Those who have never been homeless can encounter those who are can encounter those who are and fool themselves into thinking it can never happen to them. The gulf of otherness yawns between them, between the fortunate and a fate that is, after all, not that uncommon. And this inability to see our essential sameness makes it possible for us to allow things to degrade nationwide to this point. First, the deinstitutionalization of those who are in need of mental health care. Then, the gutting of federal support for housing. Both of these happened in my lifetime, with the result that homelessness has gone from being a rare occurrence to an epidemic. The zoning and gentrification that lower the availability of affordable housing and the number of single-room-occupancy spaces. And then, when inevitably, homelessness increases in response to all these changes, what do we do? Criminalize those who bear the brunt, by passing laws against living in cars, sit-lie laws, a law against camping in cities–although, in a piece of good news, one such law was just struck down by a federal court.

            If you read an article or listen to a radio call-in show, a typical response to the question “What shall we do about the problem of homelessness?” reveals how common the view is that the problem is the homeless. So that, in the city where I live, San Francisco, you’ll read letters to the editor complaining, “I have to step over someone to get to my workplace!” Or “The streets smell terrible!” Or “I saw needles on the street–why doesn’t the city do something about these people?” As if the people suffering the most are the source of the problem. One person who commented online recently (I did not log on and get a password to argue with her) said, “See, San Francisco is too easy on people who are homeless. Go to a place like Palo Alto, where they’re much tougher, and there is one homeless guy.” Really, I should log on to tell her that there are 22 people living in our church this month, and that that’s a fraction of the number of homeless people in Palo Alto.

            This is a policy crisis, yes, but it’s also a spiritual crisis. For all of us, and particularly those of us who are not experiencing homelessness. It’s a spiritual crisis caused by a policy crisis; it’s a policy crisis that has sprung from a spiritual failure.

            When we look at someone who has to sleep on the sidewalk, and has tried to soften it with a layer of cardboard, and what we see is trash on the sidewalk instead of suffering: we are spiritually ill. When we look around at people who have no place to empty their bowels or bladder, and complain about how they look or smell, we are suffering spiritually, whether we know it or not. And when we look away, what’s happening then?

            (I’m mostly addressing people here who have never experienced homelessness. I know those of you who have experienced it have seen both sides of it, and don’t need to know this.)

            The command of these religious traditions–of Leviticus and then the Gospels–to those who have never had this experience, is: don’t look away. Don’t deny that your neighbor is here before you and must be loved, just like you. In other words, that they are you. Don’t deny their humanity. Don’t pretend that they aren’t just like you, because when we do, we deny our own humanity.

            Have you ever felt that happen?

            I had the experience just this week of being in a cafe, enjoying my expensive breakfast, when a woman came in who was living on the streets. She was pretty down-and-out; she looked physically, and probably mentally, ill. I couldn’t make out what she was asking–it was hard for me to understand her–but the manager went right up to her, and I tensed, braced: how was this interaction going to go? What might I have to say?

            He was pretty good. He treated her like a person. He spoke to her gently; he said to her, “You need to go now,” but he looked her in the eyes and treated her like a person of dignity and worth, as our first principle urges us to do with everybody we encounter. He could have done more. I’m sure it happens a lot with his cafe located where it is, and he can’t give a free breakfast to everyone who comes in, but he could have let her sit down for 15 minutes, offered her a cup of tea, perhaps. But still: he treated her with respect.

            So often we don’t even look at people in such dire need because of fear. The fear of engagement: like the man on BART [the Worship Associate mentioned in his reflection] who said, “Will someone just look at me?”–why don’t we? Because we’re afraid of what might happen next, what that might drag us into? Fear of acknowledging: that could be me. That’s someone’s son, who they held in their arms and never dreamed, could not possibly have hoped, that this would be the fate of this beloved child. This is somebody’s sister, who played and laughed, and now her sister doesn’t even know where she is. I think we’re afraid.

            And yet, when we don’t look, something happens to us.

Like today’s Worship Associate, I’ve tried to make a commitment to look people in the eye when they speak to me on the street. Even as I say, as I usually do when they ask me for money, “Sorry, no,” I think, “I want to treat them as a person,” and so I will look and respond instead of pretending I don’t see them. I feel the difference when I do that. Something really scary happens, really scary, when I just pretend they’re not there; it’s as if I’m not there either. It’s as if something invisible has come between us; something invisible has fallen over my face. And I realize, if you could see it, I know what it would look like: it would look like this. (puts on blank white mask)

            A mask, blank and terrifying. As the poet said whose words we heard as the Centering Words, Al-Fatah Stewart, who knows what it’s like on the street, “Everyone has one . . . Some don’t know when to take them off.” I think I’m being asked to take off this mask. “Just see me! Here we are, two residents of the same city.” And here’s the line that really gets me: “Just make sure that the mask you wear in the street you don’t forget to take off when you get home . . . ” If we put it on in response to those that Jesus referred to as “the least of these” among us, will we be able to take it off? Or does it stick after a while?

            There’s no question what the context was of the author of Leviticus and the authors of Mark and Matthew, from which this passage from Jesus comes. They were speaking about loving our neighbor, knowing we are the same, in the context of people in trouble, people in need. In Leviticus, that passage comes in the middle of many rules of economic justice: what we must do, if we have something, for those who have nothing. For example, speaking to this agricultural community, it says, when you clear your fields, leave the corners; those are for people who can’t earn a living and have nothing. Don’t do too good a job clearing the grain; if you drop some, don’t go back and get it. That’s for the gleaners, the author of Leviticus says. And why? Because you should love your neighbor as yourself.

            And Jesus responds with this quote when a lawyer asks him, “What must I do to gain eternal life?” He tells him the answer is this passage, along with “Love the Lord thy God with all thy soul, all thy heart, all thy strength, and all thy mind.” He says, “These are the two great commandments”; the lawyer responds, “But who is my neighbor?”; and you probably know the story that comes next. Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, which is the story of someone you meet in the street, being passed by dignified, respected members of the community, until finally one stops. One who is not particularly respected by the community stops and says, “I know you are my neighbor. I know we are the same. Let me bind up your wounds and help you.”

            This command to love others as ourselves, this ancient teaching that we are all one–that there is no fundamental difference between us–that any one of us could suffer the fate of the others–it is not an ethereal dream: “Oh, we’re all one . . . isn’t that nice . . . ” It has practical consequences, and they are spelled out very clearly: this is what you must do, because you and your neighbor are the same, must be loved the same.

            And therefore we have institutions like Hotel de Zink. I want to say a few things about it. One, I struggle a lot about whether to give one or two dollars to people on the street. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t; there are a lot of folks. And I’m aware that another way that I can help is to give to organizations like Hotel de Zink, like the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco, like LifeMoves to which we give our Christmas Eve offering each year. I give to them knowing what good work they do. But then I think about the Sunday offering, and what I usually give is five or ten dollars. I pull out my wallet and see if I have something small, and this morning I had a few ones and some fifties. Don’t you hate when you get fifties?–they’re so hard to break. And I thought, this is what I say to myself when I see people on the street: “I’m going to help by giving to organizations like this.” So I pulled out the fifty; that’s what I’ll be giving this morning. I know that for some people, even a dollar or two is too much; you know what you can give. But I hope you, also, will dig deep and give more than you planned, if this is the way you can help.

            But you know, if we simply recognize that we and our neighbors are one, it implies more than giving help. More even than working for a just housing policy and better economics, which are so, so important too, and which many in our congregation do. It means meeting as people, face to face, mask off. And so, I encourage you to think about how you can do that. Again, if you have experienced homelessness, you already know what it’s like. If you haven’t, might I suggest that you do what the man on BART: “look at me.” I ask that you give generously when you can. And when you bring your meal to Hotel de Zink, as many of you will be doing this month, stay and talk. Not everyone will want to have a chat with you, but many will. You’ll have a good conversation, I promise you. I speak with an attitude of confession, here, because it took me about 12 years to figure that out. I mean, I didn’t drop my food and run; I said hello, chatted a few minutes with the folks in the kitchen, told them I was glad they were staying here, wished them a good night; but to sit down and have a meal with them? OH!

            . . . I was scared. Scared, I think, of seeing my face in their faces. Scared of dropping the mask.

            And it took me 14 years to think, “Oh, they’re staying here in our church–they’re certainly welcome to our services and classes and events. Let’s tell them that! So when we open our church, let’s open it all the way, not just at night, and not just for this month, but all the time. To welcome everybody.

            In other words, we have been given a spiritual challenge, and we have many ways to rise to that challenge, many opportunities to say, “I’m not going to wear the mask.” So let’s each think about how we can do that, individually and together as a church, and say, How can I meet this person as my neighbor, love them as I wish to be loved, know that they are very dear to someone, and that someone could also be me. Let’s say what kind of world we might make.