What can we do?

What can we do? What should we do?

Tami Miller asked me this question a couple of days ago. She was referring specifically to our response to homelessness. I promised her a response but it’s been a busy couple of days for me filled with meetings and lengthy conversations with parishioners about all manner of things.

During these past few days, my attention has also been diverted by the growing debate over the same question being asked about a very different situation—the appropriate US response to the ongoing violence in Syria and especially to the claims of the use of chemical weapons against civilians. As I’ve read that debate, I was struck by the same anguish, uncertainty, and helplessness that many of us feel in Madison. “We’ve got to do something!” is a common refrain in the debate over Syria, although the prospect of the situation improving as a result of our actions is doubtful.

We see suffering, either in images on TV of distant conflict or natural disaster, or as we walk down State Street in Madison. We’ve got to do something! The need is great; the suffering profound, our compassion, guilt, generosity, compel us to action.

Those of us who are involved in direct ministry and outreach to homeless people know the complexity of the situation. We know all about the many reasons why people become and remain homeless—illness, mental illness, poor life choices, imprisonment, alcohol and drug abuse. We also know about the systemic issues, a medical system that fails the neediest; racism; lack of education; family systems that have been in cycles of poverty, violence, abuse, etc., for generations; a 2% vacancy rate for rental housing in Madison. There are also all of the ways our local, state, and federal government have pursued policies that contribute to the problems that they are trying to solve. We know that the help we offer is often little more than a bandaid.

The problems are complex. The need is so great. What can we do? What should we do?

We should do what we are doing.

We should be advocates. We should be advocates for those who have no voice and no power. We should call our institutions: government, schools, universities, businesses, communities of faith, to respond to the need in our communities. We should demand that they serve the needs of the powerless, the hungry, the weak. A society is judged not on what it accomplishes, on its wealth or military power, but on how it treats those who are at its margins, the impotent, widows, orphans, the elderly.

We should be compassionate and merciful. As Americans, we claim that all are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights. As a Christian, I believe that all are created in the image of God, that we share with the vilest criminal, the disabled, the mentally ill, a common human nature that reflects the nature of God. The humanity that unites us across race, class, and gender demands that we build a community in which all have access to the basic necessities of life and all are able to flourish as human beings.

When we can do nothing more than offer a sandwich, a sleeping bag, a kind word, perhaps a hug, we are offering what is often called a ministry of presence, a willingness and commitment to be among those who Jesus called “the least of these.” Jesus told us that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, we are feeding, clothing, visiting Jesus Christ himself.

The problems will remain. The suffering will continue. We cannot solve the world’s problems, whether it’s the homeless in Madison or unimaginable horrors in Syria. The love we share is the love of Christ. When we share that love we are affirming the dignity of every human being and we are bearing witness to the image of God that we all reflect. We are also calling ourselves and our community to our better nature and to a deeper humanity.

We have to be the conscience, the moral compass of our community. Our voices call our community to become better than it is, to be a place and a people that protect the neediest among us. Our actions, as futile as they may be, challenge everyone to reach out beyond themselves to their neighbors in need and join in the effort to help those who cannot help themselves.

So Tami, that’s what we have to do. We have to continue to advocate, to help, and to be present with the weakest members of our society. It’s hard, exhausting, and often demoralizing. In our actions, our presence, and our love, we bear witness to God’s redemptive love and grace. And through it all, we need to pray.

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