OUR OPINION: Homelessness defies any easy conclusions

By NEMS Daily Journal

Motorists and pedestrians passing the bridge over the creek that flows southeast next to Wendy’s restaurant on South Gloster may have noticed individuals or small groups of people sitting, standing or lying in the shade of trees and large bushes at the top of the creek’s bank.
The scene is not unlike children who create their own worlds of fantasy and make-believe in similar places – in back yards, or parks or playgrounds. But the fantasy ends when a parent calls and it’s time to stop playing.
The people sitting among the bushes and shrubs and trees along the creek in Tupelo are part of the city’s homeless population, some of whom live underneath that South Gloster bridge, some of whom seek help from ministries like the Salvation Army, which is only a few hundred feet distant, and sometimes the kindness of other strangers is extended through free food and offers of shelter.
Mayor Reed has appointed a special citywide task force to study the situation and make recommendations – the kind of recommendations sought by similar special commissions in cities across the nation and around the world.
A young commentator, Zach Hunter, on The Huffington Post Website this week shared some of his experiences in an ongoing ministry with homeless people:
“My passion is to help my generation identify an area where they can end suffering.
“… What if you are volunteering in a soup kitchen and a homeless woman who hasn’t eaten in days approaches you desperately needing something to eat and drink – would you hand her a Bible and tell her, “Jesus loves you?” I doubt that she’d be feeling the love.
“I was in the Kibera slum in Africa and met a mom who was looking for a way to feed her children. If I had talked to her about her need to change her ways, my words would seem cruel and not at all good news. And, surprise to many – this woman already was a Christian – she just needed her brothers and sisters to show up and meet her physical needs.
“Over and over I find myself asking, ‘How are people who are hurting or who are in need supposed to believe that God is loving?’ Especially if those of us who have the means ignore the needs of people and only provide a verbal presentation of the Gospel as the answer for their suffering? How does that make any sense at all? Shouldn’t we give her soup, bread and water and by doing so, demonstrate love?
“I’ve read about a time when Jesus fed a hungry crowd sitting on a hill, meeting a very practical need. I’ve learned about him ending suffering by restoring someone’s eyesight, stopping bleeding or healing a skin disease. I can’t help but believe that these acts of compassion gave his words about repentance, grace and love more credibility. … Maybe this is what James meant when he said ‘faith without works is dead.’
“Some critics believe speaking the Gospel should be the priority. Others believe living the Gospel is the priority. I don’t understand why we’ve created this polarization.
“I’ve recently met a 13 year-old girl who has just funded and built an orphanage in Haiti and established a fish pond in Africa. I know a group of college guys who have dug a dozen clean water wells in Africa. A group of university buddies launched a campaign several years ago that almost single-handedly propelled the plight of child soldiers to the front page of newspapers. A good friend began fighting malaria through her own campaign called “Bite Back” and she has literally saved the lives of millions of people. All of these young people share my faith and felt it required of them not turning the other way when they found suffering in the world, but to be an active part of the solution.
“Now at 19, I have learned the value of working with people who think differently from me because there is too much to do to be petty or territorial. I still think I’m awkward and misfit and I find it interesting that people are surprised to learn I’m a Christian – not because of the bad things I think and do (and there are plenty) but because of the passion I have to do good. I’m grateful this misconception about Christians is gradually changing – especially in a day when we’re all ready for some really good news.”
Zach’s lesson, of course, is simple. To help others, first help yourself. To change others, first change yourself, and sharing those thoughts together maybe Tupelo can effectively reach out to its homeless sojourners.