Friends: I've received requests for copies of my sermons this past holiday. Here's yesterday's sermon, slightly edited to protect some identities (speaking in a room in Wilmington is one thing, putting it out into the ether is another). Enjoy!
Rabbi Yair D. Robinson
Congregation Beth Emeth
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5773: Homelessness and Family Promise
I want to share a story of my first encounter with homelessness. It involved a friend of mine named T-, and it’s not what you expect.
T- and I were classmates in high school. He was built like a rubber-band, with all the energy that went with that. If you were to define T-, you would call him a nudnik. He was always playing pranks, pulling hijinks, getting us in good-natured trouble, but you couldn’t be mad at him. He would smile that broad smile and that was it. He was a good singer, loved to draw, wanted to be an artist professionally, but lacked that so-called artist’s temperament. He was always fun to be around. Sure, he had trouble with his parents—have you met a 16 year old kid who didn’t? Certainly it didn’t seem any worse than any of us had.
That changed when he ended up on my doorstep, without shoes. He and his parents got into a screaming fight over something entirely forgettable—even then I thought “you got into a fight over THAT?” Instead of grounding him, or letting it blow over, or something else to indicate the complete lack of severity, the complete adolescent nature of the fight, his parents kicked him out of the house as he was. No wallet, no shoes. He managed to bum a ride from a friend to my house. He had dinner with us, and then we made phone calls around until we found a buddy who could take him in for a couple of days, let him crash on the couch. I don’t remember if I drove him over or if the friend came and picked him up.
After he left, I remember being furious. Not at him, not really. And while I was mad at his parents, they weren’t what was eating at me. Something made me angry, and it took me a long time to process why. T- was homeless. No, he wasn’t living on the street, ragged and mad-looking. He wasn’t some pathetic urchin as out of a Victor Hugo or Dickens’ novel. But there he was, without the security of knowing where he was going to lay his head, dependent on friends until his parents cooled off and let him back home (which they did finally after some time), knowing that the presumption of warmth, support and love that comes with a home are as gossamer and transient as a fight between a teenage boy and his parents.
T- wasn’t who I would think of when I considered homelessness. When I thought of the homeless as a teenager I mostly thought of Sir, the old guy who hung around the pizza place my friends went to in Hyannis. We never—I never—knew his name. He was the stereotype of a homeless individual: dirty, bearded, with a crazy look in his eye. He reminded me of the song Mr. Wendell by Arrested Development that was popular at the time. We called him ‘Sir’ because he was always very respectful when he spoke to anyone: yes sir, no sir. If we bought him a coffee or a slice he would call us ‘scholars and gentlemen’, and we’d have conversations with him, where he would share the kind of street-wisdom a punkish middle-class kid would appreciate. Clearly some trauma had happened in his life and so he ended up on Main Street when he wasn’t at the Red Cross shelter. And isn’t that all homeless people? Mad, addicted, harmless (unless they’re dangerous), easily ignored, the subject of pity or scorn?
T- made me realize that homelessness is a fate that can afflict those who do everything ‘right’, who are feeling tremendous shame and anxiety at their status. The homeless person is anyone who has lost the security of having a roof over their heads, a place to call their own. It could be any one of us. That day, it was T-.
I won’t belabor the point that we as Jews have an obligation to care for the homeless. I think most of us understand this is self-evident within Judaism, and everyone from the Torah itself to the rabbis of the Talmud to Maimonides to the rabbis of today speak of the mitzvah, the sacred obligation, to relieve those in need of the stress of their situation, to help them recover and get back on their feet. Again and again Torah exhorts us to protect the widow, the orphan and the strangers in our midst, to provide opportunities for them to support themselves, and who are these individuals—who is the stranger in our midst—if not the homeless? Maimonides’ highest level of tzedakah is, in fact, where the giver allows someone to become self-sufficient, to get back on their own feet. Most remarkable is that those who are homeless or otherwise benefit from tzedakah themselves have to give to charity. Why? For two reasons: one, because they themselves need to have a sense of dignity, and because no matter how bad off they may be, there is someone in a worse situation, as impossible as that might seem. And in fact I have found those who are homeless—including some members of this congregation—to be among the most giving, the most compassionate, the most understanding of the trauma and displacement of homelessness.
I’m not merely speaking of the displacement of not having a home. I’m also talking about the displacement of being invisible. How often I see the homeless individual on the corner of 202 and Silverside looking for help, and how often do people turn aside. How often do we encounter the homeless in our cities and we withdraw as much as we can from that individual, all but turning ourselves inside out to avoid them. Not only is that unkind, it is against the teachings of our faith. Again, Maimonides exhorts us that if a poor man request money from you and you have nothing to give him, you should speak to him consolingly. And the Shulchan Aruch goes even further, stating that you should not only speak lovingly to the individual but avoid scolding them as well; and the Midrash teaches that even if we have given already, give again a hundred times!
Of course, we know this. We have worked hard as a congregation to treat the symptoms of homelessness: gathering food for the Delaware Food Pantry, donating materials, school supplies, helping shelters like Sojourners only a few miles from here and places like the Emmanuel Dining Room. Our kids have packed meals, our b’nai mitzvah and their families have worked the breakfast mission, and our brotherhood has built homes with Habitat for Humanity. But treating the symptoms, as good and important as it is, doesn’t help end homelessness, merely ameliorate the conditions. It doesn’t add security and safety for our homeless families; to borrow a sports metaphor, it earns us another down, but doesn’t move the ball forward.
And the fact of the matter is, homelessness is a problem that can be solved in this state. There are 6000 people throughout the year in Delaware, nearly 2700 of them children, a 23% increase in the last two years. We can reduce that number significantly, we can even get it down to zero, but we cannot do it alone. It will take all of us working together; not only we as a Jewish congregation, but all the houses of worship within the 9th ward.
That is why I’m thrilled to announce an initiative, a partnership that we, Congregation Beth Shalom, Hanover Presbyterian, Penninsular McCabe, Shiloh Baptist and other houses of worship will be engaging, one with a group called Family Promise.
For those who don’t know the organization, it is a faith-based group, started by a synagogue in Philadelphia, that seeks to get homeless families on their feet. So often families have trouble going to shelters together—they’re unable to bring teenage boys or the fathers with them due to perceived security risks, or there aren’t the right kind of materials or support systems in place, or simply aren’t enough beds. Family Promise of Northern New Castle County helps homeless families with children move toward lasting independence by providing a safe place to eat and sleep, intensive care management, life training support and encouragement. And they do this through a network of congregations that hose these families in their churches and synagogues. They are not a shelter, placing the homeless outside our view, hidden from reality. Rather, they give them the opportunity to feel a part of a community and know the love and support of families who are like themselves, except those volunteers still have homes.
How does it work? Starting in January, Penninsular McCabe church just up the road will be hosting families, numbering perhaps a dozen people, for three weeks scattered throughout the year—once in January, in May and again in September. We, along with Beth Shalom, Hanover Presbyterian and other churches, will provide support for McCabe, volunteers who will do things like help prepare Breakfast and Dinner, drive Family Promise’s van to drop off and pick up the residents to Family Promises’ location, where the kids get picked up for school, the parents get to their jobs or do job hunting, learn new skills, where they can take showers and do their laundry, and search for permanent housing. There are opportunities to spend time with the families and keep them company, buy groceries for meal making, washing the bed linens between stays, and even staying overnight in the church to make sure everyone is okay. These families are vetted by Family Promise in advance; they are people just like us, except one thing—they’ve lost their homes. In some cases, they’re just as surprised as we would be. They need love and support and care, and to feel normal. While sleeping in a church or synagogue for a week isn’t exactly one’s idea of normal, we will do what we can to turn classrooms into bedrooms, to keep families together, to help them get back on their feet. 70% of Family Promise families end up on their feet and in permanent housing within a year, indeed within 83 days; which of course provides more opportunities to help move furniture and get those families into houses and apartments.
It sounds daunting, but it really isn’t. We’re talking about one morning or afternoon driving a van, a couple of nights making dinner for a dozen people, or doing some extra grocery shopping, hanging out in a church for a few nights to keep some folks and their kids company. It’s something any of us could do, and I’m hoping it’s something all of us will take a turn doing. All volunteers are trained, there is no proselytization allowed (in fact Family Promise has turned churches down because bringing the ‘good news’ was more important to them than helping these folks). This is an opportunity to move that ball forward, to partner with our brothers and sisters, Jews and Non-Jews in Wilmington to reduce that number, to heal some terrible wounds in our community, wounds that can heal, and that must heal.
To learn more about Family Promise, you can go to familypromisede.org; their executive director, Carolyn Gordon, who some of us might know through the IFSAC meal packing that we do with Christ Church every Fall and Spring, will be with us on Sunday, September 23rd at 9am to speak with us further, and there are postcards (flyers) on the table as you leave. Each one has information on how you can sign up to help with one or more tasks. If you’re looking for a way to give of yourself to this community of Wilmington, a way to work in partnership with our brothers and sisters of all faiths, if you’re looking for a mitzvah project, if you just want to give back, this is another way to do it and a way that I hope you will take seriously.
Arik Einshtein wrote: “you and I can change the world. Others have said it before, but it doesn’t matter, for you and I will change the world.” T- is now a successful artist. He designs characters for video games. He teaches. He has a beautiful wife and daughter. Not every story of homelessness ends that way, but we can help make sure there are more T- in this world. You and I may change the world. Please join me and my family, with the other people of faith of the Ninth Ward, and we can change the world for the better. Amen.