I’ve been thinking about moving recently.
While I don’t have a destination in mind, as an M.K. (missionary kid) I crossed the Pacific several times, and now a move every few years feels normal.
Wherever I might go, I know I would have a nice place to live.
Though I wouldn’t be able to take my neighbors with me, there would always be someone to talk to – my co-workers, family, even if by phone – and people I don’t know, which some refer to as strangers.
I have always liked talking to strangers. It probably helped that I grew up in Japan, where there was very little of what we in the U.S. call “street crime.”
My sisters and I were encouraged to give out tracts to any and all, including fellow passengers traveling by train and pedestrians passing in front of our house. And, of course, we invited them to church.
I don’t give out tracts in the U.S., mainly because at least one homeless person, who told me he sleeps in a church basement, said he appreciated the hospitality but not being preached to.
I met that young man at the local library where he seemed to show up on the same days I was there, though the chances are we might also have met at a fast-food place.
The reason I enjoy sitting in fast food restaurants – the hamburger places, the doughnut and bagel shops – is also connected to where I grew up.
At that time, there were no McDonalds or Burger Kings in Japan, and now I’m making up for lost time, lingering over bagels or burgers while I work on writing projects and talk to the people at the next table.
Often those folks are there because the place is heated, or, in South Florida, air-conditioned, and there are restrooms. As long as they order something and don’t take up too much space, they can stay for about as long as they like.
In effect, the restaurant is their second — or more accurately – their daytime, home.
I wonder if the managers are taking the path of least resistance because it is easier to be hospitable than to enforce the ordinance against loitering, or if they are familiar with Matthew 8:20: “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head” (KJV).
This is one of few references Jesus makes to his meager material existence. Until I reread the verse, it had never occurred to me that, during his three years of ministry, from the age of 30 to 33, Jesus had no home.
In 2021, based on a count taken just before the Covid-19 national emergency, there were more than 500,000 people in the U.S. in this category. Another study distinguished between those who are “sheltered” or “unsheltered.”
That study, known as the Point In Time survey, was my first glimpse into homelessness in another state.
With the encouragement of my daughter, who had participated in California, I rode with a group around the alleyways and empty car lots of New Haven, Connecticut, looking for anyone who was outside in the January cold.
My team did not find anyone, but others did. The people they found were counted as “unsheltered” and then, if they were willing, connected with a warm place for the night.
I’ve tried to come up with a better term but have decided that “homeless” is the most accurate since, whether or not they are sleeping under a roof, that place is not the person’s home.
During the day, when their shelter is often not available, they spend time in some of the same places I do.
One group shows up regularly in a neighborhood spot where I stop for breakfast after the early morning Sunday service. Sometimes we say hello, sometimes not.
One morning, a large group, perhaps seven or eight, were taking up all the booths, but not purchasing enough food to justify the space or the length of their stay. The manager told them it was time to move on. Two of the men showed their displeasure by yelling at her, but all eventually left.
One young woman stayed in her seat but said nothing, which I thought was a smart thing to do, and the manager returned to the counter. A few weeks later, I saw her at the library and said hello.
The next Sunday, she was there in her usual place, and we had our first real conversation. She said she was looking for work, and a librarian had helped her with online applications.
We agreed that things were easier before the process went online. She told me that having a job would make her life much smoother. I told her to stay with it, that she was smart, and would eventually find the right job. She thanked me for the encouragement.
I have not mentioned church or faith to her. The next time I see her, I may tell her that prayer gives me strength when I am facing difficulties.
We may not be friends, exactly, but that seems like the neighborly thing to do.
A recent graduate of the Yale Divinity School looking forward to a career in religious journalism, she was a Good Faith Media Ernest C. Hynds Jr. Intern for the spring 2022 semester.