It makes perfect sense. Still, I didn’t get it for a long time. Eventually, I learned that homeless people—at least the many, many I have come across— just might be more faith-filled, more open to believe there is a higher power that created the universe, and more certain there is a God, than the rest of us.
Having spent sixteen years plus getting to know homeless people, sleeping with them on the streets, walking with through unknown alleys to soup kitchens, and huddled next to them in the cold talking about the joys and sorrows of life, my eyes have been opened.
Once, when I went to live on the streets for 72 hours—might have been 2004— two metal-studded couples, twenty year olds, took me under their wing. I suspected drugs were present, undaunted, I went with them anyway to spend the night. Before we bedded down, the boldest of the four, asked if we could pray before we went to sleep. So we knelt down on the unforgiving concrete, held hands in a little circle, and prayed. The bold one led, I merely listened, and was in awe.
Then there is:
Saul, a Jew, who asks the cook at the church dinner, “Is there pork in the chili? There is. He says graciously, “No thanks,” to the serving of chili and eats only the vegetables.
William, a Muslim chatting with me at a food truck, who mentions that he is preparing to fast soon for Ramadan. Eight days of prayer and fasting, and he is already thin from years of prison food.
Jim, a homeless friend, often in and out of mental hospitals, who fingers the Miraculous Medal on his empty key chain. He has nothing to lock and unlock.
An unnamed man in a freeze-night shelter who says aloud, “Thank you God for letting me live another day. “ Many “amens” echo this simple prayer.
Boston Chris and Andy who attend daily Mass. They sit in their favorite back pews surrounded by their belongings in bulging shopping bags.
Beth, homeless for many years despite having been an executive secretary, who reads a card each night before falling asleep. It has prayers of many faiths given to her at a hospital where she was treated for pulmonary failure.
Alex, who comes to Home Cooked Fridays at All Saints Episcopal Church where fellowship and food are offered to homeless people, bringing a prayer he wrote on a scrap of paper to be read aloud to those gathered —the food prep team, the waitstaff, the guests:
And God we look to you tonight, above the singing, God,
above the music, above the songs, that your name be honored, God
and, we commit all that we are to you. Everything that we do
as we reach toward you, Jesus, amen.
The faith-filled surprises continue. It’s Friday midday of Palm Sunday weekend. I am gearing up to spend the weekend living on the streets with homeless folks. Still, with my middle-class mind, my need to plan ahead, and my fear of food insecurity, I stop off at a McDonald’s for a fish sandwich, which I figure will hold me for the days ahead, when food might be scarce.
After I eat, then exit the fast-food shop, I notice a homeless man sitting near the door. I turn around, go back into McDonald’s and get him a hamburger. When I hand it to him, he smells the beef and says, “Thank you so much for this, but I can’t eat it. It’s Friday. I’m Catholic, and I can’t eat meat today. Please give it to someone else.” Of course, I go back inside to get him a fish sandwich like I ate.
So many glimpses of faith. And I begin to understand. Believing in God and/or belonging to a religious faith is not just about following the rules of membership. The varying ways of worship that might have sprung from seeds sown in childhood or been adopted somewhere along the way don’t define the breadth and depth of our spiritual life. It’s about a life-changing relationship. It’s a grounding for our being. For the majority of homeless people, my experience has taught me that their faith is alive and essential to their survival, unlike ours, which is often an add-on to our daily lives.
Sure, many of us practice our faith, maybe even attend church or temple regularly or at least on the religious holidays, but our belief can be pretty shallow. We, with all we have— shelter, families, food, wallets, and lots of stuff to amuse us,—think we are in charge of our world. Until maybe we find out we’re not. An illness, an accident, a job loss, a breakup in the family or with friends, often jolt us into reality, which homeless folks, the wise ones, already understand.
When homeless people are hungry and they have no money to buy a sandwich, they grasp in their gut that they are dependent upon a God, or others who work for Him. When they are cold or wet, and feeling miserable, whom do they reach out to in desperation? A Creator, God, Savior whom they hope hears their cries. When they are living in the woods or on the streets and they are sick or injured, heartfelt prayer seems the only answer to them. And when they are lonely and feeing unloved—feelings which plague their existence— they turn to a God, who claims He loves them. And they believe it. They have to. Their lives are too painful and precarious. It’s all they have to hold on to.
Judy Knotts is the author of You Are My Brother: Lessons Learned Embracing a Homeless Community. Her professional career has centered on education as a consultant to schools, school head, and writer. She is interested in how human beings develop and become who they are. Dr. Knotts’ journey into the homeless world began when she was in her sixties and continues into her seventies. She believes change always brings with it an invitation to become our best selves.