Bearings: Navigating Life-as-Ministry
October 2019

This issue of Bearings moves to the streets, shelters, congregations, and other margins of American cities, where a growing population of people without stable housing find and make their homes. From refugees and immigrants to those cast adrift by family rejection, economic downturns, health crises, and so much more, more than half a million people in America lack safe, stable housing, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Awake to this reality, theologian Boo Riley and narrative photographer Emilio Bañuelos take us to homeless encampments on the margins of one of the wealthiest regions in the nation, California’s Silicon Valley, where local ministers provide food, water, clothes, blankets, and interpersonal measures of human compassion to people pushed aside in a world of high tech innovation, start-up IPO millionaires, and parking lots filled with Teslas. Likewise, in the Pacific Northwest, high tech affluence sleeps far too comfortably beside endemic homelessness. On the streets of Seattle, Paul Houston Blankenship listens to the dreams of people for a vision of community that finds us all friends of God, and prophets of hope for the most vulnerable among us. Back east, in the chill of Portland, Maine, warmed by generous welcome, Courtney Tabor, of Greater Portland Family Promise, offers insight into the joys and gifts that come to volunteers from local congregations who open their doors to asylum seekers. Finally, we recall another story of sharing shelter in Heidi Shott’s moving 2017 reflection on her family’s adoption of a 15-year-old girl who had been homeless.
From the Editor

Give Us Shelter

Seeing, Hearing, and Dreaming with Homeless People in America

Oh, a storm is threat'ning My very life today If I don't get some shelter Oh yeah, I'm gonna fade away ~Keith Richards The Stones were having a rough time when Keith penned their 1969 anthem, "Gimme Shelter." Some of that was professional. A 1967 album had tanked. The next one did better, but had only one hit. For Keith, the threatening storm was also personal,... Read more
Featured Article

Sharing is a Gift in Itself

Congregations becoming Spaces of Hospitality for People Experiencing Homelessness

Yesterday I spent several hours at church, but not for the reasons you might think. This was not for a worship service or a committee meeting. It was neither quiet nor serious. The evening I spent at church was filled with noise and children and purple frosting. It was filled with running toddlers, balloons, and at least four different spoken languages. When I... Read more
Featured Article

Finding Friends of God on the Streets of Seattle

And Listening to the Dreams They Offer the World

She said it with a cool indifference, and like she meant it: “If I stayed in Salt Lake City, I would have killed myself.” She said she had options. She had an underwear drawer full of “benzos.” She could cook a lethal overdose of heroin. The drugs weren’t really for lethal possibilities. They were medications, she said—psychic shields to absorb the pain pillaging... Read more
Commentary

Hanging out with Homeless Folks in Silicon Valley

Turning Off the Default Settings on "Service" to Begin Structural Change

On a warm Friday night in August I sat outdoors with my friend Xavier and three of his buddies, enjoying the pasta dinner I had prepared for the occasion. Xavier is affectionate and talkative, eager to regale us with pieces of his story—emigration from Cuba during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, life as a transgender dancer in San Francisco in the ‘80 and ‘90s, how these... Read more
Creative Insights

Resilience & Mercy at the Margins

Seeing Homelessness and Ministry in Silicon Valley Homeless Encampments

Median household income in San Jose, California, the so-called Capital of Silicon Valley, is $96,662 a year, with the "middle class income" range cresting at $193,324, according to the finance website, GoBankingRates. For more than 6,000 people in the epicenter of high tech affluence, however, the abundance one sees almost everywhere in the region—twin Teslas in... Read more
From Our Archives

Called to Dinner, Together

Growing up, I didn’t realize that my proximity to extended family would, 40 years later, turn out to be an anachronism. With my much older sister and three of my father’s six siblings living within a few hundred yards of our family farm, I came and went as I pleased. My mother, an unenthusiastic cook, was happy for me to make the rounds to see who offered the... Read more