A version of this article was originally published on Shared Justice, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice. Shared Justice is an online publication and community for Christian twenty- and thirty-somethings interested in the intersection of faith, politics and justice.
By Emily Davisson
If you asked Reverend Darrel Fiddermon to show you around Washington, D.C., he would tell you that he knows the streets better at night. As a youth selling drugs, he regularly roamed the city at 3:30 am. Darrel was a poor young man, going through all avenues just to earn some money, but eventually, the inevitable happened. He was arrested and sentenced to community service, but little did he know that those hours he spent cleaning the Central Union Mission would lead him into the most transformative time of his entire life.
Thousands of people in D.C. have experienced total life transformations like Darrel did because of the work of faith-based organizations that are dedicated to a holistic approach in alleviating poverty. This approach recognizes the whole person, and sees not just material needs, but relational and spiritual needs as well. One of these unique organizations is the Central Union Mission, whose mission is “to glorify God by proclaiming the Gospel and meeting the needs of hungry, hurting and homeless individuals and families in the Washington Metropolitan Area.”
At the dedication of the new Central Union Mission facility in 2014, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray spoke about the unique needs of the poor and homeless in Washington. He reported a shocking 7,000 homeless people living in Washington, D.C., all of whom have very different backgrounds and reasons for being homeless. These diverse and different needs are what make the work of faith-based organizations like the Central Union Mission critical in fighting poverty in D.C.
Diverse people, diverse institutions
In order for people to be truly transformed through homeless and poverty programs, they must first be seen as diverse people with unique qualities who are worthy of care. This is exactly where faith-based organizations are able to help.
Faith-based organizations provide a distinctive approach in their care for the poor and homeless. According to Rhett Butler, government liaison at the Association of Gospel Rescue Mission (the national association for organizations like Central Union Mission), “Faith-based organizations don’t just target physical and material poverty; they target relational and spiritual poverty as well. They emphasize healing the whole person: mind, body, and spirit.”
At the dedication of the Central Union Mission, Mayor Gray spoke about the need for diverse institutions in our community in order to serve people’s diverse needs. In the case of homelessness, he said that the government can provide necessary material amenities like housing, “but we don’t have a government program called ‘love.’” No single institution can provide everything a person needs to flourish, so it’s important that we embrace all institutions in society as we work together to meet the diverse needs of a diverse community.
A holistic approach to caring for homelessness means fostering the development of whole people and whole families. The work of the Central Union Mission reflects a holistic, faith-based approach by providing food, clothing, furniture, household appliances, school supplies and more. Emergency housing, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, spiritual transformation, job opportunities, and work therapy are also offered. The Central Union Mission also partners with other D.C.-based programs in order to provide the most effective and well-rounded help to its clients. One of their partners is the D.C. Central Kitchen Culinary Arts School, which provides job training in the food industry, enabling people to pursue jobs at restaurants and food facilities when they graduate.
The homeless in D.C. suffer not only from material poverty, but also from relational poverty. God did not create humans merely to survive; he created them to thrive in relationship with each other, with the greater society, and most importantly with Him. Faith-based organizations play a distinctive role in recognizing the opportunity to restore people to the wholeness that God intended for them through programs that strengthen their spiritual lives, support their intellectual growth, and provide for their basic human needs.
Providing holistic homeless care from a faith perspective means that the mission doesn’t stop at treating the symptoms of poverty; it extends further to restore people to a state of dignity by giving them the community, support and tools they need to lead a successful, sustainable, and flourishing life.
Radical Hospitality in the Name of Jesus
In chapter 25 of the Book of Matthew, Jesus declares that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give a stranger a place to stay, visit a prisoner, or take care of the sick, we are really doing all of these things for Him. We believe that people are made in the image of God and should be treated with love and dignity. That’s why, for Christians, justice involves radical hospitality in the name of Jesus. Our goal is to go the extra mile to ensure people are taken care of and know they are loved.
When Darrel was wandering the streets late at night, running out of hope, running out of money, and slipping into despair, he said he would look for the light of the cross. Like a parent waiting up for their child to come home, the Central Union Mission, and missions all over the country, always have their light on, signifying that all are welcome to come in and find rest. If organizations that care for the poor and homeless fail to meet people’s “needs for forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation and acceptance, then an important dimension of what it means to be human will have gone unacknowledged and perhaps tragically unmet” (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2010).
Darrel started on the streets as a drug dealer and ended on those same streets as a pastor because of the love of Jesus shown to him through compassionate people working through institutions dedicated to doing the Lord’s work. As followers of Christ, we have a civic responsibility and calling from God to take part in His healing, transformative work. As we engage in the diverse institutions of society, people of all backgrounds, with all types of stories, will find restoration and hope.