Last week, as I was walking to my car in the parking lot of the Jesus Center at the end of the day, Nancy,* one of our longtime participants who uses a wheelchair, was being rolled out of the dining room doors into the parking lot by Kelly.* They were furiously screaming at one another as if they were mortal enemies. But all of a sudden, the wheelchair hit a bump and Nancy tumbled out of her wheelchair to the ground—and instantly, Kelly was down by her side, helping her up with such tenderness that it was hard to believe they had been tearing each other apart just moments before. All ill will was forgotten, and they went on their way, together. Hidden beneath their contention was a mutual commitment to care and love one another.
From afar, most of us have seen anger, frustration, mental illness and addiction running amok. We can’t make sense of this. But up close, we see true moments of kinship. Let me describe a few other moments:
- Jesus Center Safety Team members gathering in prayer in the morning before they start their day, expressing their gratitude and trust for one another.
- Jesus Center participants, approaching one of our staff members who was evacuated from her Paradise home after the Camp Fire and expressing to her how sorry they were for her troubles.
- One participant advocating for food and bedding for an ailing fellow participant who was unable to make it to the Center.
I love this word and concept: kinship. Technically, kinship means a connection between individuals who are related by blood. But in Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, Father Greg Boyle, founder of the gang intervention program Homeboy Industries, describes kinship as “exquisite mutuality:”
“You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship. You stand with the belligerent, the surly and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.”
Others have talked about the idea of getting “proximate.” This means getting close. Building a relationship. Knowing someone’s name. Caring like you would for a brother or a sister. Even service can lack this kind of closeness; it can become a box to check to make us feel better. Incarnational love means getting in and getting close. Kinship is messy.
Jesus was all about kinship. In the first chapter of the book of John, Eugene Peterson translates: “Jesus became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” He’s one of us. Radical, life-giving kinship.
In 1 Corinthians 13:1, Paul writes “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
We can offer all the services, housing, and meals in the world, but if we do not do it in the hope of fostering kinship, we have done little.
It may very well be that the measure of our compassion lies not in our service of those on the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship. And so that means the decisive movement towards seeing the face of God in another which is a giant step away from judgment.
At the Jesus Center our goal—and we don’t reach it every day—is to bring together humans of all types to remind them that they are welcome and wanted in our community. Members of our community who have jobs and homes and open hearts draw near to those who don’t. They draw near to those who were traumatized as young people or who suffered a great tragedy like the Camp Fire. They come close to those caught up in severe mental illness (over 50% of our folks suffer from a devastating diagnosis) or who self-medicate through drugs and alcohol.
Kinship—real relationship—is always the first step. Hopelessness is only cured through human to human contact. As Brené Brown says in The Gifts of Imperfection, goals can be made and pathways designed only when belief in self is restored. Kinship helps a person believe they matter. Kinship is also what keeps the heart full to believe that even when one step forward leads to two steps back, there’s a new day and a new step forward tomorrow. There is no program or government benefit that can replace true human connection.
As we look forward to Christ’s resurrection this Easter, we also look forward to the full restoration of each person. A resurrection of hope. A resurgence of dignity. A rekindling of kinship. Will you dare to draw near as a volunteer by sitting down with a new friend in the dining room and hearing her story? Or will you help pay for our amazing staff so they can continue the work of fostering true kinship?
Join us in making kinship real so that one by one, our community can end homelessness.
(*Names have been changed.)