“I noticed you haven’t worn those socks I bought you. Kinda hurts my feelings.”
I knew he was kidding, but in part I hadn’t worn the socks because I didn’t want there to be any thought that I owed him something. He was living in my house for free and didn’t seem all that motivated to find his own place yet. He owed me effort, not presents. This was a terrible mindset. Prudent, maybe, but not Christlike. Yet this is where I found myself, and disappointingly early in the experience of letting a (technically) homeless person live with us for what ended up being four months.
My wife and I spent the past two decades walking a path that will seem familiar to many Christian Millennials. We went to Bible college to become missionaries, realized missions is entangled with colonialism and globalization, shifted to nonprofits, and ever since have been trying to live out our faith while sifting good theology and authentic pursuit of Jesus from American culture and capitalist civil religion. My theology is probably a mess. I am now troubled by the white, American nationalist, unrestricted capitalism Christianity I absorbed growing up. But what replaced it? Something akin to liberation theology maybe, but white-guy-privileged liberation theology which is…dubious. So, my life is somewhat on autopilot, set from when I was a confident Christian in my late teens. And now I’m trying to rebuild the airplane (is it still even an airplane?!) while I’m flying it (am I flying it? Does Jesus take the stick? This is why I’m a project manager and not a preacher).
All that being said, there is one aspect of God’s character about which I have no doubt. He wants my whole heart. If I try to draw a box in my life that is “for God,” the first thing He will do is step out of it and go right to the areas I tried to save for myself. For all my theological doubts outside of the core Christian tenets, I want to remain bold in my willingness to let God do radical, uncomfortable, disruptive things in my life for His plan. And that’s how I ended up with a long-term house guest and a new pair of socks.
My wife and I felt called to domestic service, so for eight years I have been doing community and economic development in Pierce County, focusing on simultaneously changing ineffective systems and developing the capacity of grassroots leaders to catalyze change in their own communities. I currently manage the human services department for a small city where I witness a lot of pain and fear. I see children whose parents cannot afford housing so they sleep in cars or couch-surf with strangers—some of whom abuse the children. I see the growing jungle of tents on sidewalks. I see auto loans with 29% interest for terrible cars people need to get to jobs that don’t even pay living wages. I hear from youth about their poor mental health and fatigue. I see hunger and loneliness and anger.
And then, each night, I’m aware of the physical ritual of locking the deadbolt on my front door, sliding the chain, and pressing the button to set the alarm. The pain is out there. In here there is comfort and security. I have always lived like my house is “for me” and outside this space is “for God.” Uh oh.
Testing my theoretical faith
Then, in October of 2020, God provided an out-of-the-box opportunity. A relatively new friend, someone who wanted to take on a leadership role in a program we were developing for at-risk dads, called me asking for help. He was separated from his wife and needed a place to stay—and a place for his kids each weekend—while he got back on his feet. We offered him our guest room and my daughter’s room for his kids, since she sleeps in her brother’s room most nights anyway. From October 2020 until February 2021, he lived with us in what turned out to be an experiment in incarnational ministry.
I was relaxed at first. No rent, no help with utilities unless he thought he could contribute, and his kids could eat whatever they wanted in the kitchen. Why not? To get his own place, he needed the money more than I. But when they moved in, I was almost immediately overwhelmed by the very things I anticipated.
Over the weekends, especially, there were a lot of people. They were a little messier than we were, ate differently, and had different TV and recreational habits. All of these were small things, but they added up. I realized there was a physical/emotional cost to the vulnerability required for incarnational living.
Despite the difficulties, it was not a bad situation. Our guest worked a lot, so we didn’t see him all that much during the week. He spent a lot of time in his room playing video games, and when we did see him, he was kind and enthusiastic. He was great with our kids, so I didn’t worry about their safety.
Some challenges did arise from our cultural differences. He grew up thinking he would not live past twenty-five and was never told things like college were important. Now in his late thirties, he wanted to figure out his career and be better with finances. He did not employ the same strategy to become independent that I would have. He was a little naïve about what he could afford, and it took him a couple months to adjust to the new reality that we saw right away. But we did not try to force that realization on him and instead took time to help him realize it himself. If there is one dynamic I am proud of, it is that we consistently maintained the discipline of not judging his intentions and gave him more time than we were comfortable with to figure out what to do and do it. We would have applied for twenty places a week and grabbed the first one we qualified for by November. He applied for one or two places every now and then. That is, in part, because application fees add up.
We also chose to do this during a pandemic, which was another challenge. We took a risk exposing ourselves to the other family which was forced to be less cautious about physical distancing. My wife and I transitioned to working from home; the other dad could not, nor could anyone in his family. Perhaps naively, we did feel we were being faithful to a calling and might hope for a Daniel-in-the-Lion’s-Den situation. However, when the first variant appeared in Washington, we decided it was too risky for the kids to keep staying over. A few weeks later, he secured a one-bedroom and moved into the unit in mid-February.
No simple lessons
All in all, now that our experiment is concluded, I view it as a positive experience and I’m thankful for the opportunity. The way the situation was resolved is a testament to what is possible when the church gets involved, but also a warning about what it takes to have a chance for a sustainable outcome.
On the one hand, after our guest settled into his new place, he sent my wife and me a message to thank us for everything we did for his family and to say he is enthusiastic about the path he is on. This is what it means to love a neighbor as God loves us, to worship through service, and to be in the world but not of it. On the other hand, to help him pull together his down payment we had to connect him to a brother in Christ who wanted to donate his $1,200 stimulus check to someone in need and we secured $500 from our church’s community fund. In total, to help one man with a full-time job and a side gig secure a small one-bedroom apartment required months of incarnational investment and thousands of dollars in cash and resources. This is what it takes, at minimum, so let’s gird our loins and readjust our expectations.
This experience also heightened my awareness of our broken systems. It was monumental for him to overcome the odds and secure any kind of housing. He owes a significant percentage of his income to his ex-wife in child support and since she does not sufficiently feed or clothe the children, he tries to provide those things himself. He has bad credit, like most people who aren’t relatively wealthy, and the housing market is full of competition. Landlords, even if you have decent credit and rental history, often require 3-5 months’ rent up front to filter out riskier tenants.
On top of that, to maintain weekend custody of his three children, he must have at least two bedrooms to officially have enough space. That’s sensible, unless you understand how expensive the housing market has become. He compromised by settling for a one-bedroom apartment in a complex that does not do credit checks, but that means he is in one of the city’s more violent neighborhoods. Hopefully, down the road we can help him move into a safe two-bedroom. But he will have those same forces to overcome and rent is only increasing.
So, in addition to obtaining the resources required to solve complex problems, I came to understand that we Christians need to consider whether we’re prepared to organize and advocate for system reform so that hard-working parents can become stable and invest in their children’s health. In such a divided country this is a tall order, but I see no acceptable alternative.
Waiting on disruption
Should you be willing to practice this kind of incarnational ministry, would I discourage you from doing so, or would I have concrete advice for you to navigate such a situation? The answer is the same unsatisfying one you’ll get from any good economist, bless their hearts: it depends. Honestly, I do not know. It depends on you, on the other person/family, on how much risk you can/should tolerate or how strong your conviction is that you are called to do something that defies prudence. God is clearly doing something in this family and wanted us to make this sacrifice towards an end we will probably never see.
Defining what you will or will not do is drawing a “for God” box. And you now know my theology of boxes. Whatever advice I might give pretty much ensures you will be challenged to do the opposite. Better to not know, and just to listen and be aware. Perhaps this is why my theology is still a mess, because we often use it to put God in a box rather than to know Him and love others as He does. I want my theology to sharpen my understanding of who God is rather than tame Him, so that I remain open to something radical, uncomfortable, and disruptive for the kingdom. I have no idea what the next out-of-the-box calling might be. I can only hope that my wife and I have faithfully lived Luke 16:10 and demonstrated that those who can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much.