Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement (15th Anniversary Edition)
“My father says you remember the smell of your country no matter where you are but only recognize it when you’re far away.”
― Aglaja Veteranyi
In their 2008 work Beyond Homelessness, Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian J. Walsh challenged readers to consider three vexing issues – socioeconomic homelessness, ecological degradation, and the postmodern condition – using the overarching theme of homelessness. Because home is basic to everyone’s personal and communal narrative, and because the authors made their case with a corresponding generative metaphor of ‘homefulness’, the book was well-received, so much so that Eerdmans has released this 15th anniversary edition with a 34-page postscript.
I’m thankful for this second edition. Because my wife & I were busy with three young children at the time of the first printing, and pastoring an urban church, I missed it. Ten years prior I had Dr. Bouma-Prediger for a seminary class, “Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation”, which has influenced my ministry. It’s a privilege to learn from him again, along with Dr. Walsh. I suspect there are others like me who missed the book the first time, while those who did read the first edition will find the postscript to be an essential conclusion.
Bouma-Prediger and Walsh are professors, but they are also active in ministry outside of academia. Walsh’s involvement in ministry to the homeless community in Toronto informs their reflections on socioeconomic homelessness. Bouma-Prediger was a wise champion of creation care long before the climate crisis, so his wisdom informs the ecological chapters. And in terms of postmodern homelessness, both authors have been ministering to young students on college campuses for decades. Their ministry experience gives the book gravitas.
The book at times reads like wisdom literature. The authors avoid dry academic language. They are steeped in music and literature and share many quotes along the way. They also add “biblical interludes” after each chapter that are like meditations or sermonettes. Like peaceful overlooks along the hiking trail, these serve to refresh the reader with deep contemplation on our holy scriptures.
In the beginning the authors compare two “homeless” people, Kenny and Kenneth. Kenny lives outdoors in a tent in a ravine; Kenneth lives in a condo nearby. Yet both men are “homeless”. Kenny is without a safe home & roof over his head but he does live in a tent community of people who look out for each other. Kenneth meanwhile has a nice residence but no home community because he is a business traveler in a globalized, virtual world. He has no significant roots in any one place because “capitalism requires us to displace ourselves in order to succeed.” The authors use this comparison of the two men to set up their case for an expanded definition of homelessness.
In a key early section, the authors give 8 characteristics of home which are then explicated for each of the three crises. One of the characteristics stuck out to me: a home is a “place of orientation which provides order and direction.” When we first leave home to visit a foreign country or go to college, many of us experience homesickness because we are separated from our point of orientation. All of us homeless folks are disoriented in this era in one or more of these ways: if the shoe fits, wear it.
As a creation care practitioner, I was most interested in the author’s analysis of ecological homelessness. As many readers will know, eco- comes from oikos, or household; ecology therefore is ‘the study of our home’. One only has to learn about the state of the forests, the oceans, and the climate to grow anxious about not only the future, but the present, too. 2023 was the hottest year ever recorded around the world. The oceans are overheating dramatically, and the forest canopy is being depleted at an alarming rate. Even in the Midwest extreme heat, drought, and flooding are increasingly common. Our home is becoming unlivable and we are indeed disoriented by the changes.
Last year my wife & I visited the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska. Inside the National Park Service Visitor’s center there were pictures of the glacier 25 years ago, and then 10 years ago, and as it is now. The shrinkage was unmistakable. The NPS workers were not expounding the beauty of the blueish glacier and its important role in its ecosystem, but were brutally honest about its melting, with worried faces. One described to me how the increased sediment from the melting glacier is slowly making it difficult for the food chain in Mendenhall Lake to survive, as it is covering the all-important food on the lake bottom. Even now, local people are adversely affected. Native groups who have fished Alaskan waters for hundreds of years are witnessing their fisheries collapse, and are therefore disoriented economically, culturally, and spiritually.
Bouma-Prediger and Walsh prophetically use the term “domicide”, recently coined in 1998. Through our rampant consumerism, we are destroying our dwelling, our home domain. Their name for our planet — “home” rather than “the environment” — forces us to pay attention. We can’t keep this problem at arm’s length. We deal with it or else we and others die.
And they go one step further, as readers of this journal will appreciate: Earth is best understood as God’s home. We live here, but as tenants. We have a responsibility to the LORD to steward it well.
The authors are prophetic but not panicked. They remind us that through the blood of Jesus, we are forgiven and transformed from “homebreakers to homemakers.” With that good news in mind, they ask, “How can we be homemaking inhabitants of this planetary home”? As with the other two issues in the book, they give us ecological virtues to pursue, virtues of peaceableness, justice, compassion, and wisdom. And they share two examples of virtuous practitioners, like Kent Busman of Camp Fowler in New York, who has created a home away from home for summer campers where sustainability is practiced and taught.
Despite this example, the first edition had a weakness: it was incisive in stating the problems of homelessness, but not as wise in showing the way to solutions. That problem is cleared up nicely in the postscript. The authors visit Community First in Austin, Texas whose founder and director has the first edition of this book, dog-eared and highlighted. He has developed a well-rounded ministry to the socioeconomically homeless in Austin using the 8 characteristics of home elucidated by the authors. Those ministering to and with the socioeconomic homeless will find this conclusion more than helpful. With their postscript, the homemaking project of Bouma-Prediger and Walsh now seems complete.
Dear readers, we have a second chance to learn homefulness from these wise authors. Don’t miss it!