When A Car Is A Home

My mother told me a story once to explain the difference between a house and a home. She was taking a nursing class to be certified to work at Pontiac State Hospital. The instructor passed out paper and rulers and protractors and pencils and asked the class to draw a home— they had a half an hour. She looked around her and saw fellow students busily “architecting” their dream houses. She felt quite intimidated as beautifully shaped designs appeared on paper with drawing skills that she did not have. She thought the assignment through— what did a home look like? Leaving the hardware aside, she drew a rectangular house with a free hand. And then she added a chimney. She put puffs of smoke coming out of the chimney. Then she drew a crude picket fence to make a yard and put a dog and a couple of cats inside it. She added trees and shrubs. Then, unable to draw people, she stuck a couple of out of proportion faces inside a front window smiling at each other. When the work was handed in it was her drawing that the instructor held up— he had wanted a drawing of a home and not of a house. Her drawing was alive.

I like to walk for exercise in Kalamazoo, especially downtown, but I also like picking different neighborhoods. I could be “holy” and call them prayer walks but that would be showing off. They are meditative but they also consist of a wide range of thinking and even conversations— my bluetooth headphones enable phone calls while still being able to see where I am going. Please take this with a sense of humor, but walking around Kalamazoo and talking to yourself is common enough to not be noticed… Being out and about in the community I am called to serve allows me to see it and experience it. Driving makes things invisible.

On one of my walks I noticed an old car filled with what looked like trash at a distance. It had the look of the kind of “homeless” vehicle that I am all too used to seeing. I walked up to it and was moved to take a photo. I won’t print the photo because I didn’t take the photo to shame or embarrass the owner. I wouldn’t print a photo of your messy kitchen or bedroom! I just wanted to remember the scene well enough to write about it.

Two opened cans of cat food rested in a corner of the front windshield on the dashboard of the car. The food had been scooped out onto a small plate nearby. You could imagine the cat had eaten from the dish and then “cleaned up” the cans by pushing them into the corner where they could be wedged into place and wouldn’t slide around. A yellow piece of paper was under the cat food and had a religious title. It looked like it had been handed out by a church or shelter ministry. In the center of the dashboard was a coffee cup full of cigarette butts. On the passenger seat was a large laundry basket full of clothes. The rest of the car had more stuff in it. The dashboard and the front seats told the story well enough.

Now, if you or I were traveling on vacation with a destination in mind and we had a car full of possessions and had our pet cat with us we would be envied. “You spent the whole summer traveling? How cool! Weren’t you afraid Fluffy would get lost? I wish I had the time or the courage to travel like that!”

The context of my photo speaks to a different reality. The “preponderance of the evidence” is that the owner and his cat were living out of a car. The homeless shelters that I know do not allow pets. Considering the health and safety issues involved it is understandable. So homeless pet owners will just sleep in their cars, such as they are. (Their pets are their “family”; sometimes the only family they have.) How they maintain the cars (or more accurately don’t) is a lesson in faith. My sister Lori worked in a family owned auto repair shop in Pontiac. When such individuals came in with a broken car, the owners of the shop made the needed safety related repairs so no one would get hurt and didn’t charge anything. Lori would go buy lunch and send the “customer” away with food and a minimally safe car.

Should a homeless person be allowed to drive a car or own a pet? To some, it seems like a hard way to get things done and the pet complicates matters unnecessarily. What about the cigarettes? They are expensive and harmful. Do we help people who smoke? What about alcohol? The same issues apply. It's an easy judgment to say to anyone, “Here are the rules of life that I am imposing on you because I think this is what you should do (or is best for you).” Are we called as a Christian community to make such judgments? It is easy to preach grace as an idea until we are confronted with the pile of obvious “should do's.” We mean that pile of “should do's” as a way of correcting a situation for the benefit of that person. (And we greatly assume that if they follow our advice, they will never be in this situation again!) But that’s not what they hear. They hear judgment and commendation. The homeless people that I have experience with suffer one or more mental health conditions. They are not dangerous to themselves or others so they cannot be committed. They are allowed by our laws to be free even if they are not capable of functioning without help. Who then helps such souls?

The problem with grace is in its definition: “unconditional love.” Certainly such love does no harm. If the brakes on that homeless person’s car are broken we do not allow it to be driven. But should we fix it? I know a man who will. He sees Jesus in the souls of those he helps.

It is a false application of the nativity story to portray the Holy Family: Joseph, Mary and the already Incarnate Jesus within Mary as “homeless.” As members of the tribe of Judah they had a social structure designed to provide for their needs. Their donkey was well fed and I am sure it could start and stop safely. But the story includes a “no-room-at-the-inn” narrative for a reason. Jesus himself will need a minimum of kindness and mercy from someone to be born in a safe place. It is a lesson in the humility that Paul will describe poetically,

“…who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

I can look in the window of a car and see many images. I am called to see a man or woman created in the image and likeness of God. This is the person that Christ came to earth to die for. He/she is a sinner— that is guaranteed as a child of Adam and Eve. But, so am I. Would I prefer there were better ways to provide care? Sure, I would. But I am glad that the owner of the manger that Christ was born in didn’t complain about Bethlehem’s housing shortage—he just helped.

“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

(Phillipians 2) Pastor Sidwell

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