“As we face this COVID-19 moment, in every way the vulnerable are just getting more and more vulnerable, so it’s incumbent upon people of Faith, any person of conscience—Quakers foremost—that we reach out to those in need, and the homeless in particular are becoming more and more marginalized in this moment.”
As the ministry leaders at Friends Community Church in Orange County, California, Joe and Cara Pfeiffer have labored to address the needs of one of the largest homeless populations in the state. They share how an encounter with a man who came to their door looking for food on a cold, rainy night spurred them to recognize a crisis that was already worsening even before the pandemic—but one in which they see an opportunity for empathy and compassion to flourish. The critical question, as Joe reflects, is: “Will we receive it with open hands or kick against the goad?”
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Today I’ve been reflecting on the need for patience, and one of our mentors Alan Kreider wrote a book called, “Patient Ferment of the Early Church,” and the habitus of patience that was forged in suffering. And I think as Friends we have a long heritage of suffering, of marginalization, of being on the outskirts, and of welcoming those on the outskirts, and I think this is an incredible moment and opportunity for us, as the body of Christ, to practice the habitus of patience. And with that comes the habitus of lament, and bearing with one another and bearing with suffering and I think it’s a real refining moment for our churches and for us as people. And it’s hard. It’s really hard.
A Faith-Guided Approach to Helping the Homeless
I’m Joe Pfeiffer and I’m Cara Pfeiffer and we’re leading ministry/pastoring at a small church in Midway City, California in Western Orange County called Friends Community Church Midway City.
So we’ve only seen just really a small portion of the homelessness in Orange County, but we came to Orange County, Midway City with a lot of experience of homelessness in inner-city Long Beach. It’s one of the largest homeless populations in the region and maybe even in the country. And so it came to our door, literally, one night in the cold, rainy– there’s not snow in Southern California but it’s cold and rainy and wet and a homeless guy came to our door just wondering if we had a food pantry and if, you know… he didn’t know where to go, and if he could just take a little shelter from the cold rain. And at the moment we just– I don’t know, there’s a sense of the weightiness and significance of… the answer I give would be decisive in a way of a path, and just felt a real sense of– from Matthew 25 where Jesus says, “What you do unto the least of these you do unto me,” even giving a cup of water.
And so that led into unexpected territory of, at the time unknown to us, the county of Orange itself was going in a building, mounting crisis over homelessness because unlike in L.A. county next door which has had to deal with homelessness for years and years, Orange County – they’re committed to this picture of the white picket fence, suburban utopia and homelessness messes with that. And so as we began to talk with a few people coming around, hearing their stories, they were used to a lifestyle of keeping a low profile, moving around a lot, hiding, because of hostility they were facing not only from authorities.
So that was a learning experience for us of a different kind of homelessness and then we learned it’s actually in the thousands and growing, and even though this is one of the wealthiest– the wealthiest per capita county in the United States, home prices are high, cost of living is high and increasing housing is less and less affordable, conservative communities are implementing more and more code restrictions to keep high-density housing from being put in, it’s creating a real problem that’s in the thousands and has really come out in recent years. And so we were just one little piece of that, unknowing of this, but in a few people’s lives caught up in it, but we soon realized after some time we were part of a much bigger storm that was brewing.
People Experiencing Homelessness are Increasingly Vulnerable
As we face this COVID-19 moment, in every way the vulnerable are just getting more and more vulnerable, so it’s incumbent upon people of Faith, any person of conscience– Quakers foremost– that we reach out to those in need, and the homeless in particular are becoming more and more marginalized in this moment. The homeless population already is in a place where they are dependent on services and it’s just– the structures in our society make it so, and they’re stuck — many of them are just absolutely stuck, especially in places like Orange County, Southern California, where cost of living is so high and support is often not matched to that and so they can’t really ever work themselves out of homelessness. There’s gaps in services right now where people were already feeling gaps in services and so there’s fewer resources to go around.
Shelters, I think, are being hard hit right now. You know, what does it mean when we’re supposed to stay six feet away from others when shelters are already overcrowded and turning people away, and the way that many of our homeless friends survive is because they survive together and they trade resources and they work together at things. That doesn’t really lend itself to social distancing, and so if we want to really shelter and protect this population we’re going to have to come up with big answers that dig deep, both at policy issues — being able to speak into that, actions that our local communities can take, actions as individuals, and there’s just really no easy answers to it but I think we all have to kind of find a place to start.
A Time for Reflection
I’ve been reflecting a lot on receiving lessons of weaknesses in our society and in our attitudes from this. This is bringing out things, attitudes that have been under the surface or covered up, problems that have been papered over and unseen, and especially now being how many — 50 days into this, people are realizing well, this isn’t an extended vacation and the tension is bringing things out in people and you know, we have this testimony of simplicity that I think is a witness. What do we really need? And I think this is an opportunity to learn from this and be refined through it and develop those capacities of empathy and compassion and reflexes of simplicity and all that good stuff. I think the critical question is: will we receive it with open hands or kick against the goad?
- What does homelessness look like where you live? Is it similar to what Cara and Joe have witnessed in Orange County, where the “cost of living is so high and support is often not matched to that and so they can’t really ever work themselves out of homelessness?” Is it something different? How would a response to the crisis of homelessness look different in different areas?
- What are some actions you can take as an individual to help a vulnerable population that “are just getting more and more vulnerable?” What collective action can Friends take?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.