Let’s Put Christ Back in ‘Christian’ This Season

As a longtime transgender ally, this time of year hits a bit differently for me than it does for a lot of people. Due to the timing of Transgender Day of Remembrance — always shortly before Thanksgiving, and therefore also Advent — I inevitably go into the Christmas season painfully reminded of the lack of progress our society continues to make on the fundamental challenges faced by transgender people.

I realize this sentiment probably dates me, because I’m coming across as tone-deaf to all the forward progress we’ve made on things such as preferred pronouns and a slightly lessened emphasis on traditional binary notions of gender. It’s all worth celebrating, but as a Boomer my lens is just different.

As the pastor of an LGBTQ+ affirming urban church with a longstanding ministry to the homeless, I’m also keenly aware of the regrettable intersectionality of transphobia and homelessness in my fair city and many others.

If you’re like me, you’re likely to appreciate why it is that for far too many transgender people, homelessness lingers on the periphery of their lives: In a society where your housing is directly tied to your externally defined economic worth, a workforce that makes very few seats on the bus for transgender people is likely to cause a lot of transgender homelessness.

Years ago it used to set my teeth on edge listening to the president of one of our fancier (gentrified) neighborhood associations speak of “the transgender prostitutes” walking her beloved streets; I knew that in her mind she not only couldn’t separate those two identities, but she certainly couldn’t appreciate the forces that too often brought them together.

And while we’re talking about the intersectionality of the many marginalizations plaguing our society, here’s two more: The fact that state-sanctioned identification (a key that unlocks doors to employment and other societal goods) is held out as a privilege, not a right — and the fact that the overwhelming majority of LGBTQ+ homeless youth are people of color.

Add up just these few things, and you begin to understand how slippery the rungs on the ladder of our bootstrap-obsessed culture actually are. I may be 100 percent in solidarity with my neighbors who put “Black Lives Matter” signs on their lawns or like a “Trans Lives Matter” post on Facebook — but my challenge to my fellow Christians this Advent is to take it a level deeper.

Only the headlines have changed

In praying over this in recent days, I realized that I’d actually written about it before — four years ago, to be exact. And in re-reading what I’d written, I had the sinking realization that about the only things that have changed in this tapestry of marginalization are the headlines.

Here are three from just one news cycle:

  • A white teenager who killed two people and wounded another ends up with not even a modicum of legal responsibility laid at his feet. (Contrast that with the fate of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black boy who was killed in 2014 by a white police officer for carrying a toy gun.)
  • An attorney stands in open court and bemoans the presence of Black pastors supporting the family of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black jogger who was harassed and gunned down in broad daylight by three white men whose defense is that they were making a “citizen’s arrest.” (The most disgusting phrase I’ve encountered in the news coverage being that the attacker who raised his gun did so because Arbery was ignoring his “commands” to stop.)
  • With at least 48 deaths so far, 2021 already has been the deadliest year for transgender people in the U.S. since the Human Rights Campaign began keeping track in 2013. At least two of those deaths have been in my adopted home state of Georgia.

I sincerely believe that the average person is weary of seeing evidence all around them that their fellow humans continue to act in such a short-sighted and self-absorbed fashion when confronted with situations where our instruction from God is, I believe, rather clear: Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God.

Atlanta’s homeless crisis

Here in Atlanta, just in time for Christmas, we’re ignoring that instruction as it concerns our homeless brothers and sisters. Here in Atlanta, we live in a city where the establishment fought shamelessly for the better part of a decade to shut down the city’s largest homeless shelter — which just happened to be situated on some seriously prime real estate at the intersection of Peachtree and Pine streets.

We are four years past the closing of that shelter, and the building still sits empty, with the surrounding parking lots functioning as unofficial dumping grounds for all manner of waste.

The sad truth is that there was no plan made during that decade-long fight to shut down the Peachtree-Pine shelter that would account for how the 700 – 800 people it served daily might survive with some semblance of human dignity. Four years later, there is still no plan. In fact, instead of meeting the needs of its citizens, the counties and cities continue to offer patchwork fixes that keep their elected officials looking nominally compassionate.

Not to mention that every other shelter in town is already full. And that as fast as a tent city pops up under an underpass it is quickly cleared out. Talk about the city burying its head in the sand! But it keeps the optics right for the neighborhood activists who insist they don’t have anything against particular kinds of people — they just want everything under their gaze to look a certain way.

And why are there tent cities popping up all over my fair city? Because it is actually safer to camp out there — and wait for the city to come bulldoze your home — than to go to a shelter and risk physical abuse or the theft of your few remaining possessions.

And if you thought it was only on the Mexican border that we separate families like livestock, welcome to Atlanta, where if a mother is homeless and her sons are older than 12, they will be moved into separate shelters because separating people by gender is more important than keeping families together.

But our Atlanta officials aren’t completely heartless: They’ve been known to open emergency shelters when the outside temperature drops into the 30s. The only problem with that being that hypothermia begins with extended exposure to temperatures below 50. As an umpire and the pastor of an outdoor church, I am well familiar with this fact — and my congregation and fellow umpires could give you a tutorial on how many layers it takes to get comfortable in those conditions.

Another problem with this being that metro Atlanta’s core urban area is split between two counties, Fulton and DeKalb — and DeKalb doesn’t do emergency shelters.

The arrogance of metro Atlanta’s crazy-quilt political map of cities and counties becomes readily apparent when you read the list of 10 organizations they paternally recommend should be the real focus of our energy — we being those who struggle so mightily to care for the homeless who are our neighbors. Those 10 fine organizations are simply not enough points of light to illuminate the entirety of the gap left wide open by the closing of Peachtree-Pine and the subsequent lack of collective public vision.

Here’s why:

  • Most of these organizations close by 5pm. There are a couple that are open until 8:45pm and one that is open 24 hours — but this last one serves homeless youth only.
  • There are no purely family-oriented shelters.
  • None of them provide ongoing meals.
  • These organizations are spread out all over the city, making it extremely difficult for their clientele to access the services they do provide.
  • Many organizations have a cutoff as to how many clients they can service at a time. People can find themselves waiting in long lines for hours or more and still not make the cut.
  • None of these organizations is willing to work with transgender people.
  • Many of these organizations require a tuberculosis test before one can get housing or services.
  • COVID-19 protocols have made things even more difficult.

Given all these factors, I just have to ask: How, in all that is holy, are these people — who are without resources or transportation, who are hungry, who can also be dealing with addiction or mental illness or disability — supposed to access what the county and city blithely refer to as a “continuum of care”? How long should they wait? How far should they walk? And let’s be honest: Whose way should they stay out of?

Cast out of church and society

Ask a young LGBTQ+ person who’s just been cast out of their family home thanks in part to retrograde Christian teaching whose way they should be staying out of, and many of them would name the church.

Fifty-four transgender people were murdered in the U.S. between November 2020 and November 2021, and I can assure you that even for the ones who had housing, the threat of homelessness was a constant companion. How many of them do you think felt they could have sought comfort or shelter at the average neighborhood church?

The church, which as a whole is slower to adapt to the reality of the human condition than the U.S. Supreme Court, has spiritually criminalized an aspect of humanity that it should be celebrating.

Turning back to secular American society, it may not be illegal to be LGBTQ+, but certain of us unwittingly become extralegal because of the effective criminalization of homelessness. Here’s how it starts: In the state of Georgia, you cannot get a driver’s license or state ID without a birth certificate, Social Security card, and two pieces of mail sent to your residence.

Yes, you read that correctly: Two pieces of mail to your residence. Good luck, homeless people!

Plus, it doesn’t take longer than a couple of weeks for a newly homeless person to have lost whatever they might have been carrying (including all of their state-mandated documentation) to a beat cop who confiscated it, to a fellow traveler who stole it — or simply to “the shuffle” of constantly being on the move and eventually losing track of almost everything.

The last time I went to renew my driver’s license, I had to mail $50 to New Jersey to get my birth certificate. How many homeless people can manage that?

In addition, the next step in the criminalization of homelessness is that once you’ve pretty much lost the ability to prove who you are, you’re eventually going to find yourself arrested for loitering, trespassing, shoplifting, vagrancy, public urination, public intoxication, indecent exposure or any number of other petty crimes that happen along the way when you’re just trying to survive on the streets.

The result is that the city’s jails double as unofficial homeless shelters. So one of the badges that goes along with being homeless is the unemployability badge, because you now have a criminal record thanks to your inability to find a place to live, to stay out of the way, to prove who you are, or to pay a bond or a fine.

And the fact of the matter is that the only thing the average homeless person is guilty of is generally some sort of addiction, a mental health issue, or a disability of some kind. They end up on the streets because they can’t get the help they need.

Meeting the need

I’ve been saying for the better part of 20 years: If we are going to solve these challenges, then we need to stop trying to fix them and simply meet the need. Jesus never once offered to fix anything; rather, he simply met the need as it was presented to him.

To do the modern-day equivalent of meeting the need, three things must happen at once:

  • Full access to drug rehabilitation.
  • Full access to good mental health care.
  • Employers offering to pay a livable wage.

Followed in short order by a fourth thing our currently ridiculous economy is making increasingly necessary: Rent control. Or at least livable rents.

I could probably give you a fistful of additional paragraphs on what it feels like to meet a need — what many of us have learned as “welcoming the stranger” — rather than trying to fix people, but I think this is a good place to let the Word take over.

This Christmas, could we recommit ourselves to taking seriously what our faith teaches?

Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor. (James 3:17-18)

But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love. And don’t take yourself too seriously — take God seriously. (Micah 6:8)

When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Humanity will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right, “Enter, you who are blessed by my God! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:
I was hungry, and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matthew 25:31-40)

To solve this challenge, we as people of faith need to start practicing what we say we believe. We need to get to the root of what causes homelessness and do as our scripture teaches us.

These “strangers,” our neighbors, are not numbers or statistics or political fixes to gather votes. They are God’s children, and we will eventually have to answer for what we do for and with — and to— these precious creations of God.

So tonight, tomorrow morning and in the days ahead, let’s be unsatisfied with the treacly perennial soundbites of the season — including my personal favorite, “putting Christ back in Christmas” — and instead fight for something that has the real potential for actual, lasting impact.

Let’s put Christ back into what it means to be Christian.