This week I was invited to speak at an event hosted by Lazarus, a new initiative to support people affected by homelessness which is launching in London.
Lazarus runs communities made up of formerly homeless people living alongside young professionals. Over 250 people live in their communities across Northern Europe and Mexico. It is yet another example of the enduring power of faith to inspire new and innovative responses to homelessness.
At the start of the event, we heard from two men who have experienced homelessness in London as well as from a Lazarus resident in Belgium via video. These testimonies rooted everything that was later discussed in the lived experience of real people.
After this, I spoke about three key elements of homelessness.
The resource of a house or flat is obviously vital but homelessness cannot just be reduced to the material. Home-lessness is more than house-lessness. Homes are places of relationships and identity.
Empowering positive change
The best responses to homelessness are always more than just a distribution of resources, a one-way exchange between a ‘generous donor’ to a passive recipient. Rather than empower positive change, these approaches often breed dependency, entitlement and resentment.
A sense of mutuality is core to building healthy relationships and restoring a positive self-identity. People are transformed far more by what they contribute to than what is given to them.
I referred to what I had learnt from James Hayes who runs the Emmaus community and social enterprises in Lambeth. His explanation of their approach to supporting people always struck me:
‘I don’t want to focus too much on people’s needs or problems. I am far more interested in their skills and what they are going to contribute to our community.’
Friendship, trust and joy
After I spoke, we heard from a young man called Philippe, who has lived in the Lazarus community in Brussels. Philippe told stories which illustrated three key words which summed up his experiences of the community: Friendship, Trust and Joy.
Philippe was one of the youngest people in the room, but he spoke with great wisdom and his words were powerful and moving. There was no pretence, or any sense of heaviness, worthiness or arduous sacrifice.
Rather, the way he spoke embodied the three words he spoke about. And the one that really struck me most was joy.
Purpose and meaning
Joy is deeper than mere happiness. I think of it as the feelings generated when our personal commitments resonate with a deeper sense of purpose and meaning. Joy is an echo of something deeply valuable and true that transcends us. Something that cannot be bought or engineered by transaction. As C.S. Lewis wrote:
‘All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still “about to be.”
Deeper and simpler
In my job, I am used to discussions about homelessness which are essentially technical: about how resources can be used well and effective strategies put in place.
These are important matters, but this evening was different. There were no acronyms and no homelessness jargon. The focus was on something deeper and simpler: how friendship, trust and joy can transform people’s lives. It was an example of the best of what faith-inspired work can do.
The sense of mutuality was profound. Philippe did not tell stories about how he had heroically helped others, but rather how he had been welcomed and served and what he had learnt.
It was summed up beautifully at the end when someone asked Philippe about why the organisation was called Lazarus. He said:
‘In the Bible, the story of Lazarus is a tragic story about the lack of relationship between a poor man and a rich man. They both suffer because of this disconnection. The work of Lazarus is about avoiding this happening.’
See their website for more about the vision and work of Lazarus