Stories from the Street: A Theology of Homelessness

Written by David Nixon Reviewed By Bill Such

David Nixon’s Stories from the Street is an exploration of theological endeavor between a priest (Nixon himself) and a small group of homeless people. The homeless respondents to Nixon’s enquiries provide the basis of a “theology of story” which becomes a lens to personal transformation through recovering insights lost to a church that has marginalized social justice. The book is divided into three parts: exploring a theology of story, a community context for the individual stories examined, and finally an insightful theology of homelessness.

The particular stories of homeless people become a solidarity of outsiders with Jesus, himself an outsider rejected by the establishment. This puts homeless people in a special place in the tradition of liberation theologians like Gutierrez and Segundo, who understand themselves to be as story-tellers of God on a par with God’s story in the Bible. These stories can provide a valuable chalice through which to taste afresh God’s story. The approach is that of critical realism by which Nixon means an ability to listen, on Buber’s I-Thou frame of discourse, to the nuggets of God’s mystery found in the stories of homeless people. The method is a hermeneutic of “love and suspicion”—that is, a good listening ear, proclivity to withholding judgment, and an attitude of openness to a story’s impact while suspicious of the translucent deceptions of personal writings.

Nixon presents insights into homelessness by analyzing the specifics of place and space by documenting his participants’ response to Jesus’s interaction with outsiders in the Gospels to offset the secure sociological map the wealthy traverse in post-Enlightenment capitalism. Simply put: homeless people exist in non-places (supermarkets, street corners, motorway underpasses and so forth), while middle class/elite values of “knowing one’s place” in society are vouchsafed by politics and power. Brief biological vignettes follow of the participants who are asked about causes and results of crises over health and relationship issues touching on childhood, family deaths, sexuality, and crime. Suicide and substance abuse come to the fore in the interviews through the raw expression of emotion. A final section explores the participants’ spiritual understanding of their situation in life. The last chapter of part two documents other homeless people’s reaction to reading portions of Luke’s gospel.

A significant feature of this book is found in the resources it mines for the development of a theology of homelessness through principles gleaned from interviews with homeless people. Obvious notions that come to the fore are loss, suffering, the will to survive in bad circumstances, and the sundry conditions and responses that resulted in homelessness. Key insights are how spirituality is expressed by homeless people; the absence of any understanding that the Christian story is good news; how the self-awareness of homeless people is devoid of any interest in social structures that have produced or increased homelessness; the reorientation of the “holiness” map in society and fresh perspectives, especially about Jesus, gained from listening to those “outside the camp” (Heb 13:12–13).

For Nixon the stories of homeless people can lead to insights into Jesus’s stories by freeing them from their domestication in church life. Homeless people may well be ignorant of this role in actualizing God’s story through their non-verbal presence and actual experiences, but those of us pastoring churches need to realize their import for producing transformation in our congregations. Without being manipulative our task is to simply connect the two to allow the seed of the gospel to grow. “Vulnerable people are the best preachers of the gospel in their own communities” (p. 155), and I think they are also effective preachers in our own communities if we can cope with the rawness of their presence! Certainly, city living preserves the illusion of a secure existence by making available to us such things as employment, homes and leisure activity. Homeless people living outside the pale of social acceptability become a threat to that security because their presence reminds us of the finitude which city living seeks to mask. This may explain why many communities seek the legal removal of the homeless from city streets, as in my own community in Chico, California.

The merit of Nixon’s identification of the homeless God with the crucified God (p. 179) is a further tap into the nature of our true condition. The pinpoint where we penetrate the mystery of God and witness the groaning of Trinitarian existence on our behalf is found in its shadow form in homeless, disenfranchised outsiders of all varieties, whose experiences through history have resonated from its most concentrated form in the crucified Jesus, a person rejected by all.

This identification means that the stories of homeless people are more than vehicles through which to appropriate our calling in a fresh way. Nixon rightly asserts that the established church needs the shock therapy of this identification to regain its own condition of being a story-maker again so that its worship, evangelism, and place in community can become catalytic for meaningful social change.

Working with the poor for a number of years caused me to ask how efficacious the death of Jesus is for those who from my middle class experience frequently take on a commitment to follow Jesus which is shot through with incessant lapses. The brokenness of drug addicts, rape victims, and serial parolees following Jesus seems at times so strong that it threatens my largely Wesleyan understanding of the nature of the Christian life. I have come to see that a man who started drinking at four years old has a genuine commitment to Jesus in spite of a recurring cycle of dissipation and that he cannot find a church to disciple him because his life is so unconventionally Christian, to say the least.

Nixon’s study is laudable in pointing the way not just to a theology of story but to understanding the brokenness of our human condition. It encouraged me to confront the accuracy of the privileged lens of accountability I impose on my homeless brothers and sisters. The study is a gateway into further future insights into how human brokenness and theological reflection can shape various aspects of healing that the gospel promises God will one day bring about.

Bill Such

Bill Such
Jesus Center
Chico, California, USA

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