New book examines the religious life of the homeless

DURHAM, NC (RNS) — Three mornings a week, Susan Dunlap hosts a half-hour prayer service for overnight guests at Urban Ministries of Durham, a homeless shelter.

Unlike other shelters, some of which often require attendance at such services, there are no sermons here, no worship orders, no hymns.

The idea is to allow shelter residents to create a zone of belonging and recognition that is not controlled or scripted by others, she writes in her new delivered, “Theology of Refuge: The Religious Life of Homeless People”.

As an ordained Presbyterian with a Ph.D. in practical theology, Dunlap’s book is an attempt to provide an anthropological study of what she has learned about the spiritual life of the poor since she began service in 2007.

Dunlap, who teaches pastoral art at Duke Divinity School, has spent countless hours with shelter guests and has also recorded interviews with those willing to offer their testimonies of life. She wrote her book, she says, both to guide pastoral care givers venturing into these spaces, but also as a call to other Christians to come closer to people on the margins. She cites Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, who once advised a group of graduates to “get closer” to those who are suffering. “If you are willing to connect with people who are hurting, you will find the power to change the world,” he said.

RNS spoke to Dunlap about his ministry, now held outdoors once a week due to COVID, and his book. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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You write that as a member of the white clergy, you hesitated a long time before writing this book. How did you overcome this?

Susan Dunlap. Photo by Les Todd/Duke University

There are risks in trying to represent people who are different from you, especially if they are very vulnerable. You risk violating them. It can be an act of violence. But it can also be an act of violence not to represent them. I thought that keeping hidden what I had learned about their ideas, their theology and their lives was also wrong. My teacher, Mark Lewis Taylor, said these representations can be justified if you are actively involved in changing the circumstances that victimize them. Throughout my time working with them, I have been involved with Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods) to build affordable housing. It also justifies telling the stories of vulnerable people on the margins.

You refrain from calling the mostly homeless shelter guests. Is there a new style around it?

It became accepted to call them homeless or homeless. I prefer “people living without a home”. It is a people-oriented language. I prefer to say they have no home than to say they are homeless, because a home is a place of safety and food, more than just a home.

You talk about the horror of homelessness. Describe what you mean.

One of the things that symbolized that for me was walking down the street and one of my guides who lived at the shelter said, “That’s where black people go for sex. This is where white people go for sex. See that pile of rocks? It’s a good place to hide for drug smugglers. There’s a place under a railroad trestle where there was an old mattress, and he said, “That’s where you go to trade sex for drugs.” For me, it’s horror.

What did you have in mind when you created the prayer service and what has become of it?

I had in mind to create a space that was not a place for my agenda, but theirs. They would enter a quiet room and bring their own prayers to the front and light a candle, and meditative music played in the background. It would be a place of culture that would affirm their links with the divine. But they brought their religion with them, which is primarily the black evangelical church of the South. The music evolved from being instrumental to being gospel and organ music and singing. Rather than long spaces of silence, people testified, they gave sermons, they encouraged each other, they praised God using common African-American prayers like: “I thank God for having woke up this morning! The music I felt was soothing, they didn’t like it. A woman said to me, “It looks like a funeral.

You write that you have often been surprised by their response of gratitude – even in the midst of excruciating violence, like a man who described his girlfriend being shot five times in the head.

“Refuge Theology” by Susan Dunlap. Courtesy Image

Yeah. When he said, “I want to pray for my girlfriend who was shot five times in the head,” I was speechless. Then I started to hear people say, “Praise, God” and “Thank you, Jesus.” They were grateful that she was still alive. Unlike them, I don’t have a well-developed religious repertoire for responding to violence, and they do. My religious circles were clamoring for the importance of lamentation – my God, my God, where are you? It was a turn towards gratitude. It focuses you on what is present rather than what is missing. We know from studies that gratitude is vital.

You find that despite all their difficulties, the people in the shelter who attended the prayer service continue to feel that God is guiding and blessing them. How do you understand that?

(A man) described how God had a positive purpose for his life, which is primarily to teach young people to avoid the mistakes he made. God had a purpose for what he experienced in prison, on the streets, without a home. It’s all drawn into a narrative of God’s bountiful blessing and purpose, regardless of our current circumstances. Sleeping outside or living in a homeless shelter does not negate what God is doing for them.

You have noticed that the people at the shelter frequently invoke the devil. Why?

It gives them a language for the deep social evil of which they bear the brunt. Attributing your shortcomings to the devil is one way to deflect blame. Being poor in America, being homeless, living with substance use disorder, surviving abuse as a child, all of these things create shame. It’s too excruciating to blame yourself all over again, say if you’ve relapsed. So it’s attributed to the devil. It’s a way of naming a failure that doesn’t add to the deep well of shame. If they want to call him the devil, they have more right to name that evil than I do. They experience its effects in the world. It is the evil of neoliberal capitalism that has created dehumanizing, demeaning circumstances and ignores their pain.

You write that homeless people can teach God to more privileged people, that their faith can free us from the bondage of idolatry. How? ‘Or’ What?

I think people who have lived without the privilege of whiteness or wealth know more about total dependence on God than the privileged. They have something to teach us – their practices of gratitude, their understanding of great evil, their trust that God will provide. I don’t want to idealize the faith of the poor. They are not purer, more just, or more moral. But by staying close to people on the margins, we absorb the habits of responding to God and depending on God and recognizing that all of life depends on God.

By going to the margins, we learn something about God that is not available anywhere else. Roberto Goizueta (a Cuban-American theologian) said that “the margins are the privileged place of revelation of God in history”. I couldn’t agree more. There is a special knowledge of God that is available there that is not available elsewhere.

You are not paid to hold these prayer services. Why are you doing it and why did you write this book?

I wanted to present them as practical theologians. They take the theological material at hand: “No weapon formed against me shall prosper” and “God will bring forth out of nowhere”. They know how to skillfully match one of these sayings with multiple meanings and match it to a particular concrete situation in someone’s life: their child is in prison. They can’t find accommodation. They slept outside last night. This ability to match a saying to a situation is practical theology. I wanted to bring this up, say it’s practical theological reasoning.

But it is also a plea for proximity. I want to help people understand that we need to dwell on the margins – not as rescuers, repairers or helpers, but as equals before God who come together to pray. Novice pastoral workers think that pastoral care means giving people orthodox and correct theological proposals to follow. But I wanted to develop a respect for the theological worlds that have emerged from suffering and persist because they continue to convey God’s love, mercy and power.


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