Homeless men pushed to adopt long-term view, ‘minority report’

This three-minute video explains the work of a Chattanooga charity, Union Gospel Mission.

“Every problem a man has can be solved with a relationship with God.”

Jon Rector, Union Gospel Mission

Chattanooga’s prosperity depends, to some extent, on how well it insulates itself from events a business executive would call “non-controllables.” The independence and genius of local economy and the internal marketplace will have a good effect as a national disaster peeks out behind the black type of the day’s headlines.

National politicians and homeless men in Chattanooga share an important flaw. They share in their distinct realms a short-term view. They pursue consumption, speedy gratification, self-centeredness and the hurried quaffing of the nearest intoxicating beverage (what I call the majority report).

For members of the political duopoly, the liquid is credit. For the unshaven wanderer of streets, it’s alcohol or the mercies of others.

The plight of the homeless hasn’t changed much since journalist Jacob Riis in 1890 wrote about the “reign of rum” among the impoverished his classic, How the Other Half Lives. Every day Jon Rector, director of Union Gospel Mission in Chattanooga, deals with the effects of addictions and short-term thinking among men who come into his care.

The mission, at the foot of Signal Mountain, is in a former church bought and donated to the mission by a donor. Two buildings nearby house the men, who eat in a dining hall in the basement of the church.

“We furnish all their basic needs, food, shelter, clothing, everything that they need to get by we furnish for them,” the Rev. Rector says. “Our current capacity is 16. We’ve got 12 right now.”

A six-month Grace discipleship program lets residents be open to material that is potentially reformative and restorative of their lost hope and dignity. “We bring them hopefully to a relationship with Christ,” the Rev. Rector says. The program in four phases starts with scripture memory of about 120 passages and verses. Many of the men who enter the program have familiar with Christianity to begin with, and some declare themselves practicing Christians. The mission’s clients read a variety of books, some of which focus on addiction problems. “Every problem a man has can be solved with a relationship with God. And so we try to develop disciples of Christ, and as their relationship with Christ grows, the rest of their problems will fall in line.”

High view of lowly homeless men

Unlike other systems of belief, Christianity has a high view of the a man who might outwardly appear of the baser sort. Materialism cares nothing for their souls. Statism exploits their poverty to justify aggrandizing its glorious ministries of debit card welfare. Evolutionism suggests leaving them alone, as they are at extinction’s door for good breeding reasons. Post-modernism says, “Who cares? Why the hell does it matter? What difference does it make?”

Christianity, the Rev. Rector says, cares. It makes an argument against addiction as destructive of one made in God’s image. The Bible is the temple of the Holy Ghost, he says. “The Bible says we should have everything in control. We should be temperate in all things. And when you’re subject to an addiction, that controls you, rather than you controlling it.” The grip of a vice is worse if the victim is a professing Christian, whom he says can come to know better.

How much credit does the Rev. Rector give to the medical model about the addictions that seize the lives of so many among the homeless. Are these men simply acting out physiological and psychological necessity upon their neurons? He partly credits that model, he says, but the Rev. Rector doesn’t buy into the idea that an addiction is a disease. Cancer differs fundamentally from booze. “Addictions are a sin. They are a choice we make.”

Resurrected god-man offered as example

The men who come to Union Gospel Mission at 124 Signal Hills Drive for the past four years are often bedraggled, with lousy teeth, pitiful breath and blank eyes. Sometimes their stories are fishy. Their temptation is to live day to day, pursuing instant gratification.

Evil circumstances, job loss and sometimes their own roughness of character put them on the street. But they are not refuse or castaways, but exist to glorify God and find a purpose in life suited to them. Even if they are not Christians, clients at UGM are taught to exhibit personal virtues as did the Lord Jesus, whom the scriptures teach is both God and man in one person, but without confusion between the two natures.

“He was accountable for His actions,” the Rev. Rector says. “He understood it was His responsibility to do certain things. When He went to the cross, He had the option to say, ‘I don’t want that.’ But yet He yielded himself, the Bible says, and did it anyways. He also lived above sin. The Bible clearly states that as Christians we have that option.” First Corinthian 10:13 says God won’t tempt us above anything that we can bear, and “so when we sin, we sin by our choice.”

The men learn skills such as conflict resolution, which is about creating positive relationships. Good habits covers the main skill the men learn, but the mission doesn’t teach auto mechanics or programming. If men learn these internal skills, they can become productive men and help others, including tithing.

Homeless man’s short-term outlook

Edward C. Banfield, in his classic text The Unheavenly City Revisited (1968, 1974) describes the differences among the upper class, the middle class, the working class and the lower class. His focus, crafted in a sociological framework, is how a short-term time perspective makes a person poor. The Rev. Rector’s description sounds almost as if it could come from that book.

They deal with life on a very immediate and very personal basis. They’re worried about where their next meal comes from, but they’re not worried about how they can provide the next meal, or the following meal after that. They’re worried about what they’re going to have to wear tomorrow, but they’re not worried about what happens next week or next month when that wears out or it gets dirty.

When it was on Main Street, the mission ran a clothing warehouse. People would come every few days when what they’d gotten last time was dirty. These people thought nothing about caring for their property and preserving its value, being what Mr. Rector calls “very short-term processors” — partly because what they grab is free. “The things that cost us something are more dear to us.”

Democrats and Republicans have no monopoly on another vice exhibited by the homeless man. Blame shifting. “The truth is this, every time I can blame somebody else, I don’t have to take responsibility,” says the Baptist minister overseeing the mission for the past decade. “As long as it’s not my fault, I don’t have to fix it. If I am a drug addict because my dad beat me, I have an excuse to be a drug addict. If I am homeless because my wife kicked me out, that’s not my fault because I can blame her for it. *** Until we learn to take responsibility and that my wife kicked me because I’m a jerk, then we can begin to fix those things.

Local economy will be advanced if we follow the Rev. Rector’s advice to his charges: Take responsibility, be thrifty, seek the welfare of others and imitate Christ in His obedience to His duty to obey the Father. Not just local economy, but the universe.

If you’d like to support Union Gospel Mission or find out more about it, visit its website, which I have designed and help maintain.

Sources: George Grant, The Dispossessed (Fort Worth, Texas: Dominion Press, 1986), 283 pp.

Edward C. Banfield, The Unheavenly City Revisited (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1974.) The original version of this important book appeared in 1970. 358 pp.

Video: The Union Gospel Mission: Time To Heal from HisStorytellers onVimeo

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