Religion and homelessness intersected on October 18 at a high-level roundtable hosted by the University of Southern California.
More than 50 religious and civic leaders, including Archbishop José H. Gómez and L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, gathered to share ideas regarding the homelessness crisis and how their communities can provide practical aid. The event was hosted by USC’s Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies, Center for Religion and Culture, Office of Religious Life, Initiative to Eliminate Homelessness and the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.
“In the Catholic faith, we have the commandment to loving God and loving one another,” Gómez said. “So that’s what is at the root of my personal concern for dignity of the human person and especially for housing. I believe it’s important for all of us to love our brothers and sisters. In doing that, we show that we love God, too.”
The event featured two panel discussions. The first panel gave attendees and opportunity to hear testimonies about the homelessness experience from Emily Martinuik as well as Sam Randolph, an African American man who shared his story of living in parks and old cars with his young son.
“I’ve spoken at different events, but this has been an event where I can actually speak to people who want to help change, who want to create a solution to the problem,” said Randolph, who is now an advocate for the Corporation for Supportive Housing.
“It’s not like I’m just speaking just to be speaking. I think we need more events like this with more people coming together in the community.”
The Rev. Dr. Najumah Smith-Pollard from Word of Encouragement Community Church was part of a second panel featuring four different religious leaders of various faiths discussing the challenges for faith leaders in the process of fighting the homelessness epidemic.
“Homelessness is important to me personally because it is personal,” said Smith-Pollard as she recounted the struggle of assisting a homeless family member who also suffered from mental issues.
“African-Americans are leading in the homelessness race. So it’s personal because it’s right in my front living room, not across the street.”
Father James L. Heft, president and founder of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies, and Brenda Wiewel, the director of the University Initiative to Eliminate Homelessness, co-chaired the event. “While we’re often told some things about various religions, many of which focus on their faults, there is no substitute for first-hand experience with people who think and believe differently than you do,” Heft said. “I grew up in an interfaith home. It’s been a very valuable part of my life. I want to help others have a similar positive experience of religious differences.”
Wiewel sought to maximize the interfaith experience through organizational efforts.
“We didn’t want to leave anyone out,” Wiewel said. “We thought it was very important to have a really wide variety, so we spent a lot of time researching and trying to help make sure that the key populations and people were represented in the room. Then we worked really hard to create tables that included somebody from each of the faiths so that each table was completely multi-faith.”
Among the attendees was Michael Ellison-Lewis, senior advisor to Pastor J. Edgar Boyd at First AME Church in Los Angeles. Ellison-Lewis was inspired by the words of his mentor, the Rev. Dr. Cecil L. Murray, to make a positive change in regards to the homelessness crisis.
“We need to greet everyone, no matter their race, their color, their creed, their sexuality, their diversity,” Ellison-Lewis said. “We need to greet them with the open hand and blessings will be bestowed upon us as they are bestowed upon them.”
At the end of the event, all of the religious leaders were invited to sign a moral imperative striving for practical change in the community.