Religion and homelessness intersected at the University of Southern California on Wednesday, October 18th, as a high-level roundtable was hosted by USC’s Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies, Center for Religion & Culture, Office of Religious Life, Initiative to Eliminate Homelessness & the Suzanne-Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. Over 50 religious and civic leaders, including Archbishop José H. Gómez, gathered to share ideas regarding the homelessness crisis and how their communities can provide practical aid.
“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 remarks by Los Angeles County Second District Supervisor Mark Ridley-Scott, USC Provost Dr. Michael Quick, USC School of Social Work professor Dr. Ben Henwood, Los Angeles Mayor’s Homeless Policy Director Alisa Orduna and Los Angeles Mayor’s Interfaith Liason Daniel Tamm.
“I want us to be the university that works with all institutions in Los Angeles to hit all the big issues,” Quick said. “We really need to think about how we change the conversation to talk positively about what we can all achieve together. This isn’t about, in my mind, resources. It’s not about people wanting to do good deeds. This strikes at the heart of winning the hearts and minds of everyone in our area to make a difference on this incredibly tragic situation in southern California and across the globe, but especially southern California.”
Also included were two panel discussions. The first panel gave attendees and opportunity to hear testimony from two citizens with lived-in homelessness experience, Emily Martinuik and Sam Randolph, now an advocate for the Corporation for Supportive Housing. Randolph 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,” Randolph said. “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 second panel featured four different religious leaders across various faiths discussing the challenges for faith leaders in the process of fighting the homelessness epidemic. Included on the panel was Rabbi Noah Farkas from Valley Beth Shalom Temple in Encino.
“Homelessness is incredibly important to me as an issue because several years ago I befriended a homeless individual on the way to my congregational services every Sabbath,” Farkas said. “At one point, after several years of building this relationship, he was arrested and taken away, and I couldn’t find him. And just a few weeks later was our High Holiday services, and I felt like it was time to move our congregation on this issue of the people who are living on the streets, people who are looking for a home and don’t have one, the people who are dealing with the trauma of not having a place to live. So for me personally, it’s one of the deepest moral issues that we have in society today, and one that screams out for us to act on.”
Rev. Najumah Smith-Pollard from Word of Encouragement Community Church, also presented on the second panel.
“Homelessness is important to me personally because it is personal,” Smith-Pollard said. “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.”
The event was co-chaired by the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies president and founder Fr. James L. Heft and Brenda Wiewel, the director of the University Initiative to Eliminate Homelessness.
“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 the pastor at First AME Church Los Angeles. Ellison-Lewis was inspired by the words of his mentor, 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.
“I feel that homelessness is a moral problem for all of us,” said attendee Salam Al-Maryati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “It’s not a problem of a person who’s homeless necessarily. It’s my problem. And I’m so insulated from that problem. Yet when I read about the prophets, they all spent time with the poor. They stood in the shoes of the poor. And yet, I feel that our religious communities live in lives of luxury right now and are segregated from reality. So we have to work on the issue of homelessness to reach and adhere to the goals of our faiths because the faith tells us that we have to work on issues of socioeconomic inequities. That’s why religion was established. If religion is not working to achieve equity in our lives, then there’s no purpose for religion. It just becomes a hollow ritualistic exercise of an individual, and that’s not true faith.”