Society / Justice and Law

Creating a Space for Students and Practitioners to Grapple with Faith-Based Responses to Homelessness

May 29, 2018

Class discussion

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This academic year, the Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs rolled out a series of courses around faith-based responses to homelessness and the affordable housing crisis.

This academic year, the Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs rolled out a series of courses around faith-based responses to homelessness and the affordable housing crisis. Two courses were offered in the winter and spring terms. The final course is scheduled for the summer quarter. Students from across School of Theology and Ministry degree programs and a cohort of practitioners from key faith-based organizations, including Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, the Salvation Army, Bridge Care Center, and Catholic Community Services of Western Washington, are participating in this three-course sequence.

Students in classTaught by Center Director Dr. Manuel Mejido, with support from Center Community Engagement Manager, Rev. Maggie Breen, the courses draw on on-going research by Center scholars and the work of the Puget Sound Interfaith Network for Public Theology. Participants had the opportunity to engage with these theologians, social scientists, faith leaders and community partners during the Center’s April 2018 symposium on homelessness and affordable housing.

Courses were designed to foster sustained exchanges between practitioners and graduate students. Small group work simulating, for instance, the presentation of a strategic plan at a municipal taskforce meeting and delivering a brief on the legacy of Puget Sound faith-based organizations at an international conference in the Global South, honed professional skills for those seeking to be more effective in their current appointment or those that will be in the job market soon. Courses have also introduced participants to key concepts and analytical tools from a variety of disciplines, from the sociology of religion and public theology to ethics, social policy and law.

What Participants Are Saying


I’ve found the professional development series to be incredibly valuable. I have appreciated the opportunity to learn alongside other professionals as well as graduate students, each of whom brings their own unique insights and contributions. As a practitioner, I enjoyed the readings, and while they were challenging, they helped me to reflect on and assess my own organization.

— Mr. Josh Perme, Bridge Care Center 

The Center’s professional development series offers an opportunity to sit and learn with other experienced faith-based nonprofit practitioners. It was a gift to have rich conversations with a professor who is a scholar of religion and society, a teaching assistant who is an experienced minister of faith, bright and passionate Seattle University graduate students who will soon be our new leaders, and practitioners working in faith-based organizations. The most recent course was a blended and diverse learning opportunity that wouldn’t have happened by chance in my work world.  It centered my thoughts about the issue of homelessness and my work within a faith-based nonprofit agency.

— Ms. Mary Wahl, Catholic Community Services of Western Washington


Students in class

The winter course situated faith-based community initiatives in terms of the larger question of the role of religion in American public life, specifically considering competing narratives of democracy, conceptions of justice and public theologies. It critically examined the role that religion has played in the maintenance of our democratic institutions: at the individual level by fostering civic virtues; at the organizational level, through faith-based engagement in local communities; and at the societal level, by transmitting the ultimate values that transcend our historical and ideological differences. Against this backdrop, participants assessed the limits and possibilities of the key types of faith-based initiatives: congregation-based, arm’s length non-profits, community and economic development, advocacy groups, and community organizing.

Some More Feedback From Participants


The Center’s professional development course, Surveying Faith-Based Responses to Homelessness, was a great opportunity to network with other professionals, as well as students. It provided a good reminder to use evidence-based approaches and best practices as we engage the important work of impacting homelessness in our region.  It was helpful to see examples of creative approaches locally and nationally and to be able to discuss their effectiveness.

— Dawn Zern, Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission

These courses gave me the opportunity to reflect on my organization’s response to homelessness in Seattle within the context of our faith-based organizational identity, to grapple with how we might better balance emergency and long-term responses, and further develop capacity. I’ve really benefited from the course series and value the participation of graduate students and the other providers that have been invited to attend.

— Major Philip Smith, Salvation Army

The spring course looked at the principle types of faith-based responses to homelessness, focusing specifically on the Puget Sound region. Participants examined the important role that congregations and faith-based service agencies have played in providing emergency shelter and permanent supportive housing as well as in supporting tent cities and, more recently, tiny house initiatives. Participants also considered the capacities that faith-based organizations would need in order to pivot from providing short-term crisis relief to developing longer-term sustainable solutions to homelessness. The course ended by considering how we might begin to articulate a public theology of homelessness, in light of the tensions between charity and justice, progressive reform and radical change, and justice and redemption.

Students in class

Slated for two weekends in July and August, the third course will invite participants to identify case studies of innovative faith-based interventions around homelessness in the Puget Sound and other urban centers across the country. Through its collaborative efforts, this good practices workshop will generate a catalog of types of faith-based interventions that will feed into the work of the next iteration of the Center’s Puget Sound Network, which will begin in the fall of this year.

The registration deadline for this summer course is Monday, July 2nd. Space is limited.


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