Takeaways from the Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs’ Inaugural Symposium on Homelessness

May 18, 2017

On April 25-27, the School of Theology and Ministry’s Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs hosted its Inaugural Symposium on Homelessness here at Seattle University. The symposium brought together 15 Center scholars from across the country and globe to explore the religious, spiritual and ethical dimensions of homelessness, in conversation with local faith leaders and other community partners, with the goal of generating more effective faith-based action.

What are Center scholars saying?

"This truly enriching symposium brought together an amazing community of scholars committed to making a difference in the world. I am humbled and privileged to be part of a gathering of enlightened minds with hearts set on fire to respectfully journey with our neighbors who have been made homeless in a structural system that feeds inequity and ignores the poor."
– Sathianathan Clarke, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.

“Dialogue with fifteen scholars from a variety of different religious traditions and disciplines at the Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs’ Inaugural Symposium on Homelessness gave me deeper insight into the issue of homelessness and religious responses.  Meeting with local religious leaders and practitioners involved in ministry to people who are unhoused and as well as advocacy in addressing homelessness served to connect the theoretical framing of the issue with on-the-ground realities. I look forward to collaboration with both the scholars and practitioners.”
– Laura Stivers, Dominican University of California, Rafael, CA

“This was a great symposium. There was a wonderfully diverse group of scholars chosen, working together in a well-focused and intelligently structured set of discussions. Alternating between smaller group "triads" and full group discussion moderated by different members of the Seattle University community allowed us to explore the topic of homelessness in terms of our spiritual and scholarly contributions and obligations. For those of us who are also practitioners, it was great to see so many academics working in a concerted and applied manner. The meeting with local faith leaders and members of the Puget Sound Interfaith Network for Public Theology was for me the highlight of the whole event.”
– David Slater, Sophia University, Tokyo, Japan

Over the course of the three days, scholars set out to define the frame reference for their year-long research projects by participating in a series of collaborative exploratory sessions. These sessions allowed them to grapple with the challenges to understanding and addressing the hot-button issue of homelessness, the implications of reframing it through the wisdom of religious traditions, and to explore ways to leverage faith-based resources for collective impact and create mechanisms for keeping scholarship grounded in the needs and concerns of those closest to the issue.

The diversity of disciplines and theological lenses brought by this group of scholars to their discussion made for a dynamic and wide-ranging exchange. They problematized the very terms and definitions that circumscribe our conversations around homelessness and religious wisdom, explored the challenges to authentic interreligious dialogue and partnership, the messy reality of including and accompanying the marginalized, and the dilemmas of balancing charity and immediate needs with work for systemic change.

In the midst of these conversations, School of Theology and Ministry students, staff and faculty, and members of the wider Seattle University community had the opportunity to meet scholars and learn about their work and the work of the Center at lunch presentations on the 25th and 26th.

On the third and final day, scholars participated in a forum called “Confronting Homelessness: Toward More Effective Faith-Based Action” with religious leaders and other community partners from the greater Seattle area. The event was a highlight for many and included a stirring interfaith liturgy, a panel with local experts, and energetic small-group dialogue among scholars, faith leaders, policymakers and service providers around how best to partner and bridge the gap between the academy and practitioners in addressing social issues like homelessness.

Reflections on the Forum

“I think the general plan and trajectory of the Center's work is already helpful. I appreciate the wedding of scholarship with the work of practitioners. I think specifically what I would love some scholarship on would be a precedent for how local congregations serve low-income communities in the midst of gentrification in urbanized centers. This phenomenon is happening in Seattle and around the globe.”
– Jason Davison, Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission and Puget Sound Interfaith Network for Public Theology member

“I appreciate that the Center and the School of Theology and Ministry are facilitating this type of scholar/organizer dialogue. I believe there needs to be periodic interfaith gatherings arranged by the Center, possibly in conjunction with the Church Council of Greater Seattle and the East Side Interfaith Social Concerns Council, where those of us working on housing and poverty related issue can talk with each other and at least some of the scholars you have gathered. An occasional emailing with analysis and the sharing of success stories would also be helpful.”
– John-Otto Liljenstolpe, Rauschenbusch Center for Spirit and Action

“I was very encouraged and hopeful as I came away from this first symposium. The scholars gathered by the center clearly want to pay close attention to the wisdom and experience of our local faith-based practitioners and are interested in understanding the local context. I am excited by the possibilities as we move into a period of learning from each other and asking critical questions together.”
– Maggie Breen, Renton Association of Ecumenical Churches (REACH) and Puget Sound Interfaith Network for Public Theology member

The forum also launched the Puget Sound Interfaith Network for Public Theology, a pilot network of local faith leaders that will explore a new method of public theology that integrates theological reflection with local faith-based activism. Together with the Center scholars, network members will shape and co-create a knowledge base for the Center that results in more effective faith-based responses to social issues. This network meets for the first time at the end of May.

This Inaugural Symposium on Homelessness marks the very beginning of the Center’s expansive project. Scholars and network members will come back together for a second symposium at Seattle University in April 2018 to present and discuss their projects with the one another and with the Seattle University community, faith leaders and community partners.

Look for updates following the symposium on the Center’s webpage.