Center’s Network Explores How FBOs Can Leverage “Thick Descriptions” of Homelessness

3x3 Mosaic of Jan2018Network Meeting Guest Headshots (with Wordmark)_1346x899
January 26, 2018

The Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs’ Puget Sound Network gathered on January 10th along with the Center team, Graduate Student Affiliates, and five key community partners as part of its continued work around how faith-based organizations (FBOs) can more effectively respond to pressing social problems, like homelessness and the affordable housing crisis.


Center Director Dr. Manuel Mejido opened the meeting by reflecting on an often-overlooked article by Paul Tillich entitled, “The Philosophy of Social Work” (1962). In this article, the renowned theologian describes the predicament faced by those involved in what today we might call “justice work” as the “danger” of “transforming care into control.” Against this danger, Tillich evokes “listening love” – a caritas that is not charity – that ensures that the structural changes we strive for are anchored in the personal experiences and needs of those we seek to empower. Dr. Mejido suggested that one way FBOs might more intentionally cultivate this listening love is by turning to narratives, focus groups and other “thick descriptions” of homelessness and related social problems. These thick descriptions can improve the accountability of FBOs as well as contribute valuable ethnographic evidence to local policy-making discussions.

Toward a Thick Description of Homelessness

During the first part of the meeting, the Center’s Community Engagement Manager, Rev. Maggie Breen, guided a conversation around how the faith community is uniquely poised to document, disseminate and respond to the narratives and personal experiences of homeless individuals. This conversation pivoted around two important themes: 

  1. Place Matters. The higher prevalence of homelessness among minority populations is the result of structural racism and institutionalized discrimination in, for example, employment, housing, and the criminal justice system. Homelessness, in this sense, is a symptom of inequalities of place, of the compounding effects of poverty, social exclusion, and the retreat of public institutions. Thick descriptions of “geographies of opportunity” are needed to bring forth these complex dynamics.

  2. The Tyranny of Numbers. While vital, quantitative data do not tell the whole story, and, can in fact perpetuate false assumptions and generalizations. The voices of homeless individuals are needed to take us beyond the numbers into the lived experience, the multi-layered circumstances and needs – the thick descriptions – of those who are marginalized.

Kelle-Brown-2018-headshot_219x219With these themes in mind, Rev. Kelle Brown, next offered a case study of Daughters of Zelophehad, a faith-based nonprofit organization located in Richmond, VA, which she joined in 2001 as Executive Director. By paying particular attention to the local geography of opportunity, Rev. Brown was able to identify service gaps and dismantle some of the organizational policies that exacerbated dynamics of exclusion. Rev. Brown spoke of the time and persistent care needed to walk beside those who have experienced complex trauma and oppression, and the responsibility of the leader to communicate these thick descriptions in the public square.

After examining Rev. Brown’s case study, Rev. Breen invited the group to reflect around three questions:

  1. How do the thick descriptions you grapple with in your work reveal the personal and structural dimensions of homelessness?

  2. Do these thick descriptions inform your assumptions about how to care for those you serve?

  3. How can you use these thick descriptions to impact local policy and legislation?

Ms. Mirya Muñoz-Roach of St. Vincent de Paul and Rev. Marilyn Cornwell offered that false assumptions and generalizations can only be countered when we take time to get to know our neighbors, and this means we have to be present to listen to their stories. Ms. Haley Ballast agreed and shared how the story of a fellow congregant’s eviction has emboldened her advocacy work around source of income discrimination in the King County city of Normandy Park. She also articulated the ethical dilemma at play: how to best use this narrative in policy discussions around fair housing while mitigating the risk of instrumentalizing the lived experience of the individual in question.

Mr. Jeff Lilley shared the story of how Union Gospel Mission’s character as an FBO compelled them to accompany an unhoused family through the complexities of their situation long after other helping agencies had become discouraged and moved on. He reflected on what it takes for FBOs to engage in listening love while working with funders and cultural forces that demand more immediate and quantifiable outcomes. Mr. Michael Yoder suggested that diversion — a first-response strategy that seeks intervention in the earlier stages of an individual’s housing crisis — is, in fact, a form of listening deeply and honoring the thick descriptions of those we serve.


Ms. Dora “D” Krasucki of the Matt Talbot Center and Mr. Marty Kooistra, Executive Director of the Housing Development Consortium, spoke in depth to the implications of providing a ministry of presence to those we serve. Recognizing that approaching this kind of listening love can be extremely demanding, Kooistra insisted that volunteers need adequate training and support from FBOs to enter in and to then be moved toward advocacy and collective action, which Ms. Hamdi Abdulle and Rabbi Aaron Meyer affirmed are essential for affecting policy.

Mr. Michael Ramos cited the example of a local faith leader who effectively practices the craft of first listening deeply to the thick descriptions of those who are marginalized, and then distilling the larger cultural and socio-economic dynamics at play, so as to more powerfully communicate the stories and required interventions in the context of relationships with stakeholders and decision-makers nurtured over years.

Conversation with Center Scholar Paul Blankenship

In the second half of the meeting, Dr. Mejido introduced Mr. Paul Blankenship, a Center Scholar, doctoral student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and adjunct faculty member in Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry.

Paul Blankenship at January 2018 Puget Sound Network MeetingMr. Blankenship presented some preliminary findings from his ongoing ethnographic research on the spirituality of homeless individuals age 18 to 35 in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. His work aims to rethink theological conceptions of the poor and considers how ethnographic data can be used to improve the agency of homeless individuals and the accountability of faith-based organizations. He noted a few salient ways that many of these self-described “street kids” draw on spirituality to negotiate and make sense of their situation. These strategies include a renunciation of Christianity that celebrates free will and self-empowerment; a distant rather than personal view of God; a subversive use of spirituality to meet personal needs; and an unwritten ethical code and tacit system of redemption, which he refers to as “the karma and dharma of the streets.”

After this presentation, Dr. Mejido moderated a conversation between Mr. Blankenship, Network members, and guests.

Taijo Imanaka at January 2018 Puget Sound Network MeetingRev. Taijo Imanaka, shared that the notion of social justice as understood by the Abrahamic religions does not exist in Buddhism. In Buddhism, the aim, rather, is to cultivate one’s mind and spirit to achieve freedom in enlightenment. Rev. Imanaka suggested that Shingon Buddhist spiritual practices – like guided meditation and an empowering meditative prayer called kaji – could be helpful to people experiencing homelessness. Mr. Blankenship agreed and remarked that he has observed much more receptivity to Buddhism than to Christianity among the population he’s working with. He advised that perhaps Christian and Buddhist groups ought to engage in dialogue around how to develop relationship with young people experiencing homelessness.

Ms. Donna Cheesebrough was interested in how the sculpture of “Homeless Jesus,” which was installed in downtown Seattle in the summer of 2017, is being interpreted by individuals living on the streets. More specifically, she wondered whether this image contributes to the renunciation of Christianity Mr. Blankenship’s ethnographic research has documented. Mr. Blankenship shared that when asked directly about this idea that Jesus is in the homeless, the street kids are sometimes intrigued or flattered; but more often than not, they express cynicism – a sense that people are engaging in charity to “score points with God,” rather than out of a desire to make a difference in someone’s life. Mr. Blankenship further noted that he has recognized a profound opening and need for “real authentic beautiful friendships.” He encouraged faith leaders and congregants to “poke a lot of holes” in the firm boundary that exists between the housed and the unhoused – to dare to engage in these kinds of authentic and vital relationships and reveal the fullness of Christianity.


Finally, in response to a question about models of discipleship posed in absentia by Rev. Rich Lang, the Network went on to identify some of the challenges of establishing a right relationship with those who are unhoused.

How do we respect the integrity and agency of those we are in relationship with and at the same time take seriously our responsibility to honor our connectedness and interdependency? How do we negotiate existing power structures, recognizing our role within them, and seek to minimize rather than reinforce marginalization? The Network noted the need to continue to explore these questions within the context of their own organizations, and in our ongoing work together.

David Rodes at January 2018 Puget Sound Network MeetingRev. David Rodes brought the conversation to closure with a provocative warning against sentimentalizing the caritas behind listening love: The power of the dominant culture is ubiquitous and being in right relationship with individuals that are experiencing homelessness is a challenge. Nonetheless, this is exactly what is required.

The next Network meeting will take place on March 14, 2018. During the first part of the meeting, Puget Sound Network member, Mr. Rizwan Rizwi, will present a case study that explores how FBOs might draw on market-based initiatives – like micro-financing and social businesses – to more effectively respond to homelessness and related social problems. During the second part, Network members will be in conversation with one of the Center scholars, who will join the meeting by video conference.


The community partners present at the January Network meeting were Mr. Gregg Alex, Executive Director of the Matt Talbot Center; Mr. Ned Delmore, Executive Director of St. Vincent de Paul of Seattle/King County; Mr. Marty Kooistra, Executive Director of the Housing Development Consortium; Ms. Dora “D” Krasucki, co-founder of the Matt Talbot Center; and Ms. Mirya Muñoz-Roach, Chief Program Director for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Seattle/King County. These partners appear in the photo header at the top of this article.