On Faith

Camp Hanover chapel by the lake: My shadow

“What about your faith? Where is it now? And what do you think is the role of faith in doing health care and social justice work with people marginalized by poverty and homelessness?”

These are some of the most oft-asked questions at author readings for my nonfiction book, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net. The questions typically come from people who have read my book, or who at least know what it is about. Because at the personal narrative level, my book is about my growing up in—and finally getting out of— the Bible Belt South, surrounded (and sometimes suffocated) by conservative Christian values. It is also about my work as a nurse with people experiencing homelessness in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia in the 1980s. I worked for an evangelical Christian health care clinic until I was mandated to provide what I viewed (and still view) as unethical care: being asked to pressure patients with HIV/AIDS to repent of their “sins” before they died, and being prohibited from providing my female patients with pregnancy options counseling. There were, of course, other factors in my life, but because of this I lost my job, family, and home and became homeless for six months. I also lost my faith.

The truth is that I have never found my faith again. I do have a deep and rich spiritual life, and I am grateful for many of the faith-based experiences of my childhood. For many years after my own spiral into and back out of homelessness, I held a deep suspicion towards any explicitly faith-based organization or person. I have, thankfully, grown past that, and I have respect for the people and organizations that “live their faith” in humanistic and non-dogmatic ways.

This past Sunday, being back in Richmond, I was invited to talk about my book with the adult Sunday School class at my childhood Presbyterian church. With some trepidation, I accepted, and I am glad I did. They were a warm and welcoming group with many excellent questions, including ones on how they could be more effective at preventing homelessness. And sitting in the front row was my Junior HighSchool and Sunday School teacher, Betsy Rice, smiling and cheering me on. She reminded me that I organized a sit-in to protest something in her math class and that she let me get away with it. Betsy, who is now close to 100 years old, has organized a church outreach program to the adult group homes near the church. She helps provide on-site activities and mentoring services for a very marginalized population literally next door to the church. She is an inspiration and reminds me of the good things that a living faith or a living spirituality can do in this world.

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