By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
Everyone who has been a Baptist all of his or her life knows the Christmas story and probably has participated in a Christmas play in which the mean innkeeper tells Mary and Joseph, “There is no room in the inn.”
Whether it actually happened that way or not, only eternity will tell. We do know our Savior was born in a manger.
In Nashville, there is an organization called Room in the Inn which draws its name from the Christmas story, seeking to provide shelter for the homeless.
The RITI organization owns a shelter downtown, but during the winter relies on congregations of all denominations, including Baptists, to provide shelter for about 200 people each week.
According to its website Room in the Inn began in 1986 with about four congregations. Today, more than 180 churches participate in the program each week from the first of November through the end of March.
Room in the Inn’s website lists several purposes. Among the two I like best are: The program “is a way for more people in every sector to understand the problems of the homeless by becoming directly involved with people who are homeless” and it is “about people of religion putting the tenets of their faith into practice.”
In simple terms, Room in the Inn provides Christians an opportunity to “practice what they preach.”
Room in the Inn also provides an opportunity for evangelism. While some of the homeless are Christians, many are not. Churches which host Room in the Inn have the freedom to present devotionals which share the gospel and to show the love of Christ.
Tulip Grove Baptist Church in Old Hickory (where I’m a member) has participated in Room in the Inn since at least the early 1990s if not before, and I have served as an overnight volunteer for many of those years. Last year I “dropped out,” citing a multitude of excuses. As I examined those excuses, it all boiled down to laziness and disobedience to God. I just didn’t want to do it.
This year, one of my best friends, who also is chairman of the deacons at Tulip Grove, was exhorting deacons to be involved because we had a shortage of volunteers, especially those who are willing to spend the night with the homeless. He looked my way and I knew what I had to do, so I eventually volunteered for a night.
Reading my Bible a few weeks later, I was reminded of the real reason why I needed to be involved. Matthew 25:40 (HCSB) tells us, “And the King will answer them, ‘I assure you: Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.’ ”
We are to help those less fortunate than ourselves and that includes the homeless. Jesus made it pretty clear in Scripture.
I fear too many churches (and Christians) are more interested in their churches being fortresses of protection from the outside world instead of a refuge for those who are hurting. Though there are 180 churches that participate in Room in the Inn in some way, that’s way less than half of the approximately 540 churches that are listed within the Nashville zip code and that does not include the greater Middle Tennessee area.
And lest we forget, homelessness is not just a Nashville problem. It is a problem all across Tennessee, even in more rural areas. Research the area where you live and see who, if anyone, is helping the homeless. If so, plug in; if not, see what can be done to start something. Jesus commands us to respond to “the least of these.”
Perhaps some churches feel the problem is too overwhelming and that they can’t make a difference. The Room in the Inn web-site acknowledges this. “Room in the Inn is not an attempt to resolve all the issues of the homeless. The problems are too deep and too personal.”
Here’s another great tidbit from the RITI website: “Room in the Inn is about changing people — guests and hosts. It creates an environment with the opportunity for the guests to learn that there are people who care and for the hosts to come to understand that the faceless figure on the street corner is more than a statistic.”
As you drive through the state, particularly in the larger cities, you will more than likely see the homeless standing on street corners with their signs asking for help. It is so easy to avoid eye contact. Pretending you don’t see them solves nothing. And, I don’t recommend that you stop to give them money. If nothing else, looking them in the eye reminds you that we need to be concerned about “the least of these.” And when you see a homeless person, lift up a prayer for the individual. You may not know his or her name, but God knows — and God cares.