Creating Faith-based Collaborations for Real Change: The Santa Barbara Homeless Foot Washing as an Ideal Type

At a recent community forum addressing social justice issues with the homeless, I briefly considered the Santa Barbara Homeless Foot Washing (that I conceived and am not preparing for its third incarnation). The forum was sponsored by CLUE--Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, a local non-profit on whose board I serve. 

"Ideal type" is a concept that comes from sociology and was conined by Max Weber. An ideal type is formed from characteristics and elements of the given phenomena, but it is not meant to correspond to all of the characteristics of any one particular case. It is not meant to refer to perfect things, moral ideals nor to statistical averages but rather to stress certain elements common to most cases of the given phenomena.

The following elements from the Foot Washing might be worth holding onto for other faith-based events planned for the homeless and seeking social justice:

1. Attempt to bring about inter-faith programs of action, which involve a wide range of spriritual backgrounds.
2. The core of the event should facilitate people moving forward with their lives and involve the input of street outreach people, social workers and other case managers.
3. While change is the central goal, charity isn’t a bad thing either. Give practical things such as socks, shoes, sleeping bags, etc. Remember many of these people have virtually nothing, and need community support. This is always a good draw to get people into the door.
4. Understand the diversity of types of people on the streets, including street kids who travel around a lot, veterans, poor families, those temporarily out of work, young adults exiting foster care, seniors, those with physical and mental disabilities, those with alcohol and drug issues. It is best to collaborate with experts in several areas of specialty.
5. Go out of your ways to reach out to the service-resistant people who have been on the streets for a long time (chronically homeless). These folks are the most traumatized and the most in need of your support. Those who stay in the shelters are not the entire population.
6. Offer spiritual encouragement and possibilities for spiritual counseling, but do not force religion down anyone’s throat.
7. Involve your parishioners and allow ample opportunity for dialogue. Create environments in which the bringing down of stereotypes of “us and them”.
8. Be prepared for people with lots of bags, bicycles, wheelchairs, dogs, etc.
9. Listen to these people. Be present. Recognition, acknowledgement and love are the best things you have to offer.
10.Be prepared for crises of all types. Many of these people are just holding on and might need special care.