By J. Gary L’Hommedieu
Sandy: You hear the word of God more on the street than you do anywhere else.
Interviewer: From who?
Sandy: Random people. God’s little messengers, that’s what I call them.
In the summer of 2022, seven years after my retirement as a parish priest, I completed a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Central Florida. The title of my dissertation was “The Sociology of God: The Case of Homeless Believers.” The paper originated as a question I’d been pondering for years: what do homeless people who believe in God believe about the God in whom they believe?
I knew this was both a sociological and theological question. While I would not be theologizing about homeless people, I would be observing them as they theologized about themselves and their place in society. They would be the theologians. Their beliefs would be embedded in the stories of their lives. My role was to identify common themes within in-depth interviews and develop a theory for connecting the dots.
My purpose in this article is to present a sample of the Street Theologians in their theologizing. I keep the gerund form theologizing to emphasize their method of explaining theology in terms of process and in the language of the street. While the interview quotations are taken from the original data, the commentary is new and represents further development of the original theory.
The Theology of Maybe
The interviews began with a standard survey of demographics: what is your age, race, gender, marital status, number of years homeless, present religious status, economic, educational, and religious background. The interviews were semi-structured, beginning with “grand tour” questions intended to launch respondents into narrative. For example, “How would you describe God?” “What sorts of things does God do for you, and what has he done for you lately?” “Have you ever doubted that God exists?”
When I asked Sherri to tell me what God had done to convince her he was real, her answer at first sounded very untheological. When her parents first split up, to her dismay her father was awarded custody, and Sherri was not permitted to see her mother for years. Then, when Sherri was 16, another judge reversed the court’s decision and awarded custody to her mother. Sherri did not mention the legal reasoning behind the judge’s decision, if she ever knew it. What she described was a pattern taking shape in her life that continues to this day. Sherri came to believe in a God who has plans and resources when hers run out. Believing in this God means expecting him to provide for her, not every time, but often enough to reassure her that he’s there and he’s the same God.
When I asked Luther to describe an experience when God was involved in his life, he told the story of his rescue from a holdup.
I was in a park and I kind of overslept. And it was dark. And a guy came up on me, woke me up. He had a gun on me, said give me all your belongings. [I said] Take whatever you need. …You know, my life is worth more than what you’re taking from me. So he snatched it up and took off running. So, you know, that was an example. … He could have killed me. He could have shot. So, you know, I thank God that it didn’t happen. So to me that’s a great example.
Luther shares this story with others to let them know “God is in control.” I asked him if he ever doubted that. He said no. While he didn’t call it a miracle, he saw it as anything but random. In the process of believing, anything-but-random is the line between seeing the world as empty and out of control and seeing it as a world with unlimited possibilities, crafted for this person in this situation at this moment. Such personal design points to a Provider.
Sometimes anything-but-random is a violent intrusion into the world we thought we knew, and we do call it a miracle. Eddie describes a miracle that saved him after he passed out drunk behind the wheel.
I was in Hawaii. I had been drinking with a shipmate of mine. And we were on Kamehameha Highway headed back to Pearl Harbor. And I went to sleep. And when I opened my eyes, I saw the mountain, the volcano. So I turned my wheel as hard as I could to the left. … And we hit that mountain. I mean, I must have been doing 50-60 miles an hour. And when we hit the mountain, there was a light. It was [long pause] the brightest light I’ve ever seen in my life. And then when the light went out, we were in the center of the highway, traveling at the same speed. … That’s when it started for me. … That’s when I knew … it wasn’t me. Maybe it wasn’t me at all. Maybe it was God.
For me the interesting part of this story is not the miracle but the maybe. For Eddie, maybe was the instant when he was confronted with himself in all his limited capacities — physical, intellectual, moral — against a backdrop of an infinite capacity. He saw this infinity bending its rules for his personal benefit. Even before he called it God, Eddie knew he was in a different world.
The Theology of I Don’t Know
We often think of homeless people as simple people, even simpletons. At second glance, we might see this simplicity as simplified rather than simplistic. This was demonstrated consistently in the way respondents pivoted naturally between experience and reflection, between the concrete and the abstract. Their experiences were cited for their applicability in conveying a specific idea. They also knew the difference between what they knew and didn’t, or couldn’t, know. Unlike many of us professionals, they were very comfortable with this.
I asked Rob, a homeless man of 30 years, to describe God.
Ooh, that’s kind of hard. Just like the guy a while ago said [the pastor at the drop-in center leading today’s Bible study], God is a being. Well, I don’t know what God is. I know what God is when I see him, I get to the pearly gates right there, but I can’t wait. If I die today, hopefully I’m going to see God the Father Almighty.
I had the impression no one had ever asked Rob this question. Still, his answer showed he had thought about it for a long time. He knew very well how little he knew about God. His answer shifted immediately from speculations about the nature of God to the vivid image of the God with whom he was familiar, the one he called Father or, in another place, Daddy. This conception of God conveyed to him the presence that had accompanied him through 30 years on the street. Furthermore, he had no doubt that the real God would be just like his humble conception of God as his Daddy, only more so.
Larry expands at length on what he doesn’t know about God.
Interviewer: How do you describe God? I mean, a man, a woman? Is it a person? Is it neither?
Larry: You can’t describe God. …When you describe God, you put them in a box.
Interviewer: So when you talk about God, what do you call him?
Interviewer: Okay, can you give me an example?
Larry: Um, like, when I ain’t got nothing, I can walk down the street, and I’m hungry. [I ask God,] “Can I get some help? I need something to eat.” Within an hour or two, I usually got a full battery. People that walked up on me and say, “Here, sir.” So it’s got to be something other than me, and bigger.
Larry’s name for God was “something other than me and bigger.” This conception, this “name,” was implicit in all the conversations I had with homeless believers. In each narrative there was the same interplay between daily experience and a long history of reflection. There were no rote responses in their descriptions of God. Their conceptions were practical and direct, even while they knew what they conveyed was far less than the “real” God. Their understanding of God was sufficient for them to recognize him from day to day as the One who provides.
It was not my job, as the researcher, to prove, disprove, believe, or disbelieve the stories I was told. My job was to look for patterns of thought. Among the stories of the Street Theologians included here, we find the same pattern of thought in both the mundane and the miraculous. In each there was the same pause in a moment of crisis as the known world appeared less and less real and a new world appeared, comprehending both the old and the new. This new world has a quality of personality, and this new Person quickly incorporates himself into the known world of believers.
Connecting the Dots
In my interviews with homeless believers I was astonished to find that their beliefs – and their believing – were just like anybody else’s. At some point in their lives most fell back on the faith to which they had been exposed in childhood. Some were converted at the word or example of a credible witness. Still others were shocked into believing by a miracle.
I have heard this same outline detailed in countless narratives at Bible studies and prayer meetings in posh suburbs and gritty blue collar neighborhoods. While the circumstances vary, the basic process does not: normal daily existence, sudden crisis, an unaccountable provision, recognition of the Provider, and incorporation of a renewed faith into a new normal.
The accounts of the Street Theologians are transparent to this process, making their experience of believing generic. The difference between them and their domiciled counterparts is the urgency, and hence the simplicity, of the crises they face and their directness in attributing the provision to the Provider.
As Luther said, “God is in control.” Most of us have unlimited resources to prolong the illusion that we are in control, and God is more like icing on the cake.
The Rev. Dr. J. Gary L’Hommedieu was ordained deacon and priest in 1979 in the Episcopal Diocese of New York. He later served parishes in the Dioceses of Connecticut, Albany, Pennsylvania, and Central Florida. He retired in 2015 as Canon Pastor at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Orlando. In 2004 he began work part time as a chaplain for Orlando Health, where he currently serves at its campus in Dr. Phillips, Orlando.
During the turbulent decades of the 1990’s and 2000’s Fr. L’Hommedieu was an avid participant in the Episcopal culture wars. He attended the founding convention of the Anglican Church in North America in 2009 in Bedford Texas as a journalist.
A few years before he began reading classic texts in sociology to understand what united, and what divided, this stream of new and old Anglicans. In 2010 he began master’s studies in sociology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando and received his M.A. in 2012. His thesis was entitled, “The Continuing Anglican Metamorphosis: Introducing the Advanced Integrated Model.” In 2022 he completed his Ph.D. The title of his dissertation was “The Sociology of God: The Case of Homeless Believers.”
Fr. L’Hommedieu lives in Orlando with his wife Judi, a legal assistant for forty years and a recent graduate of Rollins College. They have four adult children and nine grandchildren. Fr. L’Hommedieu also plays lead guitar in a classic rock band Fat Chance, which appears regularly in local establishments.