Winter is a dangerous time. We slip and fall on sidewalks, and our cars skid precariously on ice. But on the cold edges of campus, in the forgotten corners of our busy community, the danger is even more real, and even more hazardous. People freeze to death in our city.
This reality acquired an acute urgency when one of the lifelines for New Haven’s homeless, the Overflow Shelter, lost its traditional source of funding. The shelter has been surviving because of heroic efforts by concerned residents and community organizations, but there is no guarantee it will still be open when it is needed most. Over 125 men will show up at a place that once guaranteed warmth and shelter, and they will instead find a closed door, forcing them back into the cold.
Though our group, the Interfaith Alliance for Justice, represents a multitude of backgrounds and traditions, we respond to this possibility with a shared sense of horror and determination. As people of faith, as members of an organization dedicated to social justice and as human beings, we cannot idly watch our neighbors freeze.
Who is “the neighbor”? When most of us first learned it, the word meant the people in the houses next to ours. But our faiths tell us, and our experiences of the world confirm, that the term “neighbor” is not so simple or restricted.
The word “neighbor” extends to people we have never met, but for whom we are nevertheless responsible. In a crucial way, it means exactly the opposite of what we learned: Those without houses are our neighbors too. Some of them are from backgrounds that typify the stark injustice of a nation where people are created equal but not born that way. Some, especially in our current economic crisis, are people who have only just lost the battle to stay out of poverty, who may have kept their jobs but have come home to find foreclosure signs covering their front doors.
We should never debate which of these kinds of neighbors “deserve” help. Our responsibility comes not from the merits of the needy but from the basic requirements of humanity, of kindness and (for some of us) of faith. The Quran exhorts believers to do good to “those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers” (4: 36). The Bible offers a similar urging in Proverbs 14:31: “Anyone who withholds what is due to the poor blasphemes against the Maker of all, but one who is gracious unto the needy honors God.”
It is not enough for us to simply be opposed to the shelter closing. Christian ethicists constantly wrestle with the distinction between doing and allowing. They ask us, “Is there a difference?” Most of us would like to think there is, that we are not guilty of murder every time we fail to stop someone in the world from killing someone else. But we cannot allow the distance between doing and allowing to become too wide or too comfortable.
To some meaningful extent, complacency in the face of our neighbor’s need is wrong. We might not be shutting the doors on the coldest nights of the year, but in doing nothing to hold them open we share the blame.
So the Interfaith Alliance for Justice has decided to act. We have committed to working with Shelter Now to encourage reflection on homelessness and justice and to raise awareness and funds to keep our neighbors warm. The threat to our community engages us on a deeply religious level. Running through all of our traditions is a strong injunction to care for those in need, a command that transcends doctrinal barriers and strikes at the core of what it means to live a life of faith and love.
But though it informs our actions, religion is not the sole proprietor of the impulse to give. Giving is a moral imperative that engages everyone and repays us all. As the Buddha said, “If beings knew, as I know, the results of giving and sharing, they would not eat without having given” (Iti 1.26; Iti 18). Struggling to help our neighbors in need is, for all of us at Yale, not just our duty; it is our reward.
Jennie Nevin is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Madeline Johnson is a junior in Silliman College.