March 16, 2014
Tenzin, a transgendered (Female-to-Male) Buddhist monastic and one-time kicked-out street kid, recounts how his time on the streets of San Francisco was marked by either assault or its anticipation. “The psychic legacy of my time on the streets persists to this day,” says Tenzin, “A sense of contamination and alien defectiveness … has made it difficult to relate to others lacking similar life experiences.” Yet he counsels those with similar traumatic experiences to “remember that you have value and that anyone who judges you for being queer and homeless wouldn’t last a day in your situation” (Kicked Out: Stories of LGBT Homeless Youth. Ed. Sassafras Lowrey. 2010)
According to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, we are seeing an “epidemic of homelessness” among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) youth. According to the 2007 study, the Task Force states that of the estimated 1.6 million homeless American youth, up to 40% identify as LGBT. Why do LGBT youth become homeless? In one study, 26 percent of Gay male teens who came out to their parents/guardians were told they must leave home.
In this week’s Torah reading, Abram (which literally means “ancestor”) – later re-named as Abraham – is also effectively “kicked out” of his home among the pagan peoples of Ur of the Chaldees. The Hebrew name for this Torah portion is “Lekh-Lekha,” which means “Go!” or “Get out!”, reflecting G_d’s commandment to Abram: “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you’.” (Gen 12:1). Leaving one’s kindred was no small matter at that time, either. Kinship ties among extended family members were used for economic – and sometimes physical – survival. To be sent from one’s kin was tantamount to a death sentence from starvation and/or predation from bandits. Abram had nothing but the Word of the Lord as assurance, as he went forth to this unknown land with his wife and his household.
In addition to the risk of leaving, the sacred commentary on this Torah portion relates that Abram was also fleeing from an abusive situation. One midrash (sacred story) regarding Abram says that the prophet was cast into a furnace of fire as a test of his faith, and G_d saved him. A disproportionate number of LGBT youth are likewise fleeing from the fire of abusive homes: LGBT youth are twice as likely as heterosexual youth to have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 12 (National Coalition for the Homeless).
As Abram heads out from Haran, his hometown, G_d reassures him: “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3). Homeless people can tell you that being homeless is anything but a blessing. The editor of the anthology of homeless LGBT youth stories, Kicked Out, relates “The streets steal stories. Crush the bodies of boys and girls with molars of jagged concrete; tear at tender hearts with incisors of glass shards”. It is telling that our common faith-ancestor was homeless, but in spite of his homelessness (or perhaps even because of it), he was blessed, because G_d is the G_d of the oppressed. Thus, Abram became a blessing to “all families” (not just the ones that we regard as “legitimate”). For street youth, acquired families of safe friends are far more important for survival than families of origin or blood ties.
One of the most common commandments in the Hebrew Bible is to refrain from oppressing the alien in one’s land: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exod 22:21). We can see from the story of Abram that a key part of our “faith DNA” is the experience of homelessness in a strange land. As we re-think how we relate to G_d and each other this Lent, let us remember that we come from homelessness – and are commanded to be a blessing to others in spite of it – as we greet the homeless and rejected in our midst.