When American Christians say Jesus is the savior of prostitutes, druggies and thieves, I daresay this is not what they have in mind.
Chris Arnade is an avowed atheist, physics PhD holder, and former Wall Streeter. Arnade describes his atheism as:
"A life devoted to rational thought, a life devoted to numbers and clever arguments.
During that time I counted myself an atheist and nodded in agreement as a wave of atheistic fervor swept out of the scientific community and into the media, led by Richard Dawkins.
I saw some of myself in him: quick with arguments, uneasy with emotions, comfortable with logic, able to look at any ideology or any thought process and expose the inconsistencies. We all picked on the Bible, a tome cobbled together over hundreds of years that provides so many inconsistencies. It is the skinny 85lb (35.6kg) weakling for anyone looking to flex their scientific muscles."
These are people he has met while photographing the homeless in the South Bronx (warning: some graphic, some NSFW). The stories he tells are moving, the photos at times jarring.
"The first addict I met was Takeesha. She was standing near the high wall of the Corpus Christi Monastery. We talked for close to an hour before I took her picture. When we finished, I asked her how she wanted to be described. She said without any pause, "As who I am. A prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God."
A relative raped Takeesha when she was 11. Her mother, herself a prostitute, put Takeesha out on the streets at 13, where she has been for the last 30 years.
'It's sad when it's your mother, who you trust, and she was out there with me, but you know what kept me through all that? God. Whenever I got into the car, God got into the car with me.'"
And, there are plenty of others. The world knows no shortage of the homeless and the addicts.
"Sarah, 15 years on the streets, wears a cross around her neck. Always. Michael, 30 years on the streets, carries a rosary in his pocket. Always. In any crack house, in the darkest buildings empty of all other furnishings, a worn Bible can be found laying flat amongst needles, caps, lighters, and crack pipes.
They have their faith because what they believe in doesn't judge them. Who am I to tell them that what they believe is irrational? Who am I to tell them the one thing that gives them hope and allows them to find some beauty in an awful world is inconsistent? I cannot tell them that there is nothing beyond this physical life. It would be cruel and pointless.
In these last three years, out from behind my computers, I have been reminded that life is not rational and that everyone makes mistakes. Or, in Biblical terms, we are all sinners.
We are all sinners. On the streets the addicts, with their daily battles and proximity to death, have come to understand this viscerally. Many successful people don't. Their sense of entitlement and emotional distance has numbed their understanding of our fallibility."
Arnade's harshest judgment is not given to those otherwise adjudged as non-productive fringe dwellers. It is reserved for himself and others like him:
"Soon I saw my atheism for what it is: an intellectual belief most accessible to those who have done well.
I look back at my 16-year-old self and see Preacher Man and his listeners differently. I look at the fragile women praying and see a mother working a minimum wage custodial job, trying to raise three children alone; her children's father off drunk somewhere. I look at the teenager fingering a small cross and see a young woman, abused by a father addicted to whatever, trying to find some moments of peace. I see Preacher Man himself, living in a beat up shack without electricity, desperate to stay clean, desperate to make sense of a world that has given him little.
They found hope where they could.
I want to go back to that 16-year-old self and tell him to shut up with the 'see how clever I am attitude'. I want to tell him to appreciate how easy he had it, with a path out and a path to riches.
I also see Richard Dawkins differently. I see him as a grown up version of that 16-year-old kid, proud of being smart, unable to understand why anyone would believe or think differently from himself. I see a person so removed from humanity and so removed from the ambiguity of life that he finds himself judging those who think differently.
I see someone doing what he claims to hate in others. Preaching from a selfish vantage point."
In my conversations with the homeless I have found as much to be true. Far fewer question God than trust Him. Trust in God is almost axiomatic amongst the homeless I have engaged and heard or read their stories. For some, as with the overall population, "God" is a vague, nebulous deity, but for others a very biblical, yea, Christian conception. That is, they believe God has rescued them both in the spiritual and physical sense.
Many of them are not addicts, and a number of those are former addicts. They are doing what they can to stay away from those destructive choices. If an atheist realizes the error of his own judgment, why cannot followers of Christ?
My own faith is challenged by the homeless. Mario is a friend we have come to know over the last year. He sells newspapers for a living and hopes to get into landscaping. A former audio/video man in Nashville, he lost his home when his business went under.
Like many homeless people, Mario has a pet. Or, pets to be precise. Mario has five dogs he rescued. He refuses to abandon them, and usually has his gargantuan Great Pyrenees, Bear, with him at work. We asked Mario to have dinner with us on Christmas Eve or spend Christmas with us. He responded, "I have to work Christmas Eve because I need the money. I have to maintain my truck and I need to buy some lawn equipment before spring. On Christmas I'll spend the day with the dogs." Mario continues to live where he can keep his dogs and afford the cost: in a friend's barn. And he continues a strong faith in God.
"When you host a banquet, invite those who are poor, maimed, lame, or blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." Luke 14:13-14, HCSB