A Home Is the Material Manifestation of an Unconditional Responsibility

Opening Remarks to the Eighth Annual Evansville Student Symposium on Homelessness, University of Southern Indiana, February 17, 2020

I am deeply touched and impressed when I look out at this room full of students from our city’s three great institutions of higher education—students studying medicine, nursing, education, social work, and many other fields—and realize that you are all here to address a serious social issue in our community as part of your education. It gives me hope.

I never did anything like this when I was a student. I majored in English. Three times. I never addressed important social issues head on as part of my university education, but I did read a lot of poems about them. And because I am one of those strange people who persist in believing that poetry matters—and that it can even be important from time to time—I would like to share with you my favorite definition of “home,” which comes from Robert Frost’s great 1914 narrative poem, “Death of a Hired Man.” 

The poem is in the form of a dialogue between a man named Warren and his wife, Mary, who (like most of Frost’s characters) are farmers somewhere in New England. At the beginning of the poem, Mary tells Warren that their farm hand, Silas, has returned. Warren becomes furious. Silas, he reminds her, had left them when they most needed his help in the Fall. He had asked Warren for wages they could not afford to pay, he refused, and he left in search of better work. “I’ll not have the fellow back,” he tells her. “I’m done.”

Mary quietly tells Warren that he has it all wrong. Silas is seriously ill, and he has come home to die. Warren mocks her choice to call their house Silas’s “home,” and Mary responds with what I consider to be the best definition of “home” ever conceived:

‘Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he’s nothing to us, any more
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail.’

‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.’

                                      ‘I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.’

It took me years to understand the full implications of this definition. I’m still not sure that I do. A home is a place—a material thing with walls and rooms and beds and sources of heat and nourishment—but it is a material manifestation of something far more abstract: a responsibility that somebody feels for somebody else. And it is an unconditional responsibility. When someone we have accepted responsibility for asks us for a home, we have to provide it. Nobody deserves it. Nobody has to. 

Homelessness, too, is the material manifestation of something to: it is the material consequence of a lack of responsibility. Somebody is homeless because nobody is willing to assume the ultimate, unquestioned, and unconditional responsibility for that person.

And, let’s be clear, it is a difficult responsibility to assume. Homelessness is bound up with lots of excruciatingly difficult and painful issues beyond the lack of housing. It intersects with drug abuse and alcoholism, mental illness, domestic abuse, trauma, and post-traumatic stress—just to name a few. To accept responsibility for homelessness means accepting, and learning how to deal productively with a whole range of messy human problems. It is much easier to do something else. It is easier to hide.

But humanity is our business, and messy humans are the only kind. The quotation printed on your program comes from the Book of Isaiah, an 8th century BCE Hebrew prophet who spent much of his life chastising his people for ignoring their most fundamental duties as human beings. In this passage, he tells us what those duties are: 

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58: 7 NRSV)

You are here at this symposium today because you refuse to hide yourself from your own kin. You are here because you are taking responsibility for something that, by definition, only exists to the extent that somebody is willing to accept responsibility for it. You are here to learn how to be that somebody.

And that is what gives me hope this morning. Thank you for saying yes.

Comments

  1. This is a beautiful statement, Michael, and a wonderful use of the Frost poem. Well said.

  2. Anonymous today says:

    So, I saw and read this while taking a break from preparing to make an offer on our first home, and all the accompanying anxiety. I stopped cold, with an unanticipated additional feeling of this responsibility. As excited as we will be to (hopefully) secure stable and comfortable housing, this is a reminder that it is a luxury to have that. The house won’t be luxurious, by any means, but it’s something so many others aspire to but have been unable to achieve. Thank you for this reminder, Michael, and for causing me to revisit my definition of what is required to be a responsible homeowner.

  3. Thank you Michael. This is powerful exposition of the doctrine of extending care. This expands on reflections I’ve had since teaching 2 Nephi 9 from yesterday’s Sunday School lesson. In discussing the Atonement we talked a little about what it means to be at-one.

    Following your thoughts here, speaking of one who invites us in, to find a place, and to go no more out, Nibley reflected on the principle of Arabic hospitality and the responsibility of the host. He spoke of the “Arabic kafata, as it is the key to a dramatic situation. It was the custom for one fleeing for his life in the desert to seek protection in the tent of a great sheik, crying out, “Ana dakhiluka,” meaning “I am thy suppliant,” whereupon the host would place the hem of his robe over the guest’s shoulder and declare him under his protection…. In reply, according to the ancient custom, the Master would then place the hem of his robe protectively over the kneeling man’s shoulder (kafata). This puts him under the Lord’s protection from all enemies. They embrace in a close hug, as Arab chiefs still do; the Lord makes a place for him (see Alma 5:24) and invites him to sit down beside him—they are at-one.”

    As I spoke with my small group of 12-13 year olds yesterday we discussed what it means to take the name of Jesus Christ upon us. I appreciate that you have given me one more exceptional example of how we can give place – though it requires engaging with the very messy side of humanity- to invite the stranger to find place to sit down and find relief.

  4. Where do we get the concept that we can only do this individually, that we can not vote for a society that addresses it? That is the only way it will be helped.
    I understand there are homeless people in Australia, but the only time I have seen homeless people has been in America.

  5. Geoff-Aus, I agree that society and government have a role here. But even well run socialist countries have homeless people, including Australia. Even if you offer services it does not mean people will take advantage of them nor will the services be sufficient.

    If I may, as one who spent two months of last year living in Queensland and New South Wales I would question where you live if you’ve never encountered homeless people. I encountered men and women sheltering in place on the squares along Pitt Street in the heart of Sydney. In late evening walks and early morning runs I came across humble people who slept in the streets and on the piers in and around the CBD of Brisbane. These were individuals no different from those I encounter in the streets of Chicago.

    I asked friends and colleagues how it was possible in these cities with so many services that there were still people who slept on the streets. The answers I heard were that in many cases young and old could not afford rent in gentrifying areas and could not find paying employment sufficient to support themselves and some are not eligible for Newstart support.

    There’s no question we can and should do better in the US. And there are programs such as the one in Utah that provides housing that demonstrate a path to success