As we approach the church’s celebration of Christmas, I can’t help but think about how we acknowledge the sacredness of unlikely dwelling places. The story of the birth of Jesus is far from a typical birth story (if there is such a thing). The young couple is in transit as Jesus is being born, far from their home. When it comes time to give birth, the young mother experienced what so many unhoused people do: a community with not enough room for them. The birth of Jesus takes place in an unlikely, unsanitary place. And after the birth, through the news that is brought by the Magi, the new family realizes that they will not be able to return home if they are to be safe. They begin as travelers, find themselves unhoused, and end the story as political refugees: all while being entrusted with the very child of God.
One of the most popular decorations and displays in this season is a nativity scene. Now, I love a good nativity scene. There’s just something beautiful and holy about it: the young parents, a serene baby Jesus who magically isn’t crying or screaming or vomiting or jaundiced, angels overhead, a random bunch of animals, Magi offering confusing gifts. (Thanks for the gold, some of the heaviest stuff on earth, guess we’ll just carry this all the way to Egypt?) I also love the trend on social media where people will sneak other figurines into their parents’ and grandparents’ nativities and see how long it takes them to notice. Nativities are just the best.
I’ve spent the majority of my professional career working with people experiencing homelessness, and many Christians rightfully connect their living situation to Jesus, who Scripture tells us “had no place to lay his head” during his ministry. But Jesus’ experience of housing insecurity and transience began while he was still in his mother’s womb and is a central part of the Christmas narrative.
For me, this is the biggest reminder of the Nativity: that nontraditional places and spaces—where forgotten people are forced to live, lay their heads, and experience significant moments in their life—are sacred. They are holy.
When we see encampments on the side of the road or under the overpass, we are not usually filled with the same warm feelings as when we see a nativity. They may cause fear, resentment, or even pity. Over the years, I’ve seen encampments become more and more vilified and politicized. In major cities, politicians will run on what specifically they are going to do about them, whether to sweep them up and drive people out or offer a more compassionate, holistic approach that includes affordable housing and desired services.
Our own ethic and approach to encampments can and should be shaped by the stories about Jesus. At this moment in the year, it can benefit us to think of encampments as nativity scenes. Not because they are glamorous in a traditional way, but rather, like the Nativity, they contain people who are making the most of a combination of unlikely, unfortunate, and desperate circumstances. And most importantly, they share this in common: they are places where Christ dwells.
If that feels like a stretch, remember the ways Jesus associated himself with the most vulnerable and marginalized in our world. Jesus himself made this association, that whatever we do unto the “least of these,” we have done unto him. In this sense, every encampment contains a child of God; every encampment is a nativity.
This certainly doesn’t answer our every question about the encampment. What do we do about it? How do we acknowledge the sacredness of this dwelling and the people who inhabit it, while also working toward their betterment? These are crucial questions that deserve thoughtfulness and nuance. If we have not started from a place of seeing the encampment as sacred, and the unhoused person within it as a neighbor bearing God’s image, then we have little hope of getting to the right answer. Just as the story of Jesus starts this way, so must our discourse around homelessness.
In this Christmas season, we learn to recognize the image of God imprinted on everyone—not because we’ve earned it or deserve it but because God gives it freely. And we recognize that our world is quick to turn many people away, claiming there is no room for them. And while we seek to undo and counter this narrative, we can celebrate the beauty and sacredness of the unlikely places that mothers and fathers and children lay their heads. We can see nativities wherever they appear: on the fireplaces of warm homes, in front of churches, on bus benches, and under overpasses.
Kevin is a writer and advocate working toward ending homelessness by engaging best practices. He has written on the intersections of homelessness and faith for Religion News Service, Sojourners, Red Letter Christians, and more. He has presented at national conferences on the topic of homelessness, including the Housing First Partners Conference 2022.