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Interview: Kevin Adler, social entrepreneur and founder of Miracle Messages

17 January 2020

‘I heard someone saying: “I didn’t really become homeless when I lost my house, but when I lost my family and friends”’

Miracle Messages is a non-profit reunion service for our neighbours who are experiencing homelessness, reconnecting them with their loved ones. I started Miracle Messages in honour of my uncle Mark, who lived on and off the streets for 30 years.

I had this question on my heart: how would Jesus use his smartphone? The way we use it, taking and sharing selfies, and so on, can be fun; but it’s a tool, a platform for extending the values that Jesus would live. How would he use this device?

Homeless people aren’t problems to be solved: they’re people to be loved. Everybody is someone’s somebody. I asked some homeless people to wear cameras on their chests, recording their experience of living on the streets. When I saw the footage, I was shocked. When I heard someone saying: “I didn’t really become homeless when I lost my house, but when I lost my family and friends,” that caught my attention. If that’s true, I thought, I could ask any homeless people if they have any family and friends.

It’s simple. A homeless person records a short video, audio, or text message to a family member or friend, perhaps with help from a trained volunteer, and our network of “miracle messengers” attempts to deliver the message, and reunite the family. We’re a post office for homeless people using our mobile app, online and paper-based forms, and the 1-800-MISS-YOU hotline.

Brian and Beverly are our formerly homeless community ambassadors in San Francisco. They hit the streets each week to offer Miracle Messages, record messages, liaise information to and from clients, and generally be helpful neighbours to people on the streets. They’re fantastic.

We’ve reunited 255 families in Miracle Messages’ first five years. The average time they’d been separated is about 20 years. Eighty per cent of the messages were welcomed, and so many reunions meant someone finding a home. Now, we’re beginning to partner with hospitals and work internationally.

Everyday people can affect change, even with problems like homelessness, which seem intractable. It’s unfortunate that we’ve lost sight of what happens when people come together to make a difference. I don’t work for the city and I didn’t have a non-profit organisation at the time. I was just an everyday citizen who was listening to my neighbours, trying to understand better what their stories were. That made me recognise what I call “relational poverty”. When people are disconnected from their loved ones, it’s detrimental for their physical, social, spiritual health.

I met a lot of resistance at first, but now our videos have received over 100 million views, and we’ve been featured in The New York Times, NPR, Brut, on a billboard in Times Square, NowThis, and elsewhere. It makes sense, of course —something like this is needed.

And we need to practise restorative justice — not have people forever cast out of our communities as lepers, untouchables, derelicts, but reintegrate them, embrace them, and find ways for them to make up for what they’ve done. I lived with a bunch of young professionals and tech workers in San Francisco, and we decided to transition our house into a home for people who’d spent times behind bars; so I lived there for two months with three guys who’d spent 70 or 80 years cumulatively behind bars.

That’s the work we have to do as believers, if we believe that every life matters, every being is created in the image of God. We’re not the ones to throw anyone to the hell fires, but to love everyone as God loves us and we try to love God.

I started two friends’ ventures in Edtech, one a non-profit online and offline mentoring programme for under-served high school students, connecting them with high-school alumnae who help them negotiate the social, finance, and academic aspects of their courses. The other was an online fund-raising platform for under-financed schools, attracting alumnae and local professionals. We raised a bit of angel funding for these, and another gave me a bit of a salary.

I don’t come from great wealth. My mind-set has always been to keep my living costs low, share housing, and just take enough to get by. I’m inspired by saints like Francis, who lived on far less than I could, and always appreciated the simplicity, freedom, and creativity coming from that.

Social capital — relationships, networks, and norms within a community — trust, a sense of togetherness, civic engagement, volunteering — gives individuals priceless advantages. Kids can play in the park; you don’t have to live in a gated community. When disaster strikes, you aren’t coping alone. If people say hello in the street, ask you for help, phone the police when things go wrong — these deeply influence your happiness, well-being, and ability to do worthwhile things. Even cities aren’t monolithic: they have neighbourhoods and houses.

I studied in Cambridge and produced the research Natural Disasters as a Catalyst for Social Capital: A study of the 500-year flood in Cedar Rapids, Iowa to unearth the vastly under-explored link between natural disasters and social capital, offering a new theory for why social capital shifts in society from one generation to another and the transformative impact of shared traumas.

This has implications for the very fabric of society — trust in each other and our institutions. If you’re in a bad situation and your neighbours don’t help, that will make you feel disconnected and leave you isolated. If you’re not in the “in-group” in a mining town — say, you’re the wife of a mine owner — if miners are killed in an accident, you might be seen as culpable for what happened, and excluded from local networks.

I want to pay tribute to the countless people who survived disasters and bravely shared their stories with me. I hope my book helps them make sense of, from a sociological perspective, what they experienced.

One thing I learned from this was how two people can have such vastly different experiences of the same event — and how much that makes sense once you hear of their experiences prior to and after the event.

I engage in the world in a loving, trusting way that reflects my experience of coming to Christ by simply knowing his love while growing up. My parents agreed on one thing: to raise my brother and me with unconditional love. I felt safe to ponder deep questions. When I was 12, I asked if we could start going to local churches in my hometown of Livermore, California. Soon, we were all baptised, and my experience of God’s love has deepened. The hardest thing in my life so far was my mother’s death from breast cancer 11 years ago.

Today, I try to embrace all people as an extension of my family, with curiosity, interconnectedness, and intrinsic value. So, where others might see the homeless as problems to be solved, I see people to be loved.

Christians have this ability to ask questions and do so in an unafraid way. Evangelical Christianity in the US is perhaps more prominent than in the UK, but I’d ask any Christian: how are you ministering the gospel? We’d all be very well served if we committed for one year to show people our faith instead of telling them. The provocative thing is not the end of that sentence, but the beginning: show people your faith. If you follow Christ and are saved by his grace, how are you showing that?

Hypocrisy and self-righteousness make me angry. I’m happiest when I’m feeling my interconnectedness with people.

The sounds I love are quiet, or anything in nature. For music, I prefer classical or Johnny Cash.

Miracle Messages’ volunteers give me hope for the future. They’re tireless, dedicated, compassionate purveyors of love. They are some of my heroes.

I pray most for my own understanding, being a better person to others and myself, and good health.

If I was locked in a church with any companion, I’d choose my mum, because I miss her so much. Otherwise, Abraham Lincoln. He was President in a perilous moment in our country’s history. He never lost his own humanity, though he was a political leader. People detested him — even people of his own party. People even burnt his effigy. But he kept a sense of humility, humour, perspective, and unwavering faith in the country, despite the bloodshed of the civil war. He preserved the union, worked for the emancipation of slaves, and for reconstruction and reconciliation after the war.

Kevin Adler was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


Watch Kevin Adler’s TED talk at www.kevinfadler.com/speaking

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