|Fr. Emery DesRochers, M.S.|
What does the homeless person have to do with reconciliation? I think we can safely say that the general definition of Christian reconciliation is the bringing of God to human beings as well as bringing humanity back to God. To the homeless person, the caring stranger brings God’s love, God’s abiding presence.
God’s Ongoing Concern for the Poor and Homeless
The Old Testament taught the importance of concern for the poor and the homeless. From Isaiah we hear:
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own (Isaiah 58:6-7).
St. Paul reminds us of the source of his message and mission:
Now I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel preached by me is not of human origin. For I did not receive it from a human being, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ (Gal 1:11-12).
Peter asked that Paul with the help of Barnabas should continue “to be mindful of the poor, which” as
Paul explains, “is the very thing I was eager to do” (Gal. 2:10).
Matthew paints a picture of the last judgment and says:
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me (Mat 25:35-36).
The word “poor” obviously means those suffering from all kinds of poverty: lack of food, shelter, money, health, physical and mental well-being.
Who are these poor and where do we find them? I can only tell you what I’ve seen and experienced. The last twenty years or so, from 1982 to 2004, I have learned about the spiritual and physical effects of poverty and homelessness, the emptiness of lives lived on the streets of our country, mainly in
|Mitch Snyder (1943-1990), an
American advocate for the homeless.
Washington, DC and Boston. It is in these past two decades that I came face to face daily with people’s hunger – physical and spiritual – their loneliness, the paralyzing fear that grips so many men and women, and especially children, in the jungles of our big cities.
The Nation’s Capital—A Mecca for the Homeless
In 1983, after spending 100 days of retreat in the mountains of New Mexico with twenty other priests and brothers, I went to spend the summer serving in Washington, DC with the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV). This was a rather unconventional group – very loosely organized, headed at the time by Mitch Snyder, an ex-convict from the Federal Penitentiary in Danbury, Ct. He would later come to be known by the media as “Mr. Homeless” because of his efforts to help the homeless in Washington, the capital of the richest nation on earth.
During that summer, we spent our days digging around in the dumpsters for the spoiled food which the supermarkets threw out. Each day we visited vegetable distribution centers in Maryland to rescue cases of spoiled fruit or vegetables they couldn't sell. We would then take this garbage back to a church basement or to the condemned house we lived in and salvage anything edible. Our evening soup for that evening consisted of a vat of that chopped, reclaimed food along with one donated chicken. It would be served inside a dirty old garage to the area homeless with week-old bread, donuts or cake. The beverage was tea – our own special recipe consisting of three or four gallons of water flavored with a few tea bags and a couple of pounds of sugar. This we doled out to men who were being kicked around by life, many of them sick, living without hope, oftentimes penniless.
Living With the Poor, Just Like the Poor
During the day we also tried to wash the only clothes they had – the ones on their backs – in our often broken washing machine. We never got all the laundry done! We had a few cold water showers stalls they could use. At night they would disappear. I was told that they spent the evening looking for empty space in condemned buildings, or in winter, fighting over the hot grates on the sidewalks near office buildings. We ourselves had no beds in the old building in which we lived. In fact, it is said that the only reason our building didn't collapse on itself was that it was held up by the two buildings on either side.
One of the projects of the CCNV that summer was a hunger strike in Kansas City, MO. We camped there in little pup tents on a hill in a public park. Ironically we found out that this very park sat over vast limestone caves that were filled with tons of cheese, butter, milk and I don't know what else—which our government spent over a million dollars a month keeping refrigerated! These caves are so vast that three railroad cars abreast could be backed into them. Yet our government could not spare any for the thousands of hungry adults and children in our inner cities.
Many members of our group fasted to make a statement, living on juice and water for more than thirty days. The Secretary of Agriculture finally relented and released a minimal amount of the food from their storehouse. It is so unfortunate that in this wealthy nation our underprivileged children can live without sufficient food and shelter right under the noses of our national legislators.
Later that summer, back home in Massachusetts, I volunteered to work two days a week at Pine Street Inn in the South End of Boston. This needed refuge for the homeless continues its important work to this very day. I worked the other three days at Haley House, a Catholic Worker house like those run by Dorothy Day. I did this for some nine years at Haley House and two years at the Pine Street Inn.
At Haley House – an old beat-up storefront on Dartmouth Street – also in the South End of Boston, two or three of us would start preparing breakfast about 5AM and serve it at 7AM to about 100 men. The men would get a decent free meal of coffee and cereal and sometimes pancakes or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They would then sit around and play cards or talk – and, of course, sometimes get into a brawl.
For lunch around 11AM we’d have prepared a stew, soup, or some shepherd's pie, hot dogs and beans. Often enough the kitchen would run out of food because it had been stolen the night before or because there had been no donations. Then we volunteers would go out and buy whatever the money in our pockets allowed. There was another volunteer worker who helped doing cooking, plumbing, painting and cleaning.
A Priest’s Place is in the Rectory—Or Is It?
|Pine Street Inn, a center for care and training
for the homeless of Boston and beyond
At the Pine Street Inn, I was a priest, a spiritual adviser, a self-styled guidance or addiction counselor, but mostly a sympathetic listener. Often people would ask me what I did there. My answer was that my main job was to listen because people usually don’t take the time to listen to the homeless. In fact, they don't even listen to each other! Their reasoning is: who wants to listen to someone else's troubles anyway?
I listened to them and tried to remind them that God loves them. I tried to be the witness, the proof that God loves them. Frankly, it doesn't sound as though I did very much, does it? But I felt that God was manifesting his love through me. I was trying to be a reconciler for them. Every time I drove to Boston, I would pray that I might see Christ suffering in them and that they might see Christ loving in me.
They were very suspicious of me at first. They have learned well that “On the street nobody trusts anybody!”
At first they had difficulty believing that I was a real priest. According to their way of thinking, “Priests don't hang around with guys like us. They drive around in nice cars, wearing nice suits with shirts with a white plastic collar.” They would ask me, “What's your angle? What's in this for you? How much are they paying you?” Maybe they couldn't figure me out because I was wearing blue jeans and a sweat shirt. Later, however, I did wear my Roman collar.
|Emery DesRochers as a seminarian,
working in the fields.
I begged for clothes for those who arrived dressed in filthy rags; I picked up the drunks who bashed their heads on the concrete as they fell. I defended them to the Police. I pleaded their cause with the staff of the shelter or the soup kitchen. I brought food – despite the fact that it was forbidden – to feed someone who had been barred from the shelter because of a fight or for talking back to a counselor. And so it went, day after day.
We can get discouraged at the enormity of the homeless problem and unfortunately allow ourselves to slip into apathy. But, in fact, we can do a lot to alleviate some of these problems. Poverty is often fueled by the despair of loneliness, by the failure to obtain a job, by the evil of racism or discrimination.
Believe it or not, our seemingly inconsequential gestures of kindness – a thoughtful smile, a welcoming handshake and attentive conversation, perhaps a word of sympathy or encouragement – can do a lot to lift someone’s spirit and renew the ambition of ordinary people who have perhaps given up on life, or lost hope. I've witnessed the fact that a simple gesture can change someone’s life, give them new hope in themselves and their future.
Christ has No Body Now But Yours
|Servers at supper at Boston’s Pine Street Inn|
Like you and me, these needy men and women are God's deeply loved children. God allowed his only Son to sacrifice himself for us all! And, after all, Jesus did come primarily for sinners – and aren’t we all in need of his forgiveness! But we are in such good company. The list of sinners includes the good thief, St. Paul, and St. Augustine. And that is precisely our bond with the needy and homeless –a common need for God’s love and forgiveness.
In their need, we are to stand as God’s presence when they ask: “Where was God...?” or “Where is God now when I need him so much?” As a passage, entitled “Christ Has No Body”, attributed to St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) reminds us:
Christ has no body but yours; No hands, no feet on earth but yours; yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world; yours are the feet with which he walks to do good; yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body… Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
They Are Our Sisters And Brothers
Pine Street Inn and its affiliated shelters fill about 1,500 beds per night, and on many cold and wet nights, an additional hundred people sleep on the floor. These are not “the faceless homeless”; they are real, needy people. It would be good for us to remember that:
• It's a real jungle out there on the streets and the homeless are not always the wild animals;
• Decent jobs are scarce and many have no professional training;
• A person can barely live on the minimum wage as the sole provider;
• Some people lack a decent upbringing, someone to love and accept them;
• Many people have physical and mental disabilities;
• Racism and discrimination are certainly not yet eliminated.
Also we must appreciate fully what it is like:
• not to know each night if you're going find shelter and a bed to sleep in;
• to live in constant fear—day and night—of the person next to you;
• to stand in long lines daily for the essentials of life: food, clothing or medicine, to take a shower.
|Members of job training course at Pine Street Inn|
As the followers of Jesus, it is our vocation and our obligation as believers to lend a helping hand to our needy, suffering sisters and brothers. In my many years of ministry with God’s needy street people and homeless people, I’ve learned that there's really only one answer to the problem of homelessness and poverty: it is love. This means that we are not only called to support them in their physical needs. It also means that when we discuss the topic or meet them on the street, that we relate with them as persons, not as mere statistics or objects of our sympathy. They are God’s children too!
Sharing God’s Reconciling Presence With the Homeless
|St. Vincent de Paul (1581-1660),
Catholic priest who dedicated
himself to serving the poor
As a La Salette Missionary given the mission and charism of reconciliation, I have tried over these many years in my work with the homeless to seek out and serve these alienated people who too often roam the streets of Boston and Washington, DC.
I would like to leave you with this marvelous quote from St. Vincent de Paul, which never fails to move me. I believe it is from a conference he gave to the Order of Sisters he founded. It speaks of the attitudes necessary in working with the poor and disadvantaged people who seem to be everywhere. It summarizes what I strongly believe and have tried to live out in my twenty-plus years of working with the homeless, trying to be God’s reconciling presence to them whenever I was called to serve them.
“You will find that charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the bowl of soup and the full basket. But you will keep your gentleness and your smile. It is not enough to give bread and soup. This the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor, always smiling, and always good humored. They are your masters—terribly sensitive and exacting masters, you will see. The more difficult they will be, the more unjust and insulting, the more love you must give them. It is for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give them.”
A collage featuring job trainees, volunteers and guests at Pine Street Inn