(and assorted essays, stories, quotations, etc.)
Table of Contents:
- Quote # 1: ......................................... from, The UMC Book of Resolutions (1996)
- Theological Reflection # 1: .................. Incident at St. Francis House
- Theological Reflection # 2: .................. What Homeless People Really Need
- Theological Reflection # 3: .................. A Plea For a Fair Hearing
- Theological Reflection # 4: .................. The Church As Refuge
- Theological Reflection # 5: .................. Lost and Found
Quote # 1
"The homeless are most assuredly the people of God -- the people of God who call the church to both repentance and action. The homeless are our neighbors, living in closer proximity to our church buildings than many of our members."
Among the "actions commended to annual conferences and local churches" is: "development of unused and underutilized church land and building space for housing [ i.e., for refuge / shelter / sanctuary ]."
--- from, The United Methodist Church's Book of Resolutions (1996).
For, "The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble."
--- Psalm 9: 9
Theological Reflection # 1 :
Incident at St. Francis House
I had been homeless -- that is, living on the streets of Boston -- for just about one month, by this time. I was not yet "used to" the "routine" of "being homeless"; that is, it was still all-so-new to me, and much harder and much more dangerous than I thought it would be. I was still learning how to survive, still learning how "the system" works (or, I should say, how "the system" doesn't work).
I was heading over to St. Francis House, this morning, to get something to eat and to have a cup of coffee. I looked at my watch and realized that I might not get there before nine o'clock, which is when they stop serving "breakfast". So, I started running.
Now, the way our society works (at this time in history), a homeless person can hardly help but feel some degree of shame for "being homeless" -- even if you're homeless through no fault of your own; just the expressions that you see on the faces of your fellow-human beings, as you pass them on the street, is enough to give you a sharp sense of shame. You try not to let it get to you, but sometimes it does. I remember thinking that -- in the eyes of my fellow-human beings -- I may have looked like a character out of a Dickens novel, especially being so hunched over under the weight of three heavy, overstuffed backpacks. I have found it difficult to look people in the eyes. Most of the time, I avoid making eye contact. It's not something I do deliberately, it just happens -- something that I've noticed about myself. Others have noticed it, too. As I see it, it's not due to any feelings of shame in me, for myself (or, of myself) -- for, I know that I have done nothing for which I should feel any shame about my "being homeless" ( i.e., I neither caused it, nor failed to prevent it from happening) -- rather, the shame that I feel is that which I sense coming from the on-lookers, for, I'm left to wonder, "How can this country -- 'the richest in the world' -- allow any of it's citizens to become homeless, in the first place?" I, especially, feel the shame of so many of my fellow-Christians -- as well as all kinds of other, "well-intentioned", "people-of-good-will", of other faiths and professions (and, when I say "professions", I especially mean "the helping professions"/"the health professionals": i.e., social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, even the clergy) -- so many of whom seem to be of the opinion that the homeless are to blame for their own state (or, predicament) of "being homeless". Of my fellow-Christians, I sometimes feel like asking them the same question that I've seen on this poster that I came across recently which depicts a close-up shot of a drawing of Jesus at the bottom of which reads (the question): "How can you worship a homeless man on Sunday, and ignore one on Monday?" I wonder (and I worry) if my homelessness puts them to shame. Well, to some of these on-lookers, this morning, I must have looked ridiculous, if not shocking in appearance. And, now, the sight of such a person, so heavy-laden, running through the streets of Boston, during morning rush hour, must have evoked a wide range of reactions from the on-lookers: the more hardened of hearts may have found the sight comical and laughed at me, while others may have found the sight pitiful and prayed that "There, but for the grace of God, go I." But, that day, I wasn't really concerned about how I looked to other people (at least, that was not foremost in my mind); I was just concentrating on getting to St. Francis House before nine o'clock, as I was hungry.
You can imagine how happy I was, then, to have arrived with a full six minutes to spare; but -- to my surprise -- I was not allowed into the dining area, as I was told, "You're too late; the kitchen is closed." I just stood there for a few seconds, speechless, before I calmly said: "But, the kitchen is open until nine o'clock. There are still six minutes left to get something to eat."
At that, one of the security guards stepped up to me and sternly said, "What did I just tell you? I said: the kitchen is CLOSED ! You are TOO LATE ! You have to LEAVE, now! You can come back in two hours when we will be serving lunch!"
Stunned by his outrageous attitude and his unprovoked hostility toward me, I started thinking, "This is crazy! What is this guy's problem? Apparently, no one has told him that this is St. Francis House. He must not know who St. Francis of Assisi was. He must not know that this is a Christian place, founded by the Franciscan order of priests whose 'specialty' is serving the needs of God's poor, the least of Christ's brothers and sisters." So, I stood there and, calmly, re-stated, "The kitchen is open until nine o'clock, and it is not yet nine o'clock."
Suddenly, two other security guards approached me in a menacing way (that is to say, in a way that is "consistent with police intimidation tactics") and I was suddenly being barked at, from all sides: "HEY ! This is NOT a DEBATE !", one of them said. "I TOLD you, we are NOW CLOSED !", another said. "END OF DISCUSSION ! Now, LEAVE !"
While all this was going on, you can't help but hear that distinctive sound of walkie-talkies in operation (you know, that static noise, mixed with garbled speech); you can't help but notice the surveillance cameras aimed at you from the shadows in the corners of the room, and you can't help but catch a glimpse of your own image, in black-and-white, appear on the closed-circuit TV monitors; you can't help but get the sense that your every move is being observed, scrutinized, video-taped, etc; you feel the room becoming more crowded as other members of the staff enter (like, "reserve troops" coming to assist their fellow-staff people and security guards if they hear anything like "a commotion" get started, never mind the fact that they're the ones who have started it ! ); the entire atmosphere is one of oppression and intimidation, force and threats-of-force, in other words, it is anything but Christian !
What there is, here at St. Francis House, is not "the Love of Christ" (Caritas Christi), it is not "the Peace of Christ" (Pax Christi), it is not "the Justice of Christ" (Iustitia Christi), it is not "the unconditional, non-violent, non-coercive, loving, Way of Jesus' Gospel Teachings of Holiness / Righteousness / Justice" (Agape/ CaritasSacraViaChristi [?]). On the contrary, what it is that the poor and the oppressed are being subjected to, here at St. Francis House, is "the Crucifixion of Christ" / "the Cross of Christ" (Crux Christi), which is an outrageous reversal of what it is supposed to be, it is a complete-and-total betrayal of trust ! For, any place that calls itself Catholic (or, Christian), any place place that bears the name of a saint (such as the gentle, non-violent, loving St. Francis of Assisi), is suposed to be a refuge, a sanctuary, a safe place (of peace, love, rest, hospitality, kindness, compassion, mercy and justice -- especially for poor people). A poor person should be able to come here and find "the loving embrace of Jesus", not "the kiss of Judas" ! The poor should be able to find the compassionate, care-and-concern of a community of Christians; not the menacing presence of police and security guards ready to pounce on you for the slightest (mis-)perceived infraction of their oppressively-numerous and scrupulously-applied rules-and-regulations, that are designed to make grown men and women feel as if they are children (in constant need of being told how to behave properly). Jesus often had to deal with large crowds of people -- among whom included poor people, sick people, disturbed people, desperate people, disgruntled people, dangerous people -- and not once is there any mention (in the Gospel) of Jesus making use of the secular, state/city authorities' "law enforcement agents" ( i.e., the police, the soldiers, the men skilled in the arts of warfare/violence/crowd-control) in order to "keep the peace", and/or to "restore law and order". That is not the Way of Christ. Nor should it be the way, at St. Francis House; but -- sadly / tragically / scandalously -- that is exactly how it is. It is absolutely and utterly outrageous, and it is all-pervasive (it's not just in the entranceway to the building, but everywhere.)
-- Matthew Works (c)1997; June 25th,1997
Theological Reflection # 2 :
What Homeless People Really Need
(Written between July and October, 1998)
(c) 1998 Matthew Works
In my humble opinion -- as one who has been experiencing several levels of homelessness for the past several years, now -- what homeless people need, more than anything else, from anyone who would be moved to help them (or, from anyone who would respond to Christ's call to help them), what homeless people really need, or hunger-for, is not-so-much food, but your time spent listening to them.
As I've gotten to know myself better, as "a homeless person"; and, as I've gotten to know God/Jesus better, as "a homeless person"; and, as I've gotten to know my fellow-homeless brothers-and-sisters better (over the past several years); I have learned that all of us, but especially the homeless, are filled with words -- filled to the brim, and then some.
When you see a homeless person talking to himself/herself, what you are seeing is a human being who is, literally, overflowing with words. When the flow of words is not received into human-ears-that-hear, they will bleed out of the person and, eventually, they will start to coagulate, as blood does -- words being the lifeblood of human communication and interaction.
After being "allowed" to coagulate, by this too-often uncaring society in which we live today, a scab will form, which, in turn, will become a scar. In such cases, the flow of words has, thus, become blocked. The human being, then, tragically, becomes silent -- or, rather, the human being has, then, scandalously been silenced -- and, at that point, the Holy Spirit has been stifled in that person, and all the world suffers each time that occurs. St. Paul warned the Church against this: "do not stifle the spirit", he said (1 Thess. 5:19). That's another way of saying: "You must listen to each other. Give everyone a chance to speak. Give ear to each other's words; to each other's concerns; be attentive to each other's needs; do not dismiss anyone as insignificant, unimportant, or unworthy of voicing whatever is on their mind or in their heart. Give everyone a chance to put their 'two cents' into every discussion. Then -- even, perhaps, only then -- the Holy Spirit will blow through the community like a rush of wind, and great things will be able to occur."
The homeless have so very much to say; but, then, this should not surprise us, for Jesus was homeless, and He, too, had so very much to say to us! Perhaps, Jesus was the great storyteller that He was, in part, because of his experience of being homeless.
Every homeless person has a great story to tell; often, it is an "amazing story", an epic story -- an "Iliad" and an "Odyssey" -- indeed, a "gospel" story; that is to say, one's own story of how one has experienced God, how God has worked in one's own remarkable life-journey.
I believe that there is a whole other side to Jesus's interpretation of the Old Testament words, "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matt.4:3-5); that is to say, with Jesus, with the Incarnation of God / Emmanuel / God-with-us, we, ourselves -- now, from here-on-in -- are "the mouth of God", "the mouthpieces of God".
Just as we are all priests -- as in, "the priesthood of all believers" -- so too, we are all prophets (that is, spokespersons for God, mouthpieces of God) -- as in, "the prophethood of all believers". And, even though we are all priests, though not everyone is necessarily called to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders, so too, we are all prophets, though not everyone necessarily ends-up receiving the spiritual gift, the spiritual charism, of prophecy. But, even so, each of us is a prophet, a spokesperson for God, a mouthpiece of God -- the only question being, What kind of a prophet will each of us prove to be, by the time our life here on Earth has been lived out? Will people be able to look back on our life and say of us: "He (or, She) was a true prophet?", or "He (or, She) was a false prophet?"; "He (or, She) spoke words that have proved to be true, or false; that have proved to be consistent with the Gospel teachings of Christ, or inconsistent with the Gospel teachings of Christ?"
So, when Jesus says, "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God", He is saying that, while food is important, even more important than food, even more important than physical nourishment, is the spiritually nutrient-rich activity of speaking to each other, the spiritually nutrient-rich activity of sharing with one another our "gospel" stories; our personal testimonies, our personal experiences with God. That is true communion, true communication, true community -- and that requires that we first listen to each other, carefully, attentively, intently. As Henry David Thoreau once said, "It takes two to speak the truth: one to speak, and another to hear."
In that beautiful scene (in the Gospel According to Luke 10:38-42) when Martha has welcomed Jesus into her home, Jesus states: "Only one thing is needed." And, to her surprise, it is not the food that she is busying-herself with preparing for her guest; no, what is needed is that which her sister, Mary, has chosen: simply to listen to what Jesus -- a homeless man! -- has to say; to listen to His words, His stories, His testimony, His parables, His wisdom, His teachings, His experiences. Who really cares to listen to a homeless person -- the way they tend to ramble on-and-on, or rant-and-rave? Well, that day, Mary did! And Jesus loved it, and loved her for it, for the attention she showed Him, as He said, "Mary has chosen the better part, and she will not be deprived of it." I can't help but think that, years later, it was Mary who had people sitting at her feet, listening to her tell, and re-tell, the story of when Jesus came to her house and affirmed her radical act of foregoing the traditional understanding of work/worship (avoda) assigned to women (that is, housework, preparing meals for guests) for something better: simply sitting and listening to a fellow human being's words, ideas, stories. I wonder if Henry David Thoreau had this passage in mind when he wrote: "Our lives are frittered away by detail [read: meaningless work ?]. Simplify, simplify!", that is, just sit and listen to everything in God's creation -- all of Nature as well as all of Scripture.
What is the point, though; what is the aim; of listening to a fellow human being (particularly, one who is especially needy, or considerably-more-needy than one's self)? Is it merely to get to know one another better? Or, is it that, by way of getting to know one another better, we end up getting to know one's self, and/or even God better? While all that, I believe, is certainly true, what ends up happening is, you get to know your fellow human being's story of how he/she got to the point of being so needy in the first place. And, while it may sometimes be that that person has "no one to blame but himself/herself (for his/her predicament)", far more often than not the poor / the needy / the oppressed-person has become needy because of injustice(s) committed against him/her by others, and/or by "the system". And, if you are a follower of Christ, a follower of Jesus' Gospel Life and Teachings, you will eventually / inevitably begin to see the needy more-and-more with compassion; and you will be moved, by the Holy Spirit, to speak-up, not only for them, but for yourself as well, as you will find yourself beginning to suffer along with them -- which, of course, is the definition of the word, "com-passion" [ to suffer with ] -- you will find yourself beginning to speak-up as an advocate; that is to say, the Holy Spirit -- who is called "the Advocate" by Jesus -- will move you to speak-up as an advocate, for the needy / the poor / the oppressed (as well as for yourself). You truly become the mouthpiece of God, the mouthpiece of the Advocate: "Do not worry about what you are to say beforehand, but say whatever is given you in that hour. For, at that moment, it will not be you speaking, but the Holy Spirit speaking through you" (Mark 13:11). This verse of scripture, however, begins with the phrase: "When they arrest you and bring you to trial (do not worry about what you are to say beforehand ... )", which implies that this kind of listening, this kind of activity (of speaking-up-as-an-advocate for the poor / the oppressed / the needy) is something that may very-well land you in trouble with the authorities! And, of course, this is precisely what happened to Jesus, and to the Apostles, and to so many of the saints and martyrs, down through the centuries. More recently, it happened to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (in the 1930s and 40s), it happened to Rosa Parks (in 1955), it happened to Martin Luther King, Jr. (in 1956). Yes, this activity of listening -- and, seeing one another -- with compassion, as Christ would have us (His followers) do, is radical stuff. And, it is transforming. Once you start listening to the poor, the oppressed, the needy -- once you really start getting to know them, more-and-more personally -- they cease to be "strangers", "aliens", "those people", and, instead, you begin to see the profound truth of the matter: that they are our brothers and sisters whom we must help, not with mere "band-aids", but with substantial, Christ-inspired acts of justice.
Theological Reflection # 3 :
A Plea For a Fair Hearing
I am writing this in the hope of receiving a fair hearing.
Allow me to explain to you just-what I mean by this.
As anyone who has ever experienced being homeless (firsthand) can tell you, it is not easy to find someone, today, who will listen ( especially, someone who will listen to a homeless man ) --- I mean, really-and-truly listen --- and, it is even more difficult to find someone who has "ears that hear" ( as the biblical phrase goes, in Matt.13:16 ). In fact, in my experience --- and, I must add, I've heard similar comments from countless other homeless individuals, over the years --- among the very-worst listeners are the so-called "professional listeners", those of the so-called "helping professions", the "health professionals" ( that is to say, doctors and nurses, social workers and "counselors", psychologists and psychiatrists ); but, worst-of-all, is the sad fact that this is true, today, even of the vast majority of the clergy !
None of these "professionals", none of "those who get paid to listen to people", really knows how to listen ! Indeed, listening is an art; but --- just like the field of medicine --- it ( gradually, over time ) ended-up becoming "a science" ( i.e., it became "clinical", "antiseptic", "sterile" ); and, then, it became "a business" ( i.e., it became influenced by questionable business practices, greed and corruption ); and, today, it is "big business" ! And, if you are poor, if you are homeless, you are simply not going to be listened-to, as there is "nothing in it for the professionals", there is "no incentive" for them to pay-any-attention-to, or to attend-to-the-needs-of, the impoverished-poor, the homeless-poor.
To "the professionals", the poor are expendable; to "the professionals", paying attention to the needs of the poor is all just a waste of their "valuable time"; and --- as "the professionals" have learned so well --- time equals money ! They are "in business" to "make money"; and --- in the "business world" / in the "professional world" --- time is "of the essence" ! And, so, money has become their "essence", the "be all and end all" of their lives, their "object of worship" ! Albert Einstein once observed that "the trouble with American universities is that they are dominated by businessmen" !
Well, the same can be said, today, of American hospitals, the courts, the social services systems --- and ( sadly ), even the churches ! The trouble with American hospitals / courts / social services / churches, is that they are dominated by businessmen ! Even as early as the fourth century CE, St. Jerome was warning his parishioners of this very danger :
"Avoid like the plague", he said, "any clergyman who is also a businessman" !
Some of us (myself included) are old enough to remember the days when doctors would make house calls ! Remember that ? Remember those days ? That was back when being a doctor was not-so-much "a business profession" as it was a vocation ! It was a calling ! Just as the priesthood used to be more of a vocation (a calling, from God)! But, somewhere down through history, the Church's clergy-leadership, the administrators of the Church, seem to have lost sight of what the Church is. They seem to have forgotten their Latin ! It's not "Corporationem Christi" --- it's not "the Corporation of Christ"; it's "Corpus Christi" --- it's "the Body of Christ !!! The Church is not a corporation, it's not a business ! It's a body --- a living body --- the Body of Christ, here on Earth, today ! And, bishops are not supposed to be CEOs of a corporation, but shepherds / pastors, tending to the needs of their flock --- especially, the needs of the impoverished-poor members, the outcasts, the marginalized, the oppressed, the needy members, the least of Christ's brothers-and-sisters, "those members of the body that seem to be weaker" ( which, as St. Paul said, "are indispensible" ! [1Cor.12:22].)
Of course the Church has "business considerations" which need to be addressed, but never at the expense of the most-basic human needs of sustenance of the least members, the needy members --- basic needs such as refuge / shelter / sanctuary ! Not to mention, compassion / human kindness / mercy-and-justice / dignity-and-respect / a little space, and some privacy (etc.) !
Theological Reflection # 4 :
The Church As Refuge
After approximately five decades of praying the Scriptures, meditating on them, "wrestling over what they mean" --- not to mention the numerous, wonderful bible studies and prayer meetings which I have attended and actively participated in, over the course of many years --- and, finally, after approximately twelve years of experiencing homelessness firsthand, I have come to believe the following ...
The Church is --- or, at the very least, it is supposed-to-be, it is meant-to-be, it is intended-to-be (indeed, it is here on Earth for-the-purpose-of-being) --- a refuge, a shelter, a sanctuary; a place that provides refuge / shelter / sanctuary. For, just as this world can be likened to a desert (i.e., a harsh, hostile and often violent place), so the church, then, is supposed-to-be (like) an oasis (i.e., a life-saving place where one should be able to expect to find hospitality --- i.e., refuge, shelter, safety, protection, as well as some food, water, and rest ) and, therefore, the church is supposed-to-be, it is meant-to-be, it has been "instituted"-to-be, a place that is OPEN (not locked up ! ), open TO ALL (all, without exception ! ), open ALL THE TIME (24 hours a day, 7 days a week ! ), open ESPECIALLY "in times of trouble", and open ESPECIALLY FOR the poor / the oppressed / the needy / the stranger / the marginalized / the outcasts / the homeless ! For, "the Lord IS a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble" (Ps. 9:9). And, where is the Lord to be found, here on Earth, today, if not in the church, in "the Body of Christ on Earth", in "the house of the Lord" ?
For, this is where it all begins --- i.e., learning to put our faith into action ! This is the starting point of mitzvah / tzedek / agape / caritas Christi / God's Love ! This is where all-who-believe-in-God begin to learn how to love God, to love one another, to love one's neighbor (as one's self), to love "the stranger in our midst" (i.e., "the other").
Without first offering / providing / practicing refuge / shelter / sanctuary (a.k.a., "radical hospitality"), any "act of love" risks being an act of hypocrisy, a sort of lie, a deception, a hollow / shallow act born out of self-worship.
You've heard it said that "the church is not a building; rather, it is the people"; well, that's not quite the whole truth of the matter. (There is some truth in those words, but only to a degree. It's really not as simplistic as that.) The Greek word for "church" is "ekklesia", not "demos". ("Demos" is the Greek word for "people", as in the word "democracy".) "Ekklesia" does not translate as "the people"; rather, it translates as "the gathering of the people", or "the assembly of the people"; and, this comes from the more specific and literal term, "called out"; that is to say, it really means "the gathering of the people (who have been) called out (by God)" --- i.e., "called out of one's comfort zone" (so to speak); "called out of the darkness of the ways of this world and into the light of God, into the light of Christ"; called out to be true stewards of God's gifts, true servant-leaders of the people, and true advocates especially for and with the poor / the oppressed / the needy / the stranger / the marginalized / the outcasts / the homeless; called out (by God) to be followers of Christ (and His Gospel teachings); called out to be followers of 'the Annointed One' who is 'the Suffering Servant' who is 'the personification of the compassionate love of God'; called out to be willing to 'suffer with' (i.e., 'com-passio'), to be in solidarity with, the poor / the oppressed / the needy / the stranger / the marginalized / the outcasts / the homeless (with this suffering coming as a result of one's advocacy for them; that is to say, for being the eyes, the feet, the hands of "the Advocate" / of God / of Christ; as St. Teresa of Avila said, "Christ has no body on earth, now, but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes with which Christ's compassion is to look out on the world; yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good; yours are the hands with which he is to bless us, now."
Jesus is the incarnation of God, the personification of God, the embodiment of God. In order for God to be truly present, here "with us" ("Emmanuel"), here at work in this world, God needed to be incarnated, embodied, "housed in" a body, in the person of Jesus. So, just as God / the Holy Spirit / the Advocate needs a body, a "house'; so also "the gathering of the people called out by God" also needs a "house", a "structure", a "building". You can't have one without the other. They're like two sides of the same coin. Whenever people "gather" (especially, on a regular basis --- like every Sunday, for instance), they always seek "shelter from the elements"; so, the first thing that any "gathering of people" will do is, they will find (and/or, eventually, build) themselves a place of refuge / shelter / sanctuary.
In the earliest days of the church, Christians "gathered" sometimes in the Temple (in Jerusalem), and, eventually, in one another's homes ! That is to say, in the earliest days of the church, "the gathering of the people called out by God" would gather indoors ( ! ), inside of buildings ( ! ), inside of places that would provide the people with refuge / shelter / sanctuary ! This practice of gathering in one another's homes came to be known as "the house church" ! Later (in Rome), they were known to have "gathered' in the catacombs --- i.e., once again, these were places of refuge, places that provided the people with refuge / shelter / sanctuary / safety-and-protection (from danger and distress) !
St. Peter went on to write about how we are like "living stones" (1Pt. 2:5) to "be built into a spiritual house" ("the house of the Lord"). Each of us is like "a living stone", and, when "gathered together", we form a building, a stucture (i.e., God's house, "the house of the Lord"). St. Paul expresses this as explicitly as it can be expressed, "You are ... God's building" (1Cor.3:9).
Also, on St. Paul's missionary journeys, not only was he out there planting / building, churches (i.e., "gatherings of people called out by God"); but, he also worked as a tent-maker ! That is, he made little, portable refuges / shelters / tents ! Imagine some of these tents being of a size in which anywhere from two to five people could fit; and, now, recall Jesus' words, "Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in your midst." Once again, the people "gathered" together indoors, inside of some place of refuge: i.e., inside one another's homes; in caves; inside some kind of protective covering such as a tent; inside something that would provide the people with some shelter; inside some kind of a structure; inside some kind of a building ! "You are ... God's building" (1Cor.3:9) !
So, rather than spreading the false / mis-leading / inaccurate statement: "The church is not 'a building', but 'the people' "; we would do much better to speak the profound truth of the matter, which is, this:
"The church is not --- nor was it ever intended to be --- an EMPTY building,
one that is locked up and unused so much of the time throughout each week;
and, neither is the church the people left outside ('out in the cold', 'exposed
to the elements', un-sheltered and vulnerable to attack and other life-threatening
dangers); rather, the church is: the gathering of the people called out by God to
love one another as Christ has loved us, which --- from the earliest days of the
church --- has always meant, first-and-foremost, offering (one another),
providing (one another), and practicing (on one another),
which means, inviting and welcoming one another indoors, inside, into a
place of refuge / shelter / sanctuary --- ESPECIALLY, the poor / the oppressed /
the needy / the stranger / the marginalized / the outcast / the homeless ! "
Addendum (Jan. 3rd, 2012): In the Greek New Testament, the word "paroika" means
"temporary residence". (It's from the Greek word for "stranger" -- "paroikos".) Early
Christians used this designation for their colonies [ i.e., their communities of faith, their
churches, their church parishes ] because they considered heaven their real home. But,
temporary or not, these Christian colonies became more organized as time went on.
Thus, in Late Latin, "paroika" became the designation for a group of Christians in a
given area under the leadership of one pastor -- what we came to call a "parish" in the
14th century. Both "parish" and it's related adjective "parochial" were borrowed at that
time directly from Middle French terms that had been derived from the Late Latin. We
didn't begin to use "parochial" in its "narrow" sense until the mid-19th century.
--- from the MerriamWebster's Online Dictionary
"Word of the Day" for Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012.
Theological Reflection # 5
Lost and Found
(c) 2003 matthewworks
On Sunday, June 29, 2003, at approximately 5:00 PM, I got up from my seat on one of the trolleycars of Boston's MBTA subway system ( "the T", as it's called ). I gathered-up my usual belongings ( that is to say, my backpack, as well as several other bags which I'm always carrying-around with me ), and I turned to walk toward the door. ( I had been riding on the Green Line, the "C" Train, Outbound, to "Cleveland Circle", which is not too far from Boston College ). As I was walking down the aisle, to get to the middle door of the trolleycar, so as to exit the train, I noticed a wallet ( ! ), on an empty seat, nearby. I picked up the wallet, and hopped off the train. ( Years ago, I would have walked to the front of the train-car and given the wallet to the conductor, but, I have since lost some things on the T and, despite my checking with the "lost and found" department, I never got the items back, so, I thought I would, first, make an attempt to return the wallet, myself.)
Once off the train, I opened-up the wallet and found that there were four dollars in it --- plus, about fifteen "credit cards" ( that is to say, plastic cards, of all kinds; some of which were credit cards : there was a "gold card", a hotel card, an airline card, a video-store card, a health-fitness-club card, etc.) ! I started going through all these cards in search of a phone number, or an address, so as to be able to contact the owner and get the wallet returned.
As I went through the cards, this is what I found :
1.) an out-of-state driver's license, from the state of ... New Jersey ( i.e., the
same state in which I was born-and-raised, "a lifetime ago" now );
2.) ( I found that ) the name on the driver's license ( and, thus, the owner of
the wallet ) was that of a 24-year-old woman whose first name is Angela
( and, judging from her last name, she is at least partly of Italian
background, as am I );
3.) a student i.d. card ( actually, an alumni card ), from one of the local
colleges in the Boston / Cambridge area, which indicated that she
graduated with the Class of 2000 ( again, this indicated to me that
Angela is 24 years of age going on 25, which is roughly how old I was
when I moved to Boston );
4.) a St. Christopher prayer-card ( found near the back of the wallet ),
indicating that Angela was, likely, born-and-raised in a Roman Catholic
household ( as was I ).
Literally the last card that I pulled out of the wallet turned out to be a business card, with Angela's name on it, as well as the address and phone number of her place of work; but, since this was a Sunday evening, I thought there'd be no point in my calling until the following morning. So, I put the wallet in my coat pocket, and didn't think about it again throughout the rest of the night.
When Monday morning arrived, I had almost forgotten all about the wallet; but, around 10:30 AM, I remembered, and so, I went to a pay phone, and, using a phone card, I placed the call. Some man answered the phone. I asked for Angela. He said, "May I ask who's calling ?"
"Oh, she doesn't know me", I said, "I'm just some guy who was on the T, yesterday, and I found her wallet".
"Oh ! Well, she would definitely want to speak with you. Hold on, a second, while I connect you".
Well, either the phone card that I was using ran out of time ( !? ), or, somehow, in transferring me to another line, we got disconnected; and, I didn't have exact change to call back, right away, on the pay phone that I was using ! So, I went to a nearby coffee shop to break a dollar, but the guy behind the counter said, "You're gonna have to make a purchase, sir". ( !!?!? ) Actually, I wasn't totally surprised by that; as, sometimes --- if I haven't had a chance to shave when I wake up in the morning, and if my clothes are looking particularly wrinkled, and people notice the amount of stuff I'm carrying-around with me --- some people will deliberately try-and-give-me a hard time, just-so-as to trip-me-up or slow-me-down, just for spite. Sometimes, that can be a particularly painful experience; and, then, there are other times when it can seem almost like "a blessing in disguise", as life today is just-too- fast-paced to complain every single time somebody causes you a delay; so, without complaint, I bought myself a small cup of coffee, and I sat down at a table. As I started sipping my coffee, "the gears of my mind" started spinning, as I began to reflect-upon the entire situation.
My first thought was : Well, I now know where Angela works. I could go over there, right now, and, simply, deliver the wallet, in --- for instance --- a manila envelope ( with Angela's name on it ), giving it to that guy ( that "receptionist" ? ) who had answered the phone. He might think that I looked rather strange, wearing an overstuffed backpack on my back, a heavy shoulder bag slung over my shoulder, and an even heavier-looking canvas tote-bag in my hand, but I don't think he would comment about my appearance. I would, then, leave. Angela would have her wallet back. She might ask a question or two about me, but, what would the guy say ? "Oh, some strange-looking guy, carrying a lot of heavy-looking bags, dropped it off. He didn't stick-around long-enough for me to get his name. Sorry, Angela." End of story.
Then, I thought : " But, is that the end of the story ? Does that have-to-be the way the story ends ?" I didn't quite know how, but, somehow, I just-knew that there was something else, here. A different ending. A better ending. An ending that only I could bring forth, or create --- or, mould / shape / sculpt ( as an artist !? ), as I was the one who happened to "see" something here --- the possibility of a better ending, an ending that could "do justice" to "the situation" that I and Angela were in, that thousands of other people are in, as well. In some sense, I felt like Michelangelo, staring at a block of marble, and thinking to himself, "Somewhere, inside here, is my Moses ! I just have to chisel-away at this outer casing --- and free him ! And, by doing so, all the world can, then, benefit from this ' work-of-art ', as others, then, will be able to see --- what-it-is that I am seeing, here --- that this is not merely some ugly block of marble; that this is, in fact, much more than that, an artistic representation of ' Moses ' ( or, ' David ', or, ' The Pieta ' ) !" In other words, I was looking at the situation as an artist; and, it involved "seeing" some kind of "vision" --- which was "materializing" before me, slowly. It wasn't even very clear, at first. It was, in fact, blurry / out-of-focus. The medium wasn't marble, nor was it paint, nor was it clay. It was ... a situation, a real situation ! It was ... a story, a true story ! A story that had, as yet, no ending ! But it almost had ended ! It just-so-happened that I had caught it --- just in time. In time to stare at it intensely, to reflect on it, to "ponder" it, for a long-enough period of time as to be able to see something beautiful in it, something true, something universal, something that could "do justice", not just for myself, but for countless others, as well.
As I sat there, drinking my coffee, I thought to myself : I'm homeless, yes --- but, I'm not simply homeless ! For years now, I have been speaking-out, as best I can, against the injustice and the scandal that this growing problem of homelessness is; and, as a result, I have become the most articulate person that I know, when it comes to this subject of homelessness ! I speak about it, I speak of it; I speak of its causes, and of its solutions --- and I do so with a passion, and with authority ! I speak of homelessness from my own, firsthand experiences with it; and, I also write about it; and --- when words alone don't seem to be enough --- then, I make things, i.e., works of art !, images !, to help illustrate what-it-is that I'm trying to say. These works of art, over the years, have been of enough quality that, today, more-and-more people are calling me an artist. I am, also, being called a writer, a poet, a prophet, a priest, a theologian, a teacher, a social worker, an activist, and a reformer !
So, I thought to myself :
"If anyone is in a position to turn this 'otherwise ordinary situation' ( i.e., this
situation of having found someone's lost wallet, and trying to get it returned to
its owner ) into 'something more' ( that is to say, into 'an experience', one that
can be 'shared' ! --- and, shared in such a way as to be 'memorable' !, resulting
in 'a kind of lesson' [about life, and about people], 'a lesson that could,
possibly, set-in-motion something-like "a ripple-effect", one from which
countless people will be able to benefit, and learn something, to learn
something important, something that may help to change the way people think,
something that may help to change the world for the better' ); if anyone is in
such a position ( to set all this in motion ) --- it is I. But, how ? How, exactly,
do I do this ?"
Well, the first thing I did, I started thinking about how much Angela and I seemed to have in common ( based on all that information that I had learned about her, from all those plastic cards in her wallet ), and, so, I thought : If Angela is anything like the kind of person that I was ( when I was her age ) --- and there is plenty of reason to think that this may well be the case ( based on all those similarities in our background ) --- then, she may very-well have all sorts of misconceptions in her head regarding "homeless people" ! ( As I certainly did, when I was her age ! ) Thus, it may even "freak her out" ( so to speak ), if I were to just-show-up, at her place of work --- especially, if she is able to tell, based on my appearance, that I am homeless.
So, I thought : Rather than just-showing-up at the place where Angela works, what if I were to drop her wallet off at some other location --- someplace neutral, someplace where she would likely feel safe ( a place that would be at-least-somewhat familiar to her ). I'll drop her wallet off, there; and, then, she can always go, later on ( at her convenience ), to pick it up, herself. But, what place would that be ?
Well, once again, I thought of all those plastic cards in her wallet, and the ones that struck me the most were that St. Christopher prayer-card ( which made me think: "church" ), and her alumni card ( which made me think : "college" ). I put these two together, and thought of a church, on a college campus --- that is to say, a chapel !
"And, where there's a chapel", I thought to myself, "there ought to be a chaplain ! --- someone who ought to be open-minded enough to be able to listen, and to be able to hear, and to be able to understand, and, finally, to be able to help."
So, that is what I did. I went to Angela's alma mater, and I found a chaplain --- a very nice woman --- who, upon meeting with her, and explaining to her all that had happened up to this point, understood the situation perfectly ( ! ), whereupon she went inside to her office and placed a call to Angela. [ I must say, here --- this chaplain did her job well. Another might have left the room and, immediately, place a call to the campus police, so as to escort me from campus ! Or --- even worse --- suspecting ( perhaps ) that I may not have actually "found " the wallet ( as I had stated ), but, instead, had actually stolen it ( which, of course, was not-at-all the case ), another chaplain might have called the cops and had me placed under arrest and charged with theft ! ]
While I waited in the reception room, I wrote a short note to Angela explaining how I had gotten disconnected from that phone-call that I had made to her office earlier, and I put the note in her wallet.
Moments later, the chaplain stepped back into the reception room, and said, "I just spoke with Angela. She'll be here, first thing tomorrow morning, to pick up her wallet."
As I was getting ready to leave, I said to the chaplain : "Just one more thing --- if, by any chance, Angela is curious as to just-who-it-was who found her wallet, and brought-it-over here, in tact ( that is to say, with nothing missing, or tampered-with ), let her know, simply, that ... it was some homeless guy !"
"Alright", the chaplain said, with a smile that seemed to indicate to me that she knew that I was up-to-something --- and half-suspected what-it-was --- but, wasn't quite sure just-how this was all going to end. What she didn't know was that I too really had no idea what might happen, nor how any of this was going to end. In a sense, I really wasn't so much a sculptor who had chiseled-away at some block of marble; but, rather, I was more like a cinematographer who had carefully set up a scene before a camera, but I had no idea what might actually occur once the Director would yell, "Action !"
A little more than one week passed before it occurred to me : "Whatever happened about that situation concerning Angela, her wallet, and that chaplain ?" And, so, I went back to the chapel to see what, if anything, may have "developed".
When I arrived, I found that there were two envelopes, with my name written on them, just-waiting for me, at the main office ( just-in-case I had gotten curious and had returned.)
"Oh, hi ! You're back !", a work-study student who had recognized me from my previous visit said to me. "Here, these are for you." She handed me the two envelopes.
I went to the reception room, by myself, and I sat down. The first envelope that I opened was from the chaplain.
Inside of a blank card she had written the following :
7 -- 3 -- 03
Thanks for letting me share in the exchange between you and Angela. It is
my honor to be able to help "expedite" the workings of the Spirit.
My sister gave me this phone card, last month, and I'd like to pass it on to
you. It has something like 300 minutes on it.
I may not see you again, but I will remember you, and wish you the best,
and God's blessings, always.
Then, I opened the other envelope.
Inside of a Hallmark card, was a piece of paper, folded in half. It was a letter --- from Angela. Now, to be honest with you, I had half-expected, all along, that I just might end-up hearing from her --- something in the way of a small thank-you note, perhaps; tucked-away inside some greeting card; but, nothing had quite prepared me for this :
7 -- 1 -- 03
Words cannot express how grateful I am to you for your kindness and generosity.
I had hoped, after leaving my wallet on the T in a fit of carelessness, that someone
with a good heart would find it and return it to me. But, I admit that my hopes started
to fade when I had not received word by Monday morning. Your mid-afternoon phone
call to my office seemed promising, initially; but, when you didn't call back after being
disconnected, I resigned myself to never seeing the contents of my wallet again.
Never in a million years did I expect to hear from [ a chaplain, at my alma mater ].
Never did I expect to hear the story of a man, your story, that demonstrates the
pureness of heart our world often lacks. I confess to being guilty of some dangerous
assumptions. Specifically, that my quarters will make no difference in a homeless
man or woman's cup of life. Or, that someone with very few possessions can possibly
offer me anything. You have taught me an amazing lesson, Matthew, and you have
given me so much. You have, in no small way, left a mark on my heart and touched
After learning of your kindness and your situation, I immediately e-mailed all of my
friends and family to recount the story. The response has been overwhelming, much
as my own, as everyone seems to be taking something from our story. Not only do I
pray that I encounter more of your sincere kind of giving in my days ahead, but I also
pray that I am able to live it. I pray that people like me, the ones who often walk
around in a bubble, work to open our minds and be sensitive to those in your
situation. And I pray that you know how much you have impacted me. May God
bless you. I am eternally grateful.
An Optional Epilogue and Theological Reflection
( Note : Anyone who thinks this story should end here with this reading of Angela's
letter, need not read any further. All others may proceed.)
In retrospect, I am left to wonder : How many situations, how many stories, are there, in each person's life --- occurring every day ( of each person's life ) --- situations, and stories, that we don't even notice , or, that we allow to ( just-) pass-us-by, that we let get-past-us; each of which comes in a singular moment in time, and with a singular opportunity, for "an exchange", "an encounter", "an interaction" with a fellow human being; each of which can be so very rich, so rewarding, so fulfilling, so vital, so human, or --- even --- so divine, ( or, Spirit-filled ) ? But, because we are all kept so busy, nowadays, because we are all kept-moving-along so fast ( in this insanely, fast-paced world, in which we live, today ), because we are all so stressed-out, so pressed / pressured, for time, so overworked, then, these moments, these opportunities, end-up slipping-away from us --- forever !
It makes me wonder, What are we all living-for ? What-is-it we are all working-towards ? What's the point of it all, if you can't even, truly, live ? Or, if you can't slow down, and calm down, long enough to be able to hear yourself breathe, and to be able to appreciate that you are indeed a living / breathing human being --- one who has been created, out of Love, by God, and born with the ability to reflect on Life, and on what Life means, and on what's going on, all around us in this world ?
Now, don't misunderstand me, here; I wouldn't wish this nightmare of homelessness on anyone --- not even on my worst enemy --- but, there is something about this slower pace of life in which most homeless people "move-about", that strikes me as far healthier than the pace of life in which so many "housed people" live and "work", today ( i.e., healthier than that "rat-race speed", of today's "modern-day, high-tech world" ) ! I think that many housed people have bought into the myth that homeless people are "mentally ill", "psychologically disturbed", or plain "crazy", for having "chosen" to live at that slower but more human / humane pace of life, which is, then, often misinterpreted, by housed people ( and, perverted by them ) to mean that homeless people are "choosing to be homeless" !?! But, the truth of the matter is, homeless people are not choosing to be homeless, at all ! On the contrary, what-it-is that they are choosing is, to live life at that far healthier, slower, more-human-and-humane pace of life ! But, they are then punished ( ever-so-severely ) for making that healthy choice; punished, that is, with being fired from their job ( for, allegedly, "not being 'productive' enough", a.k.a., "being lazy", or, "not working hard enough" ! ) And, then --- after falling too far behind in payments of rent ( or, on their mortgage ) --- they are ( again ) punished, this time with eviction from their apartment ( or, with the loss of their house ) !
Well, I have come to see that nothing is as crazy as accepting this insanely-fast, "rat-race pace" of life ! But, who exactly is it, who tells people to "move faster-and-faster", to "work harder-and-harder" ? Managers, and administrators, of business corporations, and other institutions ! To them, the people at the "lower levels" in society never move fast enough, and never work hard enough !
What these managers and administrators want is, to fill up the "lower level" workers' time, so that these workers won't have any time left-over to think, to reflect, to ponder, to contemplate, to pray, to converse-with-God ( nor, to converse with one another [as that might encourage solidarity among the working poor] ); because, if these "lower level" workers were to do so, they just might realize that this kind of "( so-called ) hard work" isn't real work, at all ! Rather, it's slavery ( or, some form of slavery, such as "wage slavery") ! And, they would, then, start to ( rightly ) rebel, or go on strike, so to speak. And, if that happened, then they -- i.e., the managers / the administrators / "the rich" / "the powerful" / "the privileged" in society -- might have to start working ( for a change ) !
[ Note: If this last sentence, above, sounds "a bit harsh", well ... maybe it is so (or, maybe it is more so than it ought to be); but, I think it's more of a response to (or, that it is written in light of) almost 20 years of hearing, and experiencing firsthand, so much hostility and hatred directed toward the working poor and the homeless poor -- i.e., the sort of hostility and hatred that's embedded in phrases such as: "Get a job (you lazy bum)"; "What's the matter with you, you don't like to work; you can't stand a little pressure? C'mon, now. Get to work"; "Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and get moving"; "Quit complaining (and, get back to work)"; "If you don't like it, you can quit"! (And these are just some of the more "mild phrases" that I've heard; I haven't even mentioned here any of the ones that include obscenities).
Also, a pastor friend of mine once said to me, "There are two distinct types of theology that are oftentimes being used, today, by people who are active in dealing with issues of homelessness and homeless people. One type is, what is called 'a work-based theology', which says, 'We will help you; we will give you shelter/refuge,;we will give you something to eat, and something to drink; but only on condition that you first "get a job" and "get to work" (for all these things).' The other type is, what is called 'a grace-based theology', which says, 'You are a child of God -- created by God, loved by God, and precious in God's sight (thus, you are my brother, my sister) -- and, therefore, simply because God loves you unconditionally ( i.e., by God's grace) you deserve, and will be given (at the very least, the most basic of human needs, needs of sustenance): refuge / shelter / food / drink / clothing, etc.'."
I believe that, ultimately, it is this "grace-based theology" which is Christian / Christ-like; while the "work-based theology" simply is not. Because, the love of Christ is, indeed, unconditional. And yet, this is not to say that Christianity is about "giving hand-outs to people". To say that, is to be twisting the truth about what Christianity is -- twisting it to such an extent that it is no longer recognizable as Christian. In truth, Christianity has always been about sharing what one has, with the "have-nots".]
Seven Applicable Quotes
1.) "You do not become a 'dissident' just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibilty combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society."
--- Vaclav Havel
2.) "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint; when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist."
--- Dom Helder Camara
3.) "Most of our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy rotten system."
--- Dorothy Day
4.) "There is more to life than increasing its speed."
--- Mohandas K. Gandhi
5.) "Time equals money."
--- an often quoted principle in business
6.) "The trouble with American universities is that they are dominated by businessmen."
--- Albert Einstein
7.) "Avoid like the plague a clergyman who is also a businessman."
--- St. Jerome ( 4th century, C.E. )