Within twenty minutes of placing a life-sized figure shrouded in a blanket and stretched on a bench near St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Bay Village, Ohio, someone called the local police about a homeless person because “it doesn’t look good.” Did the caller mean it doesn’t look good for the person wrapped in the blanket who might be very ill and sick or it doesn’t look good for the residents of this affluent suburb of Cleveland who would not want the image of their town tarnished with the reality of homelessness?
It turns out that the story has gone viral with the pastor emphasizing in his tweets how quickly the presumed homeless person disturbed the town. But on closer examination, one would see nail marks in the exposed bare feet. One would also see a small plaque indicating this is the Homeless Jesus and underneath that a scriptural message saying that one must consider “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine.” The Rev. Alex Martin, pastor of St. Barnabas added that he’s been getting messages from all over the world. Saturday Night Live even did a satirical spoof on the story, not very complimentary to Bay Village.
The statue is owned by the non-profit, Community West Foundation, which arranges its display for various churches throughout Northeast Ohio. It is meant to inspire reflection on the Christian commitment to the homeless and, on occasion, has been met with disturbing reactions. It made me, however, think more deeply on what I can personally do for the homeless.
Some facts from the Coalition for the Homeless: Ohio has the tenth largest homeless population in America. In most cases, homelessness is not caused by addictions but is aided by it through reckless vendors of drugs and alcohol. Seventy percent of people experiencing homelessness are individuals, but 30 percent are families with children. On a single night, 0.2 percent of the American population is homeless. A friend of mine, who ministers to persons with AIDS in Cleveland, says that many homeless are not in the statistics because they are “couch surfers,” meaning they go from friend to friend but are technically homeless.
Let’s start with Matthew 5:1-12. Reflect on this primary teaching of Jesus and ask to be led on how you might live this new teaching of the Ten Commandments.
Then, let’s consider:
1. Give. Get on your particular religion’s website for your city or diocese. You will see many places where you can donate time or resources.
2. Inquire. Ask your church staff if there is anything you can do for the homeless in your parish. (Yes, the homeless exist in suburban parishes, too!)
3. Google. Go to online services for the homeless in your city. You might see where you can help or volunteer.
4. Understand. Read and study the issues. Make calls to political leaders about issues or bills proposed for government legislation.
5. Pray. Keep the homeless and hungry in your prayer. Ask God to wipe away any intolerance or misunderstanding you may have about the homeless.
Many years ago my feature writing class accepted the challenge to learn about the homeless in order to report accurately on them. One young man became homeless for a weekend. He was physically removed from a hotel entrance and he watched parents steer children from him as he sat on a bench in public square. He endured some people spitting on him and others calling him names and shouting obscenities or laughing at his expense. The class won a first prize from the National Catholic Press Association after their stories were published in the local Catholic paper. But my reward was when this young man spoke for the class, “Sister, this assignment changed us forever.”