Monday, May 28 , 2018, 12:53 am | Fair 58º


Catholic Church of the Beatitudes: Homelessness — What Do We See and Hear?

Recently my friend and I hosted a lunch to benefit Beatitudes House, a Catholic Worker home in Guadalupe; it is a place of hospitality for the poor. The afternoon was successful, in terms of letting others know of the work being done for migrant workers and marginalized in that area and also in raising money to help the Catholic Workers continue their ministry to clothe the naked, feed the hungry and give care to the sick; some of the works of mercy from Matthew 25.

We had decided that the uneaten food from our lunch would go to the homeless. I left my friend’s home with many fresh, uneaten submarine sandwiches packed in the trunk of my car and headed for Alameda Park, just across from Our Lady of Sorrows Church.

As I walked through the park I spied three men sitting on a bench. They looked as if they had faced some hard times, so I approached to ask if they were hungry and would like some sandwiches and if they would help me distribute them to others in the park. I got an enthusiastic response, and one man helped me carry the food from my car.

As we walked he told me a bit of his story of how he ended up living on the streets and what he hoped to accomplish in his life. On the way back he asked, “Would you stay and talk with the two sitting on the bench, listen to their story and tell yours?” I mumbled something about the time being late and having to get home, but when we got back to the bench, I was drawn to sit down. The man who had helped me said he would take the extra sandwiches around to others in the park.

That left me with John and Jerry. Their clothes were very worn and there was a urine and alcohol smell in the air, but I found myself fascinated as they each talked.

I was curious and asked questions and they were open in responding about how they came to be homeless and some of their health issues. I wish I could tell you something deeply profound happened, but it was just a lovely half-hour in the park. I marveled that I was there sitting in the sun with John and Jerry, listening to their stories and feeling great compassion for the challenges they each faced.

Before meeting Dennis and Tensie Apel and Jorge Manly Gil, Catholic Workers in Guadalupe, I am sure I would have seen these men as “other” — people who had lost their way. Maybe they had, but as we talked that day, I wondered what I was holding onto that prevented me from glimpsing their goodness. I thought of the scripture passage from Jeremiah where we hear God had written on the minds and hearts of the people. I asked myself if God hadn’t also written on the hearts of these men. Weren’t they full of God’s grace also? It became clear that this was my chance to see a bit of their humanity.

Richard Rohr in his book Immortal Diamond writes of symbols and sacred stories where we can find deep and lasting meaning — or personal truths. Surely my short grace-filled time in the park was opening up something about the richness of the human spirit.

A few weeks ago, actress Tiffany Hoover joined our Beatitudes community to perform a monologue about the life of Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement in the 1930s. It was a sobering, insightful and delightful evening.

Dorothy was a journalist and radical activist who longed to find leadership within the church to guide her in living out the works of mercy — feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick.

She prayed to find someone who would help her find answers to her unfailing desire to help the poor and oppressed. Her prayers were answered when she met Peter Maurin, who taught her about Catholic Social Teaching. Together they founded the newspaper Catholic Worker and then the first House of Hospitality for marginalized in New York City.

Outspokenness was part of their commitment, “We are here to: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” was their motto and they took it to heart challenging those in power and being champions of those in need.

In the next few weeks, Christians will continue to reflect on the meaning of Easter — the resurrection of Jesus. It is a time of great meaning in the Christian world, one of reflecting on how every day we each have small or possibly large psychological, physical and spiritual issues to deal with — the times of wrong choices in our life or events that just come up unbidden, but bring us to our knees. Jesus’ death and rising is a sign to us that these events are not failures, but can be our greatest teachers. We can live in hope that we can again be refreshed and lifted up to life anew.

As I reflect on my time with John and Jerry in the park a few weeks ago, I wonder about who was nourishing whom. I am sure they appreciated the sandwiches that took away some of the gnawing hunger in their bellies. I also hope our conversation helped them feel valued, if only for a few moments. For my part, I know that something profound did happen within me that day — I felt nourished and the conversation we had has not left my mind.

Clearly homelessness is not just a simple one-answer issue of hiding these people from our visibility or getting them off our streets and out of our parks. We have been doing that for years without any apparent success. This experience brings me late to the discussion, but I think of Pope Francis who washed the feet of homeless people during Easter week saying, “God loves us without limit, each and every single one of us. He never ceases to love us, whatever we do. And he will always continue to love us, you and you and you” (America Magazine, April 2). Should we not be searching for ways to look the homeless in the eye and turn an ear to listen?

Jeff Dietrich, a Los Angeles Worker, wrote of feeding the poor on Skid Row in his recent book, The Good Samaritan: “The cynics would say that there is no such thing as a free lunch but for 15 years (now 40, the essay was written in April 1985) we have served a free meal to the hungry of Los Angeles. It is a small act of hope that fills an emptiness deeper than physical hunger. It is the bread of the Eucharist, the matzo of Passover, the meal taken in communion that inspires us in hope — a wild, improbable hope that all human beings may one day sit down at the same table as brothers and sisters and break bread together.”

Harriet Burke is a member and homilist at the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes. Readers are welcome to join us for Mass on Saturdays at 5:30 p.m. at First Congregational Church of Santa Barbara, 2101 State St. Click here for more information, or call 805.252.4105. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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