Caring for the Homeless Community in a Time of Need
As a deacon in an urban parish, I have routine contact with the homeless in our community. Our parish is close to an overnight shelter, a drop-in center, soup kitchen, and a community pantry which operate under a Christian collaborative called Cornerstone. The Cornerstone group was started by several Catholic parishes in collaboration with local Christian churches that saw the need to support God's people in need. Over time it has grown to be a valuable ecumenical ministry in our town.
In addition to encountering the homeless in the outreach ministries, several of the homeless come to Mass on weekends and some on week days. The parish community has been very open to welcoming the homeless into our community whenever we gather. The relationship is based on our commitment to love as Christ loves and many of those who are served are of different faiths or of none at all.
The ministries answer the call of Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium #20, “Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the “peripheries” in need of the light of the Gospel.”
Frequenting the peripheries, we get to hear different family stories. One of these is a family with several adult members who from time to time have been in need of a meal or place to stay. These people become family and their stories are entwined with ours.
One day I got a phone call from the shelter/soup kitchen director with the news that one of the regulars had died overnight. The death of a street person does not always make news but this individual was well known to a good many people in the community. She had a troubled youth and a challenging adult life. By her own description, she was the town drunk. She would often sit on the stone wall between the rectory and the sidewalk and swap stories with her friends.
The thing that made this one a little different was that she was baptized Roman Catholic and her family wanted a Catholic funeral. A funeral was not unusual as there are more than 80 funerals in our parish every year. The family wanted “the deacon” to celebrate the funeral because he was a friend in their community and their connection between the streets and the Church.
I approached the pastor with the request that I celebrate the funeral and his response was an enthusiastic yes. His yes was tested when I filled in the details, the family who were all either living in poverty or on the street had no money for a funeral, or a burial or a plot or anything. The pastor was open to supporting people in need and promised that the parish would cover all of the costs, so I challenged him again. The community of the street people who frequent the soup kitchen was not an indoor group or a church going group. They wanted me to celebrate the funeral at the Cornerstone community room.
While we were not thinking of Evangelii Gaudium, reflecting on the request brought us to #23 which states that: “it is vitally important for the Church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear.” Somehow the reality of stepping out into the unknown is a little easier when Pope Francis has your back.
The permissions, logistical details and arrangements were made with the help of the community and the Cornerstone staff. On the day of the funeral we gathered with the cremated remains of our sister. The volunteers at the soup kitchen and shelter donated flowers and the soup kitchen staff provided food. We did not know what to expect so we setup around 100 chairs in the community center and setup a beautiful display of flowers and a crucifix around the remains.
As people gathered it became obvious that 100 chairs was not enough. We setup all of the chairs that we had and then people started bringing chairs from the soup kitchen down the block to the community center.
The community gathered in prayer. We prayed, sang and proclaimed the Word of God. There were moments of deep sorrow and great joy as we celebrated the life of our sister and the promise of eternal life.
While I would have preferred to have met in the Church, we did meet the people where they were and celebrated God’s love and care. In our small way and in the messiness of life, we tried to be “supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be,” as Pope Francis challenged us in EG 24.
May God bless you when as you encounter Christ in the midst of the poor and outcast in your community. What are your experiences?