Friday, May 15, 2015

Homeless Jesus and Homelessness

The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling

I’ve been on the periphery of the homeless community for 30 years now. As the outreach chair of the vestry of Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown, Connecticut, I became involved with Amos House, a transitional living facility for homeless families. This house was an ecumenical and civic response to women and children who needed a place and programs to help them live a more stable life. Named after the Old Testament/Hebrew prophet, Amos House dropped its plumb line down into our society and found some walls in need of straightening.
            Speaking of walls, I’ve encountered a few in my vocation as a priest in the Church. Whereas walls are intended to protect us from the elements, and from people and animals who may do us harm, walls can also block us from seeing what’s going on outside. This is one reason I liked being part of the Church by the Pond in Bushnell Park. You can see the natural world. You run into homeless men and women. Outside the walls of the Church, the barriers are lowered between the homeless and the housed, between people and animals, between rich and poor, between the natural world and the created world, between the human and the divine. We share the same space; we share the same grace, without anything being said or done. And that’s a good start.
            There has been a lot of publicity recently about sculptures called “The Homeless Jesus.” Variations have him lying on a bench or crouched over and sitting on the ground. Frankly, I’m beginning to wonder about them; and so, I risk sharing some questions.

  • What actually was the life of Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples really like?
  • What is the point of having these sculptures on our church property?
  • Does the location of the church make a difference?
  • If any responses are elicited, what are they?
            Since moving to Cambridge, I’ve been on the periphery of the homeless community once again. I’ve had lunch with them and joined them for Eucharist inside the church on Mondays. I’ve written my blogs and prayed with them on Tuesdays. I’ve walked with them to raise money for Project Bread. And I’ve encountered them on the grass, on the park benches, and yes even on the church steps. I’ve also spoken with leaders about homelessness. Real Life. Real Church. I’ve learned a lot from my conversations.
            While I believe that glass ceilings need to be broken, and certain church walls need to come tumbling down, I also think we need more boots on the ground. While many people talk about Jesus’ preferential option for the poor, Jesus preferred a variety of disciples. Like the homeless, Jesus could find shelter, food, and clothing; and sometimes he even chose “no place” to call his home. Like you and me, like them and us, we all have insecurities. We also all have real desires for love, friendship, safety, dignity, opportunities to give as well as receive, and a sense of belonging.
             Mental illness, addictions, autism, generational poverty, poor education and ignorance not to mention injustice, prejudice, and flawed systems continue to contribute to homelessness. The real Jesus has moved from the park bench to his heavenly Father’s home, where there are many rooms for all of  us. Addressing the issues that Jesus cared about is up to us, and while I appreciate the art and the sentiment in the sculptures of homeless Jesus, I just don’t think that’s what he would be doing if he were still here. And I’m still not sure what I can do.