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I was invited to speak at the Hunger and Homeless Banquet sponsored by the Brunswick County Homeless Coalition, a group united in an effort to address, and hopefully resolve, the problem of hunger and homelessness in Brunswick County. My reaction was immediate and identified my surprise.
“What do I know about homelessness?” The challenge I accepted was to talk about my ignorance and the accompanying call of Scripture that confronted me. So, I began to pray, ponder and write. This is an excerpt from what God gave me.
“Alas for those who are at ease in Zion. Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory and lounge on their couches and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!” [Amos 6:1, 4-6]
Every time I hear those words, every time I read them, I cringe. God can’t be talking to me! Yet, I am convicted by God’s word. I am faced with the fact I do lie on a bed of ivory. I am warm, clothed well, even if it often comes from Walmart and always at a sale price. I eat nourishing meals. I can have dinner at a restaurant, if I so choose. I watch television when I please...idly, at times.
I may not anoint myself with oils, but I do stop at the Esteé Lauder counter and treat myself to perfume. I try not to waste anything, but I surely want for nothing. As for grieving...well, I often grieve over the loss of stuff. I mourn over my diminishing ability to juggle bunches of chores and activities as I did when I was young.
Do I grieve over the ruin of my brothers and sisters who have nothing but the clothes on their backs? I may think about them when I read something in the paper or see it on television. I may have a momentary feeling of concern when I listen to people like Donna Phelps or Rita Canfield or Barbara Serafin. Grieve over it? Really lose sleep over it? I cannot honestly say that is the case.
When I hear the word homeless, I do try hard to empathize, to conjure up images of what that word must mean to folks who endure it as a way of life. The fact is, I can’t.
Words come to mind. Some emotions are roused. Yet, I can’t put myself in those shoes, or more poignantly, in the lack of them. I can’t smell the odor that comes with having no place to bathe or any toiletries to use—not just for a day or two or a week or even a month, but for always. I can’t feel the sting of winter’s cold coming through tattered clothing or the damp chill of rain drenching me to the core. Nor can I feel the discomfort of relentlessly sweating in summer’s heat.
The experience is not mine. I have never been homeless. The worst I have endured is not liking the home my parents chose, not wanting to move from the comfortable spot where I had friends, where bus service was available just steps from my door and a library down the street. I didn’t want to move from the city to the suburbs, but I had a place awaiting my arrival. I was never homeless.
I may have experienced not being “at home” in the midst of a crowd of strangers or even among friends when my ideas differed from theirs. But I have never been homeless.
I have never known the sorrow of being the object of disgust or the subject of judgment based on my inability to declare an address, except a cardboard box hidden from prying eyes. I have never known what it is like to have people either stare at me because I am poorly clothed and dirty or, perhaps worse yet, look quickly away lest I catch their attention and make them squirm.
When I heard about the opportunity to spend a night with a group of folks who wanted to get a tiny taste of what it must be like to be hungry, cold, and scared, I told myself I was too old to do that. I was too old, but age does not discriminate against homelessness. The homeless ones come in all ages, sizes, colors and creeds. They can be educated or not. They are our brothers and sisters...or not.
I remember receiving this email: “At our judgment time, God won’t ask what kind of car we drove, but God will ask how many people we drove who didn’t have any transportation. God won’t ask the square footage of our houses, but God will ask how many people we welcomed into our homes. God won’t ask about the clothes we had in our closet, but God will ask how many others we helped to clothe.
“God won’t ask how many material possessions we had, but God will ask if they controlled our life. God won’t ask what our highest salary was, but God will ask if we compromised our character to obtain it. God won’t ask what our job title was, but God will ask if we performed our job to the best of our ability. God won’t ask how many friends we had, but God will ask how many others we befriended. God won’t ask what we did to protect our rights, but God will ask what we did to protect the rights of others. God won’t ask about the color of our skin, but God will ask about the content of our character.”
Those words still shake me to the core. Those words tell me I can give myself all the excuses in the world. I can proclaim I am doing my best. I can say there are only so many causes I can take on, but I am still called to find some way to assist those who are homeless.
I can tell their stories when I hear them. I can speak instead of remaining silent when I hear judgments being made about them. I can pray God will disturb me enough to find ways that all will receive needed help.
I can pray hearts will be touched so those who can help will help. I can support those who are deeply in the fray. I can write letters to public officials. I can raise consciousness that we who have must help those who have not. We must...not we should. If we do not, we will pay the price.
John F. Kennedy once repeated words spoken years earlier by an African who knew what slavery meant. “Freedom is indivisible and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.” Today, I say, “If one person remains homeless, all of us are homeless.”
That’s the price we pay. It’s the cost of living as God’s people.
It’s what happens when we listen to the prophet Micah, “O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
It’s what happens when we respond to the call, “Come, follow me.”
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Brunswick Novant Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.