Friends, it would seem that silence is one of the gifts of Advent if we can find the space in our days to slow down a bit, ponder our life as a follower of our brother Jesus and seek the wisdom that his Spirit brings us. Silence, it would seem, is the necessary component for us to really hear what is going on all around us, to really hear what is on people’s minds.
On Tuesday evening, Robert and I spent the night at the Winona Warming Center offering shelter for homeless people living in Winona. I believe that knowing that there are people in our midst who are homeless should be a cause for great concern for all of us who do have homes. It isn’t ours to judge why people are homeless so as to blame them, as much as it is ours to look on them with compassion, realizing that we could find ourselves in such a state if the right set of circumstances befell us.
As I listened to the stories of two people who talked with me individually at different points in the night, as each suffered from wakefulness; I came to understand this very truth—if I hadn’t had good support people in my life at certain key moments, had the “intestinal fortitude,” as my high school principal, Paul Nelson used to say; I could perhaps be homeless today too. It seems that one major psychological-emotional or physical hurt in a person’s life can trigger a lifetime of what may appear to others, not experiencing the same thing, as bad choices, while the person afflicted is merely trying to make the pain go away.
And the truth of the matter is, as life happens to each of us; we are all fragile and could find ourselves falling through the cracks too. Given that reality, that we are all vulnerable, what if our country, as other countries have done, had a safety net for when people fall on hard times and were offered a hand up?
The ailments that can befall a person are many such as the woman I talked with on Tuesday evening related. She described herself as a single, adult woman, homeless, an addict, and with mental illness—she came from alcoholic parents. This is a multitude, in my mind, of afflictions to befall a person and she told me that when her depression is really bad, she turns to alcohol and other drugs just to feel better or to perhaps, feel nothing.
Sometimes, those of us, who aren’t so afflicted, might wonder how people can be like this, when there are social programs to help—right? And depending on who is in Washington, those programs can be more, or less.
We might wonder too why people have no homes. The woman I talked with told me that she has five children, but no one wants her because of the choices she has made. She told me through tears, because she deeply loves her children, for them to be in her life again seems contingent on her getting drug-free and dry.
She spoke very intelligibly to me of how our country looks on all of these problems, from caring for the mentally ill, to housing and feeding our people. She spoke of such people, including herself, who are alienated from others, when being with people is what they most need to get better. Being alienated leads to spiraling downward. And in a very poignant moment she said to me, “I can tell when people don’t really understand how it is out there, and no offense intended, but I can tell talking with you that you don’t know what it is really like.” I responded that she was right, I have never experienced being homeless and couldn’t imagine what it is like!”
We might also think that some people choose to live off of government assistance and that we enable them by continuing such programs. My experience with these sisters and brothers of ours, for that is who they are, is that they don’t choose ultimately to be this way. The woman I spoke of told me of spending a night in an outdoor port-a-potty. It was safe and out of the wind. Now, you don’t choose to live this way if there is any other way! But now, she has a choice with the Warming Center and we as a community should be so grateful to the Community Bible church for offering their facility.
One gentleman who availed himself to the care of the Warming Center on Tuesday evening told me that he is presently being treated with chemotherapy for bone cancer and that after his treatments, he doesn’t feel very good. He went on to say; rather matter-a-factly, that it is hard when you don’t have anywhere to go afterward to lie down.
I asked him if the doctor knew that he was homeless? Again, rather matter-a-factly, he said, “Yes.” Maybe that is how we all act in the face of situations that seem too big to handle—we do nothing.
Two of today’s readings speak to us about, “a voice crying out,” about “clearing a path,” about “making it straight.” Jesus, our brother, came to do just that.
Advent calls us friends to silence in order to hear our God’s call in the voices of the homeless, the addicted, the hungry, the lost and alone—to not only help the immediate need, which I think we all do to one extent or another, but to get to the root causes of why our country tolerates these conditions. Once we have that answer then we must cry out to our legislators and whoever else will listen, to make the needed changes. If we are all truly sisters and brothers, then we must work to have a safety net in place for any of us who might at one time need it so that none of us ever has to go without a home, without food, clothing or someone to befriend us.
Peter’s letter to us today speaks of “awaiting new heavens” and that “God’s justice will reside” and finally, that “God will wait for us” –to do what is needed.
As I have said so many times here—God’s work will only get done if we do it!”
May we all be challenged!