A homeless infant offers us lessons

By | December 16, 2009

Since last winter, when the Salvation Army closed its warming shelter, various Fox Valley churches have hosted a rotating warming shelter. The shelter, which houses about 20 people a night, offers overnight shelter and a warm meal to the most outcast of society. These people often do not meet the requirements at other shelters — some because of mental illness or drug or alcohol abuse. Others are those who “never fit in,” whom we might call “lone wolves.” And some are there because the regular shelters are just too full.

After neighborhood protests, the plan to permanently locate the warming shelter in a former storefront was rejected by the city council in 2008. So churches stepped in to host the shelter for a week or two. A van and trailer carry supplies and the shelter’s guests from pickup sites each night. Mats are placed on the floor for sleeping — since fire ordinances will not allow cots — and donated plastic bags hold guests’ belongings.

Appleton’s city council is now reviewing whether or not to issue churches “special permits” to host the shelter (since they are technically breaking the law) and whether to allow Fox Valley Warming Shelter, Inc., to build on land behind the St. Vincent de Paul store.

There have been the usual protests at listening sessions held by the city. (The city council was scheduled to again address the issue Dec. 16.) Concerns ranged from fears about attracting other homeless from far-off cities to increased crime rates — even though no incidences of criminal behavior or violence have been reported. There is also the usual concern based on decreased property value with a shelter nearby.

Similar concerns have been voiced in Green Bay, where St. John the Evangelist Shelter has given overnight haven for the past several winters. In Green Bay, some voiced concerns about safety for nearby school children and businesses. Interestingly, many of the churches hosting the rotating shelter in Appleton have schools and no problems have surfaced there so far.

In attending meetings about permits and talking with those who work at these shelters, it is clear that most people do not feel the homeless are “just like us.” Instead, they are viewed as outcasts, and even as almost alien beings.

“Why can’t they just get a job?” “Why don’t they just pull themselves up by their bootstraps?” “Why can’t they go elsewhere?”

A priest said one well-intended soul even asked him why the homeless “don’t just get a good financial advisor?”

Yet, sadly, many of us are not that far from similar circumstances and closer to that “outcast circle” than we realize. For example:

• One in eight Americans is currently on food stamps.

•More than 19 percent of children live in poverty.

•The unemployment rate is 10 percent, totaling over 15 million people. Another 9.2 million work part-time, not by choice but because they cannot get full-time work.

•43 million Americans are uninsured.

•Recent closings and lay-offs have cost hundreds of jobs in Green Bay, Sturgeon Bay and Shawano.

It was into a world similar to this that Jesus was born. He had working class parents who couldn’t afford a place to stay when he was born, and who fled to another country to live as immigrants. He grew up with “nowhere to rest his head” (Mt 8:20), ate with sinners and tax collectors, forgave adulterous women and cured lepers and demoniacs, and finally died on a criminal’s cross. Even in death, he had only a borrowed tomb.

Yet his life, in its poverty, was, and is, “the light of the world.” This outcast, poor, itinerant carpenter, who traveled around homeless for much of his ministry, has a lot to teach us about those who are outcast today.

“Let us go then, to Bethlehem, to see this thing that has taken place,” we hear shepherds say in the Gospel for Christmas Mass at dawn (Lk 2:15-20). This Christmas, let us all go — at least in our hearts — to the poor places in our communities and learn what the silent Lord of Bethlehem is teaching.

Let us pray that we, like the shepherds, will hear a message of hope as we face uncertain times. Let us hope that, like the Wise Men, we come to the new year prepared to give our “gold, frankincense and myrrh” in ways that proclaim a message of new life. And let us, echoing the angels, proclaim joy and peace to those who swell “in darkness and shadow of death” this Christmas.

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