This is that time of year when we are asked to giver extra focus to those who are less well of than ourselves and who are struggling to make ends meet. All around the country St Vincent de Paul collections are taking place with the never ending hope of making poverty history. For many years while in Kilmore Quay, come this time of year, people used to leave in all sorts of food and toys for distribution to those who would arrive at my door. It literally became a nightmare and I remember one Christmas Eve a dozen frozen turkeys were landed on my doorstep with the donor thinking he was making a big gesture of generosity. Finding homes for them was enough to put me off turkey for life. After that I just had enough and by the following year had made sure that the St Vincent de Paul Society were set up at parish level. They still continue over there and do tremendous work.
Fr Brian Darcy tells the story of a well known sculptor Timothy Schmalz who was returning to his parents home in Toronto for Christmas. The weather was freezing cold and he noticed a homeless person wrapped in blankets on a park bench. The stark contrast between the life of this homeless person who wasn’t welcome anywhere and the welcome he was going to receive from his parents had a deep effect on him. He told his parents that he had just seen Jesus lying on a park bench and it had inspired him to start a new sculpture.
First he fashioned an extra long bench and then cast the figure of the man lying the full length. From memory he could remember him pulling the blanket over his head so no one would recognize him, but in doing so his feet had become exposed.
First our eyes are drawn to the head of the man whose head is covered with the blanket, and then we begin to notice his feet. There we see the stigmata or wounds of Jesus and hence the name of the sculpture, The Homeless Jesus.
Its difficult to feel comfortable around homelessness and so many who are in that state say they can go for days without anyone speaking to them. People tend to walk past as if they are invisible, or go to the other side of the street. If they beg some people will throw in coins without a word. Could it be that the deepest fears of every human being is of not belonging and not having shelter and so there’s something in us that wants to look the other way.
Particularly in well to do religious circles, homelessness is paid no more than lip service because it disturbs the status quo. When the first casts of the sculpture were made, two major catholic cathedrals turned down the offer to have the first piece in their grounds. They were St Michaels in Toronto and St John’s in New York. The reasons they cited were renovations but it would make you wonder. The first one to be sold outside of N. America was to Ireland where you can see it in the grounds of Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin.
The statue is deliberately provocative and that is exactly what the sculptor intended. When it was initially put on display many were uncomfortable with the picture of Jesus it displayed. It upset their comfortable image of God. Yet Jesus was anything but comfortable in fact he made them feel so uncomfortable in all he was saying and doing that so many sought to have him crucified. It was his great challenge from the Gospel of Matthew that inspired Schalmz to make the piece in the first place. – ‘The way you treat the least of my brothers and sisters is the way you treat me.’
In our society with a housing shortage it has become frighteningly easy to become homeless. A man whose family I know met me recently and told his story of how he ended up sleeping in a tent at the rocks just outside of Wexford Town. He was a working man with a wife and four kids. The landlord forced up the rent to a level he just could not afford and after trying for weeks to find alternative accommodation the only option left was to move in with his wife’s mother. She had just a two-room apartment and it was so overcrowded that he opted to move out and become a rough sleeper. He still looked after himself and was clean and tidy. This he said was very hard to do, but absolutely necessary in order to hold onto some level of self-esteem. He described living among other homeless as an unpredictable nightmare with people out of their heads on alcohol and drugs. You never knew when your tent was going to be ripped apart or who was going to fall in on top of you. Thankfully the story ended well as he is now back with his family and they have a roof over their heads for Christmas.
The bottom line is, that as long as there are people who are homeless and families without a place where they can live with dignity, or where someone is in genuine need, then none of us can roll over in our comfortable beds with an easy conscience, especially if we are not doing everything that we can, like the St Vincent de Paul Society, to make poverty history.