Posts Tagged ‘homelessness’

The Church As Neighbor: Corporately and Compassionately Engaged by Fr. John D. Jones

Friday, April 26th, 2013

The Church As Neighbor:

Corporately and Compassionately Engaged

by Fr. John D. Jones

 works of mercy

works of mercy

Moved with compassion, the Good Samaritan comes to the place where a Jew, typically despised by Samaritans, has been beaten and left (Lk. 10:33). And he acts: “beholding him,” the Samaritan “came to him and bandaged up his wounds.”

When the father sees his returning, prodigal son at a distance, he is moved with compassion and rushes out to him (Lk. 15:20). He embraces him and welcomes him back home as his son and not merely his servant.

Moved with compassion for the widowed mother who has just lost her only son, Jesus stops the funeral procession and restores the son to life (Lk. 7:11-16).

The Greek verb for “moved with compassion” is found only in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Sometimes it describes Jesus’ response to others; other times, Jesus uses the term in certain parables. In the Gospels, being moved with compassion always serves as a prelude to or motive for action on behalf of others.

Despite its apparently visceral origin in our inner parts, “compassion” is less a raw emotion than what might be regarded as an attunement (an Einstimmung to borrow loosely from Heidegger). In Patristic texts, compassion is often linked with sumpatheia, which is often translated in Latin as “compassio” in the sense of a capacity, if you will, to identify with the suffering of another.

Compassion makes us aware of others who are afflicted or in distress and it draws us towards them. Moved with compassion, the Good Samaritan “comes near” to the beaten man. Moved with compassion, even while his son is “a great way off,” the father runs towards the prodigal son and embraces him. By way of comparison, although the Priest and the Levite see the beaten man, they pass by him on the opposite side of the road. Jesus does not tell us what moves these men to deliberately avoid the man, but the clear intention of the parable is that both lack any acute sense of sumpatheia or of mercy. Compassion then is distinguished from pity at least in the sense that pity involves merely feeling sorry for someone while yet remaining aloof, distant, superior to and disengaged from that person.

Compassion, moreover, is an attunement to others “without borders.” One principal lesson of the Good Samaritan parable is that the merciful neighbor is a neighbor to all others. As St. John Chrysostom writes to correct those who would limit assistance only to other Christians: “Let us not care only for ‘those of the household of faith’ (Gal. 6:10), and neglect others…If you see any one in distress do not be curious and enquire further. His being in distress involves a just claim on your aid…He is God’s…[and] even if he is an unbeliever, still he needs help.”

Compassion, thus, leads to “good works” that render mercy and assistance to others. Of course we call these good works alms or, in a broader sense, works of mercy. Our prototype for such compassionate works is, of course, God Himself. Even after our sinful rebellion against Him, he did not abandon us but “because of his tender compassion” visited us in various ways (Liturgy of St. Basil just before the recitation in the Anaphora of the events of salvation history). In the Divine Liturgy, we are reminded that God is merciful and compassionate (Ps. 102:8, the first Antiphon) and that the scope of these works includes “giving food to the hungry, setting the prisoners free, giving sight to the blind, lifting up those who are bowed down, watching over the sojourners, and upholding the widow and the fatherless” (Ps. 145:7–9, verses of the 2nd Antiphon that we, regrettably, rarely sing).

Not surprisingly, then, the scope of alms is substantively broader than merely giving material aid or money. Works of mercy comprise all our personal actions to assist those who are in need and distress, whether spiritual, mental, or physical. Personal works of mercy can and should extend to efforts to change social structures and policies on behalf of, as well as to advocate for, those who are poor, vulnerable, or treated unjustly.

But what about corporate works of mercy or actions that are undertaken by a community in which there is a “we” who collectively and collab-oratively acts as a community, be it a local church, a monastery, or the gen-eral assembly of an autocephalous Church. Why should Orthodox Christ-ians be concerned about cultivating such activity rather than simply the merciful activities of individual persons?

The history of the church is, of course, replete with examples of corporate works of mercy. Indeed, monasteries have often had hospices, poorhouses, hospitals, and other philanthropic institutions associated with them which were either staffed in part by monks/nuns or at least supported by the community. The monastic reformer, Nikon of the Black Mountain, offers this observation about the Monastery and Hospice of the Mother of God Tou Roidiou which clearly links communal worship with communal works of mercy:

Behold, the church and the house of hospitality: the one for the worship and correctness of right faith and praise of the love of God and so on, the other for the love of neighbor (and “neighbor” means all humankind) for “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt. 25:35) and other similar commandments of the Lord. As the Lord himself says, “On these two commandments depend the whole law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:40), [that is] on the love of God and neighbor. For these things the church and the hospice were provided.

There are many specialized studies that allow us to gain some understanding of the nature and scope of these corporate activities, but there is almost nothing, as far as I can tell, in our service texts or icons that serve to commemorate them. Consider these examples drawn from the lives of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great—two of our three hierarchs or ecumenical teachers.

Fr. Georges Florovsky famously referred to St. John Chrysostom as the prophet of charity. Anyone familiar with St. John’s many homilies knows how passionate he was about the importance of caring for the poor and others in need. However, of the many hymns and other texts for his feast day, there is only one text that I find—an aposticha verse—that acknowledges him as “… true Father to orphans, prompt help of the distressed, support of the poor, nourisher of the hungry, staff for those who are falling.” His biographies note that he founded various hospitals. St. John himself mentions that the Church (most likely in Antioch) provided for 3,000 widows daily plus others in prisons, those who were infirm, etc. This must have been a rather highly organized undertaking which St. John obviously did not undertake by him-self but for which he most likely at best provided general oversight. Sadly there is almost no surviving record of how this activity was carried out. But there is also no day in the church calendar on which we commemorate or even remember the church in Antioch, or the many other churches and Christian communities in the 4th century, for undertaking the daily feeding of the poor and other works of hospitality.

St. Maria and coworkers

St. Maria and coworkers

St. Basil the Great was also one of the great episcopal benefactors in this period. As with St. John, there is one service text for his feast day, January 1, which clearly acknowledges this: “Treasure of the poor, father of orphans, protector of widows, consoler of the afflicted, O holy Basil, you were also the pilot for the wealthy, the instructor for youth, the staff for the elderly; and for monks, a model of virtue” (Troparion, Canon ode 7). His vita mentions that he spent his wealth and the income of the church on behalf of the poor and destitute and ”in every center of his diocese he built a poorhouse; and at Caesarea, a home for wanderers and the homeless.” (OCA life of St Basil). In Caesarea he established a “new city” outside of Caesarea, as St. Gregory the Theologian referred to it, which consisted of a hospital and other buildings attached to a monastery that provided care for lepers, respite for travelers, and so forth. We know practically nothing about the daily activities of this complex except that it was supported by the corporate activity of the monastery’s monks. But, again, so far as I know, there are no service texts or days to commemorate this monastery or any others for their corporate philanthropic activities.

As with our service texts, Orthodox icons focus almost exclusively on individual saints. Nearly all of our icons of saints present them alone or in groups but almost never, so far as I know, as engaged in collective action together. We get at best some intimation of the activity of a community in the icons of St. Maria Skobstova and those with her but only because of what we know of their work together. I obviously do not want to diminish the important witness of the holy men and women whom we venerate as saints. Their lives and icons rightly serve to portray them as prime examples of our god-bearing fathers and mothers who remained steadfast in their faith and in their manifestation of God’s love in the world. Yet, as Jim Forest notes, the icon shows “the recovery of wholeness….[It] suggests the transformation that occurs to whomever has acquired the Holy Spirit….[It is] thus a witness to theosis, deification.” There are, of course, many icons of Christ performing works of mercy as exemplified by the first icon shown in this essay (pg. 14). But does the nearly complete absence of icons and service texts commemorating the collective or corporate works of mercy of Christian communities suggest that these activities are somehow outside the pale of transform-ation or deification in the Holy Spirit?

First Ecumenical Council

First Ecumenical Council

Of course, if there are no clear exam-ples of icons or service texts commem-orating corporate works of mercy, there are the icons and service texts that commemorate the fathers of the various ecumenical councils. These icons repre-sent the Fathers of the Church acting together with one another in an organ-ized, corporate manner to resolve the various issues that were presented to them at the councils. These icons, especially those which represent the Fathers of the Church gathered in semi-circles across from one another recall the icon of Pentecost. This icon, of course, represents the new community (ecclesia) that overturns the breakdown of communication and collaboration that plagued the construction of the Tower of Babel (Aposticha, Vespers for Pentecost).

M.C. Escher’s early 1928 woodcut of the Tower of Babel (below) well illus-trates the contrast between the (trans-figured) reality of the Church and that tower. As Escher noted about this wood-cut: “Some of the builders are white and others black. The work is at a standstill because they are no longer able to understand one another.” (I will leave it to the reader to ponder whether the actual historical condition of the Church at times is more aptly represented by Escher’s woodcut than the icon of Pentecost.)

The unity and repose of the apostles in the icon for Pentecost provides the basis for their collective and united activity in the church. It was the apostles, at least those in Jerusalem, who collect-ively managed the gifts that were laid at their feet in the first Christian community (Acts 4:35); it was the apostles who collectively appointed the seven for ser-vice in the early community (Acts 6:1-5). It was the apostles and other elders in the church who met at the very first council of the church and who collectively acted on various matters “as it seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 15:28).

Pentecost

Pentecost

At the feast of Pentecost, we also cele-brate and commemorate the Holy Trinity. Nor surprisingly the icon of Pentecost recalls the icon, the Hospitality of Abraham, by which we commemorate the Trinity. The manner in which the figures in that icon are turned toward one another illustrates the essential and eternal communion of the persons of the Trinity as they face each other. But this icon is not limited to manifesting the love of the divine persons solely for one another. For the chalice in the center of the table reminds us of the freely chosen “outgoing” character of the Trinity’s love for the world. The Eucharistic chalice in the icon also manifests the essentially compassionate character of God’s love. As Blessed Theophylact writes, likening Jesus to the Good Samaritan in that parable: “Our Lord and God…journeyed to us…. He did not just catch a glimpse of us as He happened to pass by. He actually came to us and lived together with us and spoke to us. Therefore, He at once bound up our wounds.”

But while only the Son of God becomes incarnate, suffers, dies, and is resurrected, nevertheless his salvific engagement in our life always expresses the will and love of the Father and the Holy Spirit just as the Divine Liturgy always manifests the distinct but undivided action of the Trinitarian persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As Sr. Nona Harrison rightly observes, the icon of the Trinity also serves as a model for human community that is grounded in our existence as persons, which means that “we are free and are able to know and love others, but it also means that our belonging to the community of humankind, our relatedness to other people, is at the very root of who we are.” She gives a particularly apt quotation by then Bishop Kallistos of what this means in practice:

Each social grouping—family, parish, diocese, church council, school, office, factory, nation—has as its vocation to be transformed by grace into a living icon of [the Holy Trinity], to effect a reconciling harmony between diversity and unity, human freedom and mutual solidarity, after the pattern of the Trinity.

M.C. Escher

M.C. Escher

The realization of this vocation is obviously impossible unless human beings collaborate with one another in actions that have the corporate, social nature of a “we” who act. Such social action has a structural character to it that cannot be reduced merely to the sum or conglomeration of purely independent individual actions. For example, the outreach ministry or Christian education program of a parish typically require the blessing of the rector, the support of the parish council, and funding provided from the parish budget or other sources. Individuals who work in the programs act as representatives of the parish. The programs themselves require some organization, a division of labor, etc. Such programs, in other words, are carried out by people acting in a collective manner and not merely as isolated individuals acting on their own behalf.

Alas, while I am unaware of any icons that commemorate communal works of mercy undertaken by various Christian communities, there is one notable exception in some of the icons of the Feeding of the 5000. This miracle is recounted in all four gospels (Matt. 14:13-21, Mk. 6:31-44, Lk. 9:10-17, and Jn. 6:5-15). On the one hand, the story receives a Eucharistic interpretation in which Christ’s miraculously feeding the people prefigures the Eucharist. Not surprisingly, the icon for this event that evidently stresses a Eucharistic interpretation focuses almost exclusively on Christ.

Yet in each of the Gospel accounts, Christ tells the disciples that they should feed the crowd even though they want to send them away. They are incredulous that they can feed them since they only have two fish and five loaves. Christ miraculously multiplies the loaves and fish, but he gives the food to the disciples and they distribute it. Without losing a Eucharistic interpretation, this event also has the simple, literal meaning that Christ to-gether with the disciples fed a large crowd at the end of the day when they were hungry.

In this second icon, Christ blesses the food and the disciples actively distribute it. This icon manifests the corporate action of the disciples together with Christ in feeding the 5000. That is, if Peter had gone home to his wife at the end of the day, he would have recounted the event by telling his wife about the miracle that Jesus performed and about the fact that “we disciples” distributed the food after Christ blessed it. The feeding of the 5000 then was the action of a community. Again without losing the Eucharistic interpretation of the event, the story and the second icon serve as the prototype for a work of mercy performed by the community of Christ and his disciples.

I’ve not been able to find an icon for the event of the Christ’s first commissioning of the disciples. But that event also initiates collective or corporate action. Jesus does not simply send the disciples forth to act as autonomous individuals in their own names. They are sent to preach the word of God, to heal the sick, cast out demons, etc. as members of the community of the disciples whom Jesus had called. Whether they traveled in groups of two or individually, but not as a single group, they still acted as members of the community of Jesus’ disciples.

hospitality of abraham

hospitality of abraham

In any event, I think we can combine a set of icons in which the corporate works of mercy of a community reflect and manifest the “collective” compassionate action of the Trinity towards the world (opposite page).

The traditional Eucharistic icon of Christ giving himself as his Body and Blood to the community of his disciples is intimately connected with the icon of the Hospitality of Abraham. Moreover, the celebration of the Eucharist is intimately and essentially related by Christ himself to the paradigmatic expression of Christian humility and service: Christ washing the feet of his disciples (Jn. 13:4-17). This event is emblematic of the new commandment that Christ gives to his disciples: “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn. 13:34). When we recall that Christ’s love and compassionate engagement with us is symbolized by the compassionate engagement of the Good Samaritan with the man beaten and abandoned, then another way of phrasing the new commandment is “be compassionate and merciful neighbors to one another as I have been a compassionate, merciful neighbor to you.”

In its own way, then, the icon of the Feeding of the 5000 pulls all of these themes together. Given a Eucharistic interpretation, the icon manifests Christ Eucharistically giving himself to the faithful through the priestly ministry of the apostles. The icon also manifests what we might call the liturgy after the liturgy: the Eucharistic community of the church facing the world in order to feed those who are hungry through the material gifts of food that Christ supplies. Christ’s neighborly presence to the community of the faithful in the Eucharist is simultaneously repeated in the neighborly presence of a Christian community engaged in works of mercy.

It should be clear, I think, why Orthodox Christian communities should cultivate corporate works of mercy. For such works are, if you will, a “natural” extension of the life of a Christian community. Metropolitan Anthony Sourozh wrote that

if we want to become…a Christian community, a community of people who love one another earnestly, if necessary sacrificially, whose love is prepared to go as far as crucifixion, then we must learn a great deal about our attitude to each other. How can we contemplate the vision of the Cross if we are not prepared to carry one another’s burdens, to identify in sympathy and compassion with each other?

But compassion, as I noted above, has no borders. The very cultivation of compassion among the members of a Christian community has to extend to mem-bers outside that community. How can people claim to belong to compassionate Christian community and yet be oblivious to and unengaged with people outside the community? Conversely, if we always receive Christ’s loving gift of himself as members of a Eucharistic community, how can the community not manifest that same love through “facing the world” in a compassionate and neighborly manner?

 

Jesus feeds the 5000

Jesus feeds the 5000

Each Orthodox Christian community must face the world if it takes seriously the mission of the Church to bring the Word of God to the world through evangel-ization. But the Word of God did not simply preach to people. When crowds of people came to Christ with “those that were lame, blind, dumb, maimed, and many others,” he healed them. After they spent three days with Christ, he refused to send the crowd away hungry, but “moved with compassion,” he blessed the meager food the disciples had and mobilized them to feed the people (Matt. 15:30-38, Mk. 8:1-6).

We have a striking witness of a corporate, compassionate attunement to the world in our own monastic tradition. In the Byzantine period of the Church, as Giles Constable notes,

almost all houses [monastic communities] distributed alms to the poor and to travelers at the gate and provided food and lodging in the guesthouse, and many of them assisted orphans, prisoners, and women who lacked the wherewithal for dowries. The hospital associated with the Pantokrator in Constantinople was unique, but many houses supported hospices, old age homes, and hospitals, and also bridges, which were considered a worthy object of charity.

Finally, I want to note that compassion should make us critically attuned to the kinds of injustice that marginalize, dehumanize, and exclude people from a legitimate participation in their social world. Samaritans were outcasts to Jews, and vice versa. Yet the Good Samaritan’s compassionate action implicitly challenged the legitimacy of various negative barriers—psychological and social—by which Jews and Samaritans ostracized each other. If compassion is so often most manifest when directed to those who are marginalized in a society, it is because compassion is fundamentally without borders. As such, compassionate action is attuned to the contrived borders which exclude people from a full participation in their social world. Compassion in principle shatters the artificial and unjust ways in which humans individually and collectively marginalize and dehumanize people. For example, St. Herman of Alaska and other monks of the American Mission sought to defend the Alaskan natives against oppression and exploitation by the Russian American Company headed by Alexander Baranov. Their compassion incurred a particular cross: “for their concern and intervention, the members of the Mission were persecuted, among them Father Herman.”

Jesus feeds the 5000In a similar way, a compassionate response to assisting those who are poor is in principle critically sensitive to attitudes and policies that seek to blame the poor entirely for their poverty. One need only read St. John Chrysostom’s many homilies dealing with poverty to see how often he caustically rejects claims by parishioners that the poor did not deserve assistance since they were to blame for their condition. Indeed, St. John pointedly rejects any appeal to Jesus’s remark that “the poor are always with you” to justify spending money on beautifying the Church at the expense of directing funds to support the poor and others in need.

For what is the profit, when His table indeed is full of golden cups, but He perishes with hunger? First fill Him, as one who is hungry, and then abundantly deck out His table also. Do you make Him a cup of gold, while you do not even give Him a cup of cold water? And what is the profit? Do you furnish His table with cloths bespangled with gold, while to Him you do not afford even the necessary covering?

iconsTo be sure, St. John is addressing parishioners who would rather have donated money to the Church than to those who were poor. But is there any reason why a parish community should not consider this text to be relevant when it considers how to use its own time, talents, and resources? If it did, it certainly could not automatically justify simply turning entirely towards its own internal “needs” rather than cultivating a communal commitment to facing the world in a compassionate manner. Such a community would not use a text like “the poor shall always be with you” to justify some inevitability or divine sanction to poverty, among other things, as a reason for avoiding compassionate engagement with the world. St. John Chrysostom certainly did not think that poverty in his day was inevitable. He thought it could be eliminated, at least in extreme form, if people were sufficiently willing to share economic resources with one another. Indeed, while St. Cyril of Alexandria acknowledges that in this text, Jesus gives a certain precedence to honoring him over serving the poor or doing works of mercy in general, he denies that this precedent is absolute. In fact he writes that Our Lord himself tells us “it is not necessary always without intermission to devote our time to honoring Him, or to spend everything upon the priestly service, but rather [we should] lay out the greatest part upon the poor.”St. Cyril notes that while, at the command of Christ, the apostles devoted themselves to prayer and fasting between his Ascension and Pentecost, they afterwards “eagerly spent all the offerings that were brought to them upon the poor.” They did this as leaders of and on behalf of the Church.

Indeed, generosity in service to others pervades the history of the Church in its corporate works of mercy. As Fr. Demetrios Constantelos notes in his discussion of history of corporate philanthropic activity of the Orthodox Church:

The Church, in the Byzantine era, including its monastic communities, often provided the essentials of social security for a large segment of the population of the Empire throughout its existence…it took under its aegis orphans, widows, the old and the disabled, the stranger and the unemployed; it saw to the release of prisoners of war and of those unjustly detained.

Moreover, Orthodox Christian communities that endeavor to face the world around them in a neighborly, compassionate manner should not shun, but in fact should cultivate, the critical dimension of compassion. There is absolutely no reason why a Christian compassionate attunement to the world should be blind to social and structural factors that harm people. In 2009, for example, the Diocese of Alaska (Orthodox Church in America) “passed a unanimous resolution opposing any development that may be harmful to the people or land of Southwest Alaska.” The resolution was passed in opposition to the development of the Pebble Mine in Alaska. In 1989 at its Ninth All American Council, the Orthodox Church in America passed a motion supporting “the abolition of the death penalty in this and all countries” and further recommended that “legislative provisions be made for life imprisonment without possibility of parole for those subject to the death penalty.” Examples like these certainly suggest that there is good reason in principle for Orthodox communities to address as appropriate the institutional and social factors that promote or block the compassionate treatment of people in their local communities.

Fr. Constantelos’ observation, thus, is well worth remembering by Orthodox Christians individually and as communities:

Because of peculiar historical experiences––one might speak of vicissitudes––the Orthodox have often failed to respond to social problems such as racism, peace and war, social justice, and political oppression in a systematic manner…[However] if some Orthodox fail to raise voices of protest against racism, injustice, and oppression, they betray the ethos of their Church. But when they concern themselves with contemporary social problems, they act in full agreement with the nature and character of their Church in history.  IC

Fr. John D. Jones is professor of Philosophy at Marquette University and Associate priest at Sts. Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church (OCA) in Milwaukee, WI. For a fully referenced and footnoted copy of the original article, contact Fr. John at jdjones47@yahoo.com.

 

Healing in the Parish and the World: Let Us Go Forth in Peace by Bishop Kallistos Ware

Friday, April 26th, 2013

Healing in the Parish and the World:

Let Us Go Forth in Peace

by Bishop Kallistos Ware

Our theme is the liturgy after the Liturgy. Consider the word “peace” in the Divine Liturgy: In peace let us pray to the Lord, for the peace from above, and for the peace of the whole world; and also the meaning of the celebrant’s greeting, “Peace be with you all.” We know the priest is not just transmitting his own peace, but he is transmitting to the congregation the peace of Christ. And peace, we know, is a gift from God.

 Christ

There is one phrase from the Liturgy in which the word peace figures pro-minently: “Let us go forth in peace.” There are many commandments in the Liturgy, things that we are told to do such as “Lift up your hearts,” “Give thanks to the Lord.” But, “Let us go forth in peace” is the last commandment of the Liturgy. What does it mean? It means, surely, that the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy is not an end but a beginning. Those words, “Let us go forth in peace,” are not a comforting epilogue, they are a call to serve and bear witness. In effect, those words, “Let us go forth in peace,” mean the Liturgy is over, the liturgy after the Liturgy is about to begin.

This, then, is the aim of the Liturgy: that we should return to the world with the doors of our perceptions cleansed. We should return to the world after the Liturgy, seeing Christ in every human person, especially in those who suffer. In the words of Father Alexander Schmemann, the Christian is the one who, wherever he or she looks, sees Christ everywhere and rejoices in him. We are to go out, then, from the Liturgy and see Christ everywhere.

“I was hungry. I was thirsty. I was a stranger. I was in prison.” Of everyone who is in need, Christ says, “I.” Christ is looking at us through the eyes of all the people whom we meet, especially those who are in distress and who are suffering. We go out from the Liturgy, seeing Christ everywhere. But we are to return to the world not just with our eyes open but with our hands strengthened. I remember a hymn as an Anglican that we used to sing at the end of the Eucharist, “Strengthen for service, Lord, the hands that holy things have taken.” So, we are not only to see Christ in all human persons, but we are to serve Christ in all human persons.

Let us reflect on what happened at the Last Supper. First there was the Eucharistic meal, where Christ blessed bread and gave it to the disciples, “This is my body,” and he blessed the cup, “This is my blood.” Then, after the Eucharistic meal, Christ kneels and washes the feet of his disciples. The Eucharistic meal and the foot washing are a single mystery. So, we have to apply that to ourselves. We go out from the Liturgy to wash the feet of our fellow humans, literally and symbolically. That is how I understand the words at the end of the Liturgy, “Let us go forth in peace.” Peace is to be something dynamic within this broken world. It’s not just a quality that we experience within the church walls.

Let’s remind ourselves of the way in which St. John Chrysostom envisages this liturgy after the Liturgy. There are, he says, two altars. There is, in the first place, the altar in church, and towards this altar we show deep reverence. We bow in front of it. We decorate it with silver and gold. We cover it with precious hangings. But, continues St. John, there is another altar, an altar that we encounter every day, on which we can offer sacrifice at any moment. And yet towards this second altar, an altar which God himself has made, we show no reverence at all. We treat it with contempt. We ignore it. And what is this second altar? It is, says St. John Chrysostom, the poor, the suffering, those in need, the homeless, all who are in distress. At any moment, he says, when you go out from the church, there you will see an altar on which you can offer sacrifice, a living altar made by Christ.

Developing the meaning of the command, “Let us go forth in peace,” let us think of the Liturgy as a journey, Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s key image for the Liturgy. We may discern in the Liturgy a movement of ascent and of return. That kind of movement actually happens very frequently. We can see it in the lives of the saints, such as Antony of Egypt or Seraphim of Sarov. First, in the movement of ascent, if you like, or flight from the world, they go out into the desert, into the wilderness, into solitude, to be alone with God. But then there is a moment of return. They open their doors to the world, they receive all who come, they minister and they heal.

There is a similar movement of ascent within the Liturgy. We go to church. It’s pleasant to go there; though some people must use cars, I like to walk from my home to church before the Divine Liturgy, to walk alone if I can. It’s only about ten minutes, but I find it quite important to have that movement, a sense of going to church, a sense, if you like, of a separation from the world and starting on a journey. I walk to church, and I enter the church building, into a sacred space and sacred time. This is the beginning of the movement of ascent: we go to the church. Then, continuing the movement of ascent, we bring to the altar gifts of bread and wine and offer them to Christ. The movement of ascent is completed when Christ accepts this offering, consecrates it, makes the bread and wine to be his body and blood.

After the ascent comes the return. The bread and wine that we offered to Christ, he then gives back to us in Holy Communion as his body and blood.

But the movement of return doesn’t stop there. Having received Christ in the Holy Gifts, we then go out from the church, going back to the world to share Christ with all those around us.

Let’s develop this idea a little. Receiving Christ’s body, we become what he is. We become the body of Christ. But gifts are for sharing. We become Christ’s body not for ourselves but for others. We become Christ’s body in the world and for the world. So the Eucharist impels believers to specific action in society, action that will be challenging and prophetic. The Eucharist is the start of cosmic transfiguration, and each communicant shares in this transfiguring work.

Our title suggest a connection between peace and healing in the parish and the world, and I can’t possibly deal with all the things suggested by it. But let me, in light of the bit about “Let us go forth in peace,” pose a few questions about the different levels of Eucharistic healing and transfiguration in the world.

First a question about our parish life. Perhaps this is not true everywhere, but it’s true of some parishes I’ve known. I’ve often wondered why our parish council meetings, and more particularly the annual general meetings of parishes, are such a disappointment? To me it’s very surprising that often there’s a rather dark spirit at work in the annual general meetings of parishes. The picture given of our parish life is actually deeply misleading. All the good things seem to be hidden—perhaps that’s as it should be—but we get a very distorted picture. There seems often to be an atmosphere of tension and hostility at annual general meetings in parishes.

I’ve often wondered why that is. How to bring a truly Eucharistic spirit into such gatherings? How can we bring the peace of the Divine Liturgy into the other aspects of our parish life? I don’t have an easy answer, but I think behind this first question there lurks another question. How can we make the Divine Liturgy more manifestly a shared and corporate action? In my own experience, the parish where I am, we began worshiping just in a room, and at that time it was not difficult to have a very strong feeling of the Liturgy as a unified action in which everybody was sharing because we were all so close to one another, and there was only a few of us.

Some of the most moving Liturgies I’ve ever attended have not been in churches with great marble floors and huge candelabra but in small house chapels in a room or even in a garage. Now, gradually our community has grown. Twenty-five years ago, we built ourselves a church, and now that church is too small and we’re working towards enlarging the church in order to be able to have room for all the worshipers. Now that is, in a sense, encouraging, but there is a real struggle here. As a parish grows larger and as it acquires a larger building, it becomes much harder to preserve the corporate spirit, the sense of a single family, the sense of all of us doing something together. It becomes much harder to preserve that.

Christ the Prisoner

Christ the Prisoner

I haven’t any easy answers, but that is one level on which I ask, “How can we bring peace and healing into a community that’s growing ever larger, and therefore that is bound to lose its sense of close coherence, unless we struggle to preserve it?”

There is another level of healing that occurs to me quite frequently at the Divine Liturgy. We often have present non-Orthodox Christians and we are not able to give them Holy Communion by the rules of our Church. Now, I’m sure all of you have reflected on the reasons why the Orthodox Church takes this straight line over inter-communion. The act of Communion, we say, involves our total acceptance of the faith. It involves our total life in the Church. Therefore we cannot share in Communion with other Christians who—however much we may love them—we recognize as holding a different understanding of the Christian faith, and are therefore divided from us.

This is, we know, the argument why we cannot have inter-communion. But I think we should constantly ask ourselves if we are right to take this position? In fact I think we are, but I would say go on asking yourself in your heart if it’s the right thing to do. We Orthodox are becoming increasingly isolated on this issue. In my young days, most Anglicans would have taken the same view, and would have said they could not have Communion with Protestants. That’s certainly not the case now in the Anglican Church. Also, Roman Catholics held this view very strictly, but since Vatican II, whatever the official regulations may be, in the practice of the Roman Catholic Church there is widespread inter-communion. But we Orthodox continue as we were. Are we right? And if we do continue to uphold a strict line on inter-communion, in what spirit are we doing this? Is it in a spirit of peace and healing?

I remember at the beginning of my time as priest, the first occasion, and I still feel the wound inwardly, when persons came up for Communion whom I knew were not Orthodox. I felt that it was my duty as priest not to give them Communion. I was really interested in the reaction of two different parishioners. One said to me, “You did quite right! We cannot give Communion to these heretics. The Orthodox Church is the one true church.” He saw that in triumphalist terms. That made me feel even worse. But then another parishioner came up, and he said, in a very different tone of voice, “Yes, you were right, but how tragic, how sad, that we had to do this.” Then I thought, yes, we do have to do this, but we should never do it in an aggressive spirit of superiority but always with a sense of deep sorrow in our hearts. We should mind very much that we cannot yet have Communion together. Incidentally, both of those two parishioners are now Orthodox priests themselves. I think the first one, over the years, has grown a little less triumphalist. I hope we all do, but I’m not sure whether that always happens.

page 29 Christ homelessThen I’d like to reflect on a third level of healing. Let me take as my basis here the words said just before the Epiclesis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit, at the heart of the Liturgy. The deacon lifts the Holy Gifts, and the celebrant says, “Thine own from Thine own, we offer Thee.” And in usual translation, it continues, “in all and for all.” But that translation could be misleading. It could be understood as meaning “for all human persons, for everyone.” In fact in Greek, it is not masculine, it is neuter—“for in all things, and for all things.” At that moment, we do not just speak about human persons, we speak about all created things. A more literal translation would be, “In all things and for all things.”

This shows us that the liturgy after the Liturgy involves service not just to all persons, but ministry to the whole creation, to all created things. The Eucharist, thus, commits us to an ecological healing. That is underlined in the words of Fr. Lev: “Peace of the whole world.” It means, says Fr. Lev, peace not just for humans, but all creatures—for animals and vegetables, stars, for all nature. Cosmic piety and cosmic healing. Ecology has become mildly fashionable and often has quite strong political associations. We Orthodox, along with other Christians, must involve ourselves fully on behalf of the environment, but we must do so in the name of the Divine Liturgy. We must put our ecological witness in the context of Holy Communion.

I’m very much encouraged by the initiatives taken recently by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Twenty some years ago, the then Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios issued a Christmas encyclical saying that when we celebrate the Incarnation of Christ, his taking of a human body, we should also see that as God’s blessing upon the whole creation. We should understand the incarnation in cosmic terms. He goes on in his encyclical to call all of us to show, and I quote, “towards the creation an ascetic and Eucharistic spirit.” An ascetic spirit helps us distinguish between wants and needs. The real point being not what I want.

The real point, then, is what I need. I want a great many things that I don’t in fact need. The first step towards cosmic healing is for me to make a distinction between the two, and as far as possible, to stick just to what I need. People want more and more. That’s going to bring disaster on ourselves if we go on selfishly increasing our demands. But we don’t in fact need more and more to be truly human. That’s what I understand to define an ascetic spirit. Fasting indeed can help us to distinguish between what we want and what we need. Good to do without things, because then we realize that, yes, we can use them, but we can also forego them, we are not dependent on material things. We have freedom.

If we have a Eucharistic spirit, we realize all is a gift to be offered back in thanksgiving to God the Giver. Developing this theme, the Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios, followed by his successor, the present Patriarch Bartholomew, have dedicated the first of September, the New Year in the Orthodox calendar, as a day of creation, when we give thanks to God for his gifts, when we ask forgiveness for the way we have misused those gifts, and when we pray that we may be guided for the right use of them in the future. There’s a phrase that often comes to my mind from the special service “When in danger of earthquake.” “The earth, though without words, yet cries aloud, ‘Why, all peoples, do you inflict upon me such evil?’” And we are inflicting great evil on the earth. Interesting to see earthquakes as the earth groaning because of what we do to it!

Finally, I ask you to think for a moment about one of our Gospel readings. What happens when the risen Christ on the first Easter Sunday appears to his disciples? Christ says first to the disciples, “Peace be unto you.” The first thing that Christ speaks after rising from the dead is peace. Then what does he do? He shows them his hands and his side. Why does he do that? For recognition. Yes, to show that here he is, the one whom they saw three days before crucified; here he is, risen from the dead in the same body in which he suffered and died. But there’s surely more to it than that. What he is doing is showing that, though he is risen from the dead, yet he still bears upon him the marks of his suffering. In the heart of the risen and glorified Christ, there is still a place for our human suffering. When Christ rises from the dead and ascends into heaven, he does not disengage himself from this broken world. On the contrary, he still carries on his body the marks of his suffering and he carries in his heart all our burdens. When he says before his ascension, “See I am with you, even to the end of the world,” surely he means, “I am with you in your distress and in your suffering.” Glorified, he is still with us. He has not rejected our suffering, nor disassociated himself from us.

We see from the Gospel how peace goes with cross bearing. Having given peace to his disciples, the risen Christ immediately shows them the marks of the Cross. Peace means healing and wholeness, but we have to add, peace also means vulnerability. Peace, we might say, doesn’t mean the absence of struggle or temptation or suffering. As long as we are in this world, we are to expect temptation and suffering. As St. Antony of Egypt said, “Take away temptation and nobody will be saved.” So peace doesn’t mean the absence of struggle, but peace means commitment, firmness of purpose, clarity of vision, an undivided heart, and a willingness to bear the burdens of others. When Paul says, “See, I bear in my body the marks, the stigmata, of Christ crucified,” he is describing his state of peace.  IC

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware is Titular Metropolitan of Diokleia under the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Metropolitan Ware lives in England. This essay was edited from a talk given at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship retreat in Vézelay, France in April 1999.

 

In Communion / Winter 2013

The King’s Jubilee: A ministry to the homeless of Philadelphia by Cranford Coulter

Friday, April 26th, 2013

The King’s Jubilee:

A ministry to the homeless of Philadelphia

by Cranford Coulter 

For we are His workmanship; created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them (Eph. 2:10).

page 33 Kings Jubilee car_web

The “Jubilee” in our name stems from the desire to fulfill the Lord’s ministry of facilitating the flow of His abundance to those in society in desperate need of a second chance. It is “The King’s” jubilee because the ministry and all that we share, all who share it, and every street, park, home, and prison where it is shared belongs to Jesus Christ the King.

In the Law of Moses, every 7th year was to be a Sabbath year and every fiftieth year (the year after the seventh Sabbath year) was to be a Jubilee year when the fields were to lie fallow, all debts were to be canceled, land was to be redistributed, and slaves were to be freed for the year to give them opportunity to earn enough to buy their freedom permanently (Leviticus 25-27).

The Sabbath and Jubilee years were an acknowledgment that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” that land, the most fundamental “capital” in an agrarian society, cannot be owned by men but belongs to the Lord and could thus only be used for a time. They also declared that our God is a God of “second chances.” Every seventh and fiftieth year, those who had made bad decisions, landing them in poverty, debt, or bondage were given an opportunity to work themselves into a better situation. The Jubilee was to start with the blowing of horns and the lifting of a great shout, followed by a radical social realignment and land redistribution—another shot for all to live in freedom! But, the Jews never truly observed the Sabbath years or the Jubilee. That is why they went into captivity and remained one year for every Sabbath year they had neglected.

Isaiah 61, pointing to the ministry of Christ and his Church, suggests a continual Jubilee as the Spirit proclaims “the acceptable year of the Lord.” The Church was quick to get about the business of the Jubilee. The Epistle of St. James promotes economic equality and balance saying “Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted; but the rich, in that he is made low, because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away” (Jms. 1:9-10). The Apostle Paul spent one of his journeys collecting to provide for those suffering from a famine, encouraging the Corinthians to give willingly “that there may be equality” (2 Cor. 8:13).

From 1985 to 1988, I worked as a full-time, volunteer prison chaplain and coordinated the work of over 500 volunteers in 10 separate prison populations in Philadelphia and Montgomery Counties and Graterford State Prison. While serving in that capacity, I learned firsthand of the glaring disparities between rich and poor, between whites, blacks, and browns, and between suburbanites and inner city urbanites. I saw Montgomery County become one of the wealthiest in the country because of white flight from Philadelphia.

Seeking an authentic voice and wanting to address larger and more complicated issues, like land use and zoning, discrimination, addiction, welfare dependency, absentee fathers, and depersonalization in our society, I listened to the inmates at Graterford who told me I needed to help care for the homeless in Philadelphia. I took that as my “Macedonian call” and began serving meals to homeless people one night a week with Deacons Marvin Walker and Les Bodger.

In February 1989, my wife Bethann and I, together with our four daughters, and a few friends, formed The King’s Jubilee. We began assisting a storefront church that was already going out three nights each week to feed homeless people in Center City (downtown Philadelphia) by taking responsibility for one night ourselves. The next year, Nancy Karpinski wanted to start serving meals and sharing clothes among the poor (especially the children) on the streets of Pottstown and Stowe. We helped organize that and oversaw that work for several years. One thing led to another until The King’s Jubilee had weekly outreaches in seven towns spread across five counties in two states. In addition, there were other deliveries of material aid to various ministries on various occasions. Plus we provided free concerts and picnics in parks, a Monday Evening Bible Institute, and more.

Over time some of these ministries continued independently as local efforts, but most discontinued as conditions changed or volunteers got tired or passed away. We always saw that as OK: “It is accepted according to what a man has, not what he has not.” The King’s Jubilee continues, however, to serve a hot dinner to between 75 and 175 people in the park across the street from the family court building, at 18th and Vine Sts. in Philadelphia every Thursday evening at eight o’clock. We also distribute clothing, blankets, and toiletries. Some evenings, we give away “power packs” which can serve as a breakfast or lunch for the next day.

We get to know people and try to help in practical ways, like hooking people up with job training, helping people moving into permanent housing with cleaning supplies and equipment through our Operation Clean Start program, and helping people starting out with stocked cupboards and furniture items. We exchange phone numbers so we can stay in touch to try to help people transition into their new neighborhood. We also gather and pass on resources to other front-line ministries who do not receive government money.

My 2004 Scion xB, our mobile ministry platform, has been referred to as a clown car for a couple of reasons: it is rather colorfully decorated with decals, and occasionally spills out more people than it should be able to carry.

The checker-patterned splats on the four fenders and on the tailgate are called QR codes. They allow people to simply point their smart phones at the code and click and it takes them to our website. I added them to the car (the TKJ Mobile) after I observed someone typing the website into his smart phone while driving next to me and reading the side of my car. This is much safer. The decals always attract interest. People see them as we drive and want to donate or get involved. Recently, we received seven large bags of winter coats that employees at Selas Fluid Processing Corp. had gathered. One had seen the TKJ Mobile and shot the QR code.

Another time, while I was parked at the bank talking on my phone, a woman stood waiting by my window. I ended the call, rolled down my window, and greeted her. She asked, “Do you take in homeless children?” and told me she was about to kick her 26 year old son out of the house. I told her that he wasn’t a child, but began to discuss alternatives. Since then, we have been working with this troubled young man who struggles with heroin addiction and his family. He has helped serve on the street and with the cooking. He enjoys helping and is a skilled chef. We see this part of the ministry as homelessness prevention.

The TKJ Mobile is used as sort of a community car. People have used it when their car is in the shop, it has been to Canada to help some poor Vietnamese neighbors bless a baby, it has been to numerous court dates and to the county assistance office, and has met countless buses and trains and a few planes. I put Mercedes stars on it, because the people we carry are worthy of high class treatment. Frequently it runs on gas paid for by others, for which I am grateful. On more than one occasion, five adult men have traveled, more or less comfortably in it, along with a considerable amount of gear. It’s when we arrive somewhere to serve and people just keep getting out that I sometimes get the clown car crack.  IC

For more information, inspiration, or to donate go to www.shoutforjoy.net. Cranford is an OPF member and occasionally posts on our Facebook page.

In Communion / Winter 2013

A Sermon From Moscow: A Parish Priest Speaks to His Flock

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

by Fr. Alexander Borisov

Dear friends, our short summer is over. It was, as our poet Alexander Pushkin put it, “a parody of southern winters.” On the whole, the weather wasn’t bad: we had it hot and we had it raining. Now it is getting cold. Fall and winter lie ahead with the liturgical year and the school year starting at the same time. During the summer not only our regular work, but also the church activities slowed down. Now we have to catch up and to get into the rhythm of the congregational and spiritual life.

In fact, the current situation offers us plenty of new—or rather recurring— challenges. The whole situation around the Pussy Riot affair, with all of its absurdity and shame, is telling. It reveals the moral state of our society, both of the church and the world. We are seeing a horrible polarity of viewpoints—from harsh, Soviet-Stalinist mythologies to extreme permissiveness. We have clearly seen who we are. We have seen that religiosity coexists with intolerance, reverencing church sanctuaries while hating those of unpopular views.

But didn’t our Lord Jesus Christ say about Himself: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6)? Then in order to live like Christians don’t we need to reflect which of our Lord’s precepts applies to these particular challenges?

There are many relevant passages in the Gospel. Take the episode where Jesus and his disciples on their way to Jerusalem were not accepted in a Samaritan village. “And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them even as Elias did?’ But he turned and rebuked them and he said, ‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man came not to destroy men’s lives but to save them.’ And they went on to another village” (Luke 9:54-56).

It seems even his closest disciples were ready to release their “righteous” wrath. They even found a precedent worthy of imitation: “even as Elias did.” But Jesus “rebuked them, and said, ‘You know not what manner of spirit ye are of.’”

We Christians possess a great source of wisdom. Why guess how to act in this or that case if we have a clear word from the Gospel? Follow it, and you will never regret. The Gospel may not give a direct answer to every question important to us, but in this case, there is plenty of advice, more than we will ever need.

But when we yield to our sinful passions, especially when political factors get involved, our reaction becomes inadequate, resulting in absurd and tangled consequences.

It would have been enough to reprimand the girls and to let them go, as Deacon Andrey Kuraev suggested, or at most to sentence them to 15 days of imprisonment. Instead we have a grand trial. The scale of the prosecution and the sentence are clearly out of proportion to the persons and their mis-behavior, with the sentence turning stupid young hooligans into “heroines of our time.”

I recall an episode from the early years of Ivan Bunin, the Nobel Prize laureate in litera-ture. He was eating in a restaurant with some friends. Suddenly Vladimir Mayakovsky, then a young radical poet, appeared. He took Bunin’s glass, started drinking from it and then began eating from his plate. Bunin watched him without saying a word. Finally Mayakovsky asked “Why don’t you react?” Ivan Bunin quietly answered “It would do you too much honor.” This seems to be applicable to the current scandal.

Certainly, every Christian should have his or her own moral stand on these events and on personal moral standards. But obviously we should not be carried away by endless disputes and discussions on the Internet and in the media.

Soon after the Pussy Riot sentencing, there was a scandal in a Moscow café called Mu-Mu. A group of “Orthodox zealots” saw a girl with words from the Pussy Riot “punk prayer” on her T-shirt. They demanded that she remove the shirt. Apparently, the severe condemnation by the state court provided some people with a license to attack anyone who finds the sentence unjust or simply thinks differently.

An annual liturgy is held for the homeless at Sts. Cosmas and Damian, which includes a commemoration of those who have died on the streets of Moscow during the winter.

An annual liturgy is held for the homeless at Sts. Cosmas and Damian, which includes a
commemoration of those who have died on the streets of Moscow during the winter.

As a protest against the harsh sentence, some people—fortunately, not many— expressed their intention to leave the Russian Orthodox Church. Yes, in some difficult situations we may have a temptation to leave and “slam the door.” I think, though, that radical decisions such as “I’ll leave the Church” are the result of spiritual immaturity. In such cases, I strongly recommend that parishioners read the book The Church of the Faithful by Sergey Fudel. It has been recently published with an excellent preface by Archpriest Nikolay Balashov.

This book discusses the same issues as we face today, but it gives the answers based on the experience of the Russian Church history of the first half of the twentieth century, specifically of the “renovationist” schism that occurred within the Church in the twenties. Sergey Fudel was the son of Joseph Fudel, a famous Moscow priest who was dean of the Byturka prison church. The views of Sergey Fudel were born in suffering, in far harsher conditions than the present ones. He was arrested several times, exiled, and persecuted. In his book, he argued that even the errors made by the hierarchy cannot be an excuse for a split within a church.

Recently there was yet another reaction to the Pussy Riot trial. In some areas of Russia, some people have cut down Orthodox crosses erected in public places. (The three condemned girls, I must note, have publicly protested against these acts.) Some lawmakers immediately proposed severe punishment for such actions. However I doubt that these legislative proposals, if adopted, would add sympathy to the Church and to us Christians.

Something similar took place in Crimea in the early nineteen-nineties. The authorities in Crimea did not respond to this—Christians just erected new crosses. Soon the malefactors stopped cutting them down and Orthodoxy was only strengthened. Striving to severely punish offenders is completely opposite to St. Paul’s advice in his epistles. As he wrote:  “See that none of you repays evil for evil” (I Thess. 5:15), and “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom 12:19–21).

I’d like to finish this long epistle on a lyrical note. Our wonderful poet and bard Bulat Okudzhava speaks about dignity as an important aspect of human spirit:

Human dignity is a mysterious instrument:

Created for ages but lost in a moment.

Attacked by the noise of bellows, bombing, or babbling

It’s easily dried out or blasted down at the root.

So don’t waste yourself, brother, damn the vain chase

Or you’ll lose your primeval beauty and forsake your divine face.

Why risk all for nothing? Have you no higher cares?

So get up and go, a servant, climbing only upstairs.  IC

In Communion thanks Anna Kurt for her translation of Fr. Borisov’s sermon.

Fr. Borisov is the rector of the Church of Sts. Cosmas and Damian at Shubino in Moscow. Fr. Borisov is in the spiritual lineage of Fr. Alexander Men. His church is active in youth work, social services, and ministries to the poor and homeless. He has instituted an encompassing catechetical ministry in the belief that the path out of despair—the chief sin responsible for 98% of Russia’s problems, according to Fr. Borisov—is a firm grounding in the truths of the Church and the Gospel, the only path that will lead the Russian Church away from ignorance, superstition, xenophobia, Nationalism, and fundamentalism.

  ❖  Summer Issue / IC 65 / 2012

 

The Invisible Border

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

by Heather Zydek


There is a place where an invisible border cuts through the west side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It’s not the actual city border, which, in my part of town, is at 60th Street. At the actual border, the street signs switch from blue to green, indicating to travelers that they have left the suburb of Wauwatosa and entered Milwaukee proper.

You cross the invisible border around 40th Street. Situated near this border is the Miller Brewing Company plant, the Miller Park baseball stadium and a few industrial fields with ancient brick smoke stacks. Crossing over the border, drivers reach 35th Street and Wisconsin. There, tired-looking folks – old and young, black and white – stand idly as they wait in the cold for the bus. Across the street, stores advertise various beers in neon lights alongside signs that shout “WIC APPROVED.” [WIC – Women, Infants, Children – is a federal agency subsidizing food for low-income families.] Ancient cars chug by, spewing exhaust. Jaywalkers cross cracked streets, entering decaying mansions that were long ago converted to low-income housing.

This is only three miles from a world where doctors, lawyers, investors and computer programmers drive luxury cars, jog along beautiful river walks after work, drink organic coffee at hipster cafes and dine at upscale restaurants while listening to live jazz and discussing business and home restoration. This is my world.

I cross the invisible border daily in order to get to work. I am an English tutor at a career college in downtown Milwaukee. When I enter my classroom, I see single moms, ex-convicts, homeless women, recovering addicts. The faces are black, white, Latino, sometimes Hmong and Laotian. The sounds that fill the air include bursts of slang and noisy fights with lovers over cell phones. The odor of French fries lingers in the elevators. Some of my students come to school just to obtain their financial aid check. Others desperately want to improve their lot by educating themselves but find it nearly impossible to make it to school because of deadbeat daddies, babysitters who failed to turn up, or unreliable bus schedules.

Despite the fact that 60 percent of my students fail my class each semester, I love my job. I find it stimulating. I love my students. I love their humanity and the fact many of them have a burning desire to learn. I forget that I am separated from them by years of education, by an easy upper-middle-class childhood, by a relatively sheltered, comfortable life in the suburbs. I forget the borders that divide us until I make that drive back home.

And then I remember. Back home in my white-collar suburb, the world I left behind is but a distant memory. In my world, the “us” world, we take the highway downtown to avoid the “bad neighborhoods.” We hover over our children and hyper-schedule their lives. We go to book clubs. We have obtained master’s degrees, even PhDs. We shop at organic grocery stores. We work out at posh gyms. We are tolerant and politically correct. We dress tastefully. We exchange niceties and save gossip for private conversations. We discreetly cover our sins. We lock ourselves into strict routines and observe cultural practices that will ensure that we and our progeny remain comfortably enclosed within our class for generations.

I don’t know if there is an answer to this problem of division. I long for an answer, though, and as a teacher, I often wonder if it lies in education. Maybe if I could find the magic wand that would open the minds of a greater number of my students, they would then find ways to solve the problem of the invisible border. Or if I could encourage my friends in Wauwatosa to stop ignoring the invisible border, maybe little by little things could change for the better.

The ugly truth is I have much to confront in myself before I can expect anyone or anything to change. I am a willing slave of the suburban mentality. I have chosen to live within the safe and comfortable confines of suburbia. I have chosen this because I am afraid of discomfort and poverty, afraid of the urban cultures that are largely foreign to me as a suburbanite through and through. And until I can get over these fears, I cannot expect the invisible border to go away.

I think about this at night, as I take in the sights along Wisconsin Avenue on my drive home from work, past the haggard faces at 35th street, over the border around 40th, into the neighborhoods that become increasingly charming and well groomed the higher the numbers on the intersecting streets. I think, and I wonder, and I question, and I grow sad, until I am both relieved and tired when I return home.

I am happy where I live and sad for those living on the other side of the border, yet I am disappointed at my own sadness, disappointed at my own sense of judgment and condescension. It makes me ponder such phrases as “the poor you will have with you always” and “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Though I am not without hope, I dwell on these words, try to interpret them and explain them away as I wonder, every day, what life would be like if that invisible border did not exist. ❖

Heather Zydek is a writer, college English instructor and sustainability activist. She is the editor of The Revolution: A Field Manual for Changing Your World and author of the children’s novel, Basil’s Search for Miracles.

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 61 / July 2011

One Parish’s Engagement with its Homeless Neighbors

Sunday, December 7th, 2008

by Jill Wallerstedt

The morning begins as most do: friends coming for breakfast. A table spread with toast, peanut butter, jelly, butter, honey, bagels, cereal and milk makes you want to fill your belly, then have a cup of coffee or tea and chat about what’s going on around our small town.

We are part of St. Brigid Fellowship, an outreach to the homeless here in Isla Vista, California. To be homeless is to be nameless, avoided, shunned, blamed, hungry and exposed to the elements. Each morning that St. Brigid’s opens its door, every visitor is known by name, has a place to belong, and finds friends, acceptance, food, clothing and help getting out of any situations they wish to leave.

Isla Vista is a densely-packed, square-mile beach-side community which abuts the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB). It is home to students from UCSB and Santa Barbara City College, who make up 85 percent of the population, as well as homeowners, low-income workers, and homeless (many of whom prefer the term “unhoused” because Athe earth is our home.”)

Neighboring Santa Barbara deserves its reputation as a beautiful haven for the wealthy, lying between scenic foothills and the Pacific Ocean, and blessed with nearly year-round sunshine. For the not-so-wealthy, the limited housing and high cost of living make it difficult to make ends meet. Isla Vista and Goleta offer lower cost housing, but even so, a one bedroom apartment in Isla Vista rents for $1,100 a month. Students who rent on the nicest, beach-side streets pay $850 each for the privilege of sharing a bedroom with an ocean view.

Many of the unhoused come to Isla Vista because it is a small community and easy to navigate. The parks are their hang-outs. It’s illegal to sleep in the parks or in vehicles anywhere in Isla Vista at night, so a lot of sleeping happens during the day. Those with income are eligible for low-cost housing, but the waiting time is two to five years once you apply. The existing shelters are almost always full. There are no social services available here: the nearest ones are six miles away and the rest are in downtown Santa Barbara, twelve miles away. To survive, those without income or government benefits get money for food and alcohol by panhandling (or “spanging spare changing) or collecting cans and bottles to recycle for money.

St. Athanasius Antiochian Orthodox Church is near the heart of Isla Vista on a parcel of land surrounded by these parks. Our parish has been here since the early 1970s, long before we became Orthodox converts in 1987. We had a monthly food distribution for the poor for many years and have served Christmas breakfast for many years since.

In 1999 a group of Protestant volunteers asked if they could use our church kitchen to serve a weekly meal to the homeless on Thursday nights. They brought pre-cooked meals to our stove-less kitchen, set tables up outside, held a Bible study and then served dinner. I remember looking at the meeting on the patio, and thinking how nice it would be if they came into Vespers with us.

When this group could no longer provide meals, Fr. Jon-Stephen Hedges, our assistant pastor, took over. He moved the meal night to Monday and served one-pot soups and stews he cooked at home and hamburgers he grilled on the church barbecue. Attendance grew, perhaps because the only overtly religious elements to the dinners were the prayer beforehand and the cook’s clerical collar.

Fr. Jon got to know Aour neighbors on the streets,” as he calls them, and earned their trust. He heard their stories, made friends, helped where he could. They started to drop by his office on the church property during the week, and eventually, his other church work suffered. At the time, I was looking for a new job, and I was blessed to be offered a full-time job by the church in 2005: half-time raising money for our church school, St. John of Damascus Academy, and half-time working as assistant to Fr. Jon in his various duties.

Within a few months we realized that our work on the streets needed its own office. We rented space in the next-door medical clinic with a room for my office, a sitting area and supply closets, and a meeting room where mental health workers, job counselors and other providers could meet with us and our “clients.”

We opened the doors three mornings a week for drop-ins. Fr. Jon-Stephen named the ministry after St. Brigid, the Irish saint who was a compatriot of St. Patrick’s and who is commemorated both east and west. The scroll on her icon reads: “To care for the poor; To lighten everyone’s burden; To comfort the suffering.” This became our motto. The church agreed to a modest budget for our ministry.

Fr. Jon continued to see our neighbors in his office, but he was able to refer the simpler, day-to-day needs to me. The work started slowly. I handed out hygiene supplies, sleeping bags, coats, bus tokens, rain gear, and socks which were purchased by the church or donated. We offered the use of our telephone for calls and messages, and our address for applying for benefits and receiving mail. We served coffee. I met people and established friendships. I learned street names (Pirate, Wolf, Leprechaun, Veg-man) and their real names. I learned how to respond to angry outbursts as well as abject misery. I laughed and cried with people. I heard what it was like to be on the streets: stories of how others treated them, looked at them, how inequitable the system was. I became used to missing teeth, dirty hands, unkempt hair. The requests were so direct: AIt was freezing last night. Do you have anything warm to wear?” “I need a tarp to put over my sleeping bag when it rains.” “How do I get on food stamps?” “Do you have clean socks?”

We never intended to meet every need, especially those that were addressed by other organizations in Santa Barbara. We installed a rack with brochures about local services. From the start we were blessed to have the presence of Jennifer Ferraez, a parishioner who is also a Santa Barbara County Mental Health Outreach Worker for the Homeless. She arranged weekly visits to St. Brigid as part of her outreach, and taught me about the resources available in our community. She also provided the mental health assessments, referrals and counseling so many of our people needed. She is my sounding board and an ever-ready source of information.

As my unhoused friends started to trust me, they confided more. In this sometimes painful, personal exchange I heard about failed marriages, abusive childhoods, deep sorrows. I often felt overwhelmed. Prayer became a constant ally. I met people who were alcoholic or drug dependent, had mental illness, chronic medical conditions B and some with all three. I had my first face to face conversation with someone who was psychotic (he confided he was a superhero and offered to teach me to fly.) Most wanted housing, some lived in vehicles, others were happy on the streets if they could keep warm and fed.

I learned to make referrals for food stamps and general relief, how to help someone apply for SSI. Sometimes I couldn’t help in any other way but to listen, and mostly this was the most important. A public health nurse visited once a week, and the clinic downstairs began to see homeless people without charge.

About a year into the work, we had to move while the clinic remodeled. Since the move was to be temporary, we rented a portable construction office for $125 a month, a large trailer that occupied four spaces in our parking lot. I hung yellow lace curtains in the windows, which were quite silly really. St. Brigid’s new home quickly became known as “the dumpster with curtains.”

In the narrow trailer I had two storage cabinets in the back, my desk, filing cabinet and computer in the middle, and a table in front across from the door for a coffee pot and a computer that people could use. We stored sleeping bags and blankets under a slanted, built-in drafting-table, and put the phone and reference books on top of it. Actually, this is all that’s needed to start an outreach ministry – an open door, some basic supplies, an open heart.

Jennifer continued to come in once a week and to the Monday night dinners to help and teach. Fr. Jon-Stephen’s office was still next door on the church property and he came by daily. People began to drop by in greater numbers, not just to get something they needed but to hang out and talk. A sense of community emerged.

Somewhere along the line I developed my two rules: the first is that St. Brigid’s is a place of peace, a refuge from the streets, and that shouting, swearing and anger belonged elsewhere. (Some of the men who came in were so sensitive that if someone outside even used a loud voice in happy conversation, they would become upset and unable to talk.) The second rule was not to take coffee from the coffee pot before it finished brewing. I also inconspicuously monitored conversations and re-directed any that were inappropriate or disruptive.

We started serving peanut butter and jelly and bread with the coffee; then we got a toaster. The food table was outside the trailer. When it was cold we all wore coats. We jury-rigged a tarp outside that we could sit under when it rained, but we still got wet. One particularly rainy, blustery day, a friend got a large tarp out of her van and we all worked together to hang it around the church’s Sunday awning. I learned how to make ties from pieces of torn t-shirt. It worked fairly well as the only rain shelter in the area that day. We used the trailer for two years, then found out that the medical clinic was sold and we could not return to our office there.

We recently moved into a larger trailer on the church property and now have the luxury of two rooms: one for an office, and the other for our food table, supplies, computers, chairs and beginning library. When it’s sunny we use the deck outside and when it rains, we will even have a roof. What a concept!

We’re now open five days a week for breakfast. With a grant we received we are hiring a 15-hour-a-week helper, Nikki Coalson, a young woman in our church. This means I can work with people in crisis while she makes sure everything runs smoothly. We are applying for other grants to expand our services.

I wish I had time to tell you the stories. Each person has his/her own, and together we have made new ones. Our team B all part time in the work B has made referrals for alcohol/drug detox, found people housing, gotten them benefits, seen them succeed, seen them relapse and start drinking again, shared joys, arranged reunions with family, had friends die.

The Monday night dinners have continued, drawing more people, some who never come in the mornings. Members of our church and the community help cook and serve, including doctors, nurses and politicians. There is now a group of UCSB pre-med students who have started a group called “Street Health Outreach”. They also cook a Saturday morning breakfast once a month and do street rounds the other Saturdays.

St. Brigid Fellowship has become a community, and a unifying force in Isla Vista. Fr. Jon-Stephen works Athe big picture” to make connections with other agencies and publicize our work as well as continuing his personal relationships here. Fr. Jon carries a badge as Chaplain to the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department and several other agencies. On him, the badge is a bridge. He also has an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT-B) certification. All of us work together to solve homelessness one person at a time. We’re part of Santa Barbara County’s Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness.

As for philosophy, we use an “incarnational model,” meeting people on the streets as Jesus did, addressing immediate needs and starting relationships that can lead out of homelessness. This is not a one-way ministry, us to them. All of us, both housed and unhoused, work together to solve problems.

When things are tough, we look at others as Mother Teresa did, as Christ in his distressing disguise, and do all with love. As St. John Kronstadt reminds us: “Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him; because evil is but a chance misfortune, an illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”

This work is a blessing. My faith has grown, as has my prayer life.

If you or your parish is considering starting an outreach ministry, just know that it can be done simply. The most important part is taking the time to listen and talk. Your ministry can be handing out socks or sack lunches in the park, or feeding people once a week, or giving gift certificates to fast food or grocery stores. Whatever it is, take the time to talk. Introduce yourself and ask their name. You would be surprised how meaningful just exchanging names is to a person who is used to being snubbed and ignored. Don’t think you have to address all of the problems you will encounter – just do your part and listen to the Lord who will walk along side you and give you guidance, joy and peace.

Feel free to contact me, Fr. Jon-Stephen Hedges, and Jennifer Ferraez at office@saintb.sbcoxmail.com, or (805) 968-8028.

Better yet, join us for breakfast and a cup of coffee. We would love to meet you.

Jill Wallerstedt has lived in Isla Vista, California for 30 years. She lives in a house dedicated to St. Xenia with two roommates and works for St Athanasius Orthodox Church as a homeless outreach worker and a fund-raising professional. Her dream is to be a full-time writer and live in community.

Then and Now: Confessions of an Outreach Worker

Then, when I saw a homeless person, I saw the dishevelment, shuffling, and shopping cart. Now I see a person with a story. Not likely a happy story, but there might be some joy in it. Maybe grace.

Then I saw filth, poor hygiene, beards and thought, go to a shelter. Now I know that the street is safer for some people, and there are not enough beds to go around for the rest.

Then I noticed the skin sores and rashes, hacking coughs, missing teeth. Now I see the bigger problems: the ?structure resistance” keeping a person away from services; the bad receptions at health clinics; the perfunctory dismissals for inability to pay; the lack of dental providers even for those with benefits.

Then I saw the blank stares and the “off in their own world” look and thought mental illness. Now I know that it might be a sane defense against the constant stares and comments of others.

Then I thought, get a job. Now I know the devastation of untreated mental illness and substance abuse, the consequences of severe child abuse, the effects of 35 years in jail. I know that the simple lack of a shower and clean clothes can cost a person their job.

Then I asked, Why doesn’t someone solve this problem? Now I ask – what is your name? Do you have somewhere safe to sleep? Are you warm enough? Do you want to talk?

Then I saw anonymous people, lumped together in my brain in the category “Avoid if at all possible, be kind if not able to avoid, keep your hand on your purse.” Now I know Rainbow from Little Rick. I know how people get their street names: Nira Dave, Buckethead, Veg-man. More importantly I know their given names, the names I call them by. A name is the beginning of identity.

Then I thought all homeless were alike. Now I know that some avoid everyone, including other homeless people, while others find strength in numbers. I know who drinks to excess and who can hold their liquor, who I can count on for help and who will just use me. I know why the women are on the street and why they always have a boyfriend, no matter how bad he is.

Then I believed everyone’s story. Now I take everything with a grain of salt until I can verify it.

Then I felt lower middle class, comparing myself to most others in Santa Barbara. Now, my car, roof, shower, washer, money, and health insurance seem like incredible wealth. Keys are a status symbol.

Then I wondered where brilliance and madness intersected and how to tell the difference. I still wonder.

Then I saw objects. Now I see individuals.

C Jill Wallerstedt

Fall 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 51