When a Homeless Storyteller Came to Church

Tom Monahan 02.22.15Through my work with Public Voice at City Mission Society (www.cmsboston.org), I have been privileged to join Boston’s clergy in their response to the homelessness crisis in Boston. Following the closing of the Long Island Bridge last October, Boston’s homeless lost access to 600 shelter beds and two important detox programs. Since then, Boston clergy have been meeting cross-denominationally to discuss and respond to the growing needs of Boston’s homeless citizens through this ruthless winter. The result is “Boston Warm” (www.Bostonwarm.weebly.com).

As one of Boston Warm’s initiatives, Public Voice has been providing story support and outreach to “guests” who have been utilizing the newly formed day shelters temporarily set up in the basements of two Boston churches. Through storytelling training, Public Voice has been supporting “guests” to tell their stories and share them with area congregations who have been generous with donations. The goal has been to put a human face on homelessness. For those who share their stories, it is a chance to be witnessed, heard and know that their stories matter.

To see the impact of a homeless storyteller on one congregation, please enjoy the following blog written by Reverend Phil LaBelle of the St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Southborough, MA. You can go to: www.ramblingpriest.com/when-a-homeless-person-came-to-church/ or continue to read below!

When a Homeless Person Came to Church

The parish I serve, St. Mark’s in Southborough, was founded in 1860 by a local business man Joseph Burnett. Joseph gave land and money to build our church building in 1862 with one stipulation: it had to be free to all without regard to wealth, color or station in life. In other words, if you wanted to worship with us you were welcome.

Yesterday we had two special guests worshipping with us. Lani Peterson of the City Mission Society of Boston came to talk about the BostonWarm program, our open plate offering recipient of the month (we give all undesignated money that comes in the plate to a worthy organization). But rather than just sharing about the program, Lani thought it would be best if an actual recipient shared about the impact.

So we met Tom.

BostonWarm began due to the bridge leading to Long Island in Boston Harbor was closed amidst safety concerns. This led to the closure of a 500 bed shelter for the homeless and a more than 200 bed facility for those wanting to get sober. The most urgent need according to those impacted was a warm, safe place to go during the day. Two churches opened up their doors for this purpose through BostonWarm.

And Tom benefited.

During our announcement time, Tom stood in front of our assembled congregations talking about his normal day. Getting up between 4:30 and 5 to pack up his things and move on before someone forced him off the bench or from the location on which he had bedded down for the night. How he must carry 80 lbs of stuff—all his earthly belongings—with him wherever he goes, even the things he might only need once a week. He and other homeless folks can’t be in one place too long without being told they have to keep moving, that they don’t belong and aren’t wanted.

Tom looked out over the people gathered and said, “I can’t go to a mall and sit on the chairs provided there. You could, of course. You could go and sit all day if you’d like. If I sit for more than a couple of minutes, I’ll be told to leave because of how I look.” He then explained how the program gave him a chance to get in out of the cold, to be treated with dignity and respect. He could talk about issues of the day—like the problems with the local transit due to all the snow—and also leave his things in a locked portable storage locker. “I’m not told that I’m not wanted or welcomed,” he told us. “I can come in and get warm and have coffee and maybe a peanut butter sandwich. What more could I need?”

I’m not sure if Tom is the first homeless person to worship at St. Mark’s, but I do know he’s the first who came and was given a microphone to tell his story. I know for certain he’s the first homeless person I’ve had over for a meal at my home even though the Bible is pretty clear I should be doing that regularly. Tom reminded us all that he’s just another human being on this journey of life needing companionship and conversation like any of us.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see Tom again, or what he’ll be doing tonight when the temperature once again falls below zero. But I do know this: he reminded me of the power found in Joseph Burnett’s words. All of us are God’s children regardless of the ways we label people in our world. All are welcome into God’s loving embrace. And I know that on a snowy Sunday morning for a few hours a group of parishioners got to know an intriguing and caring man who just happened to no longer have a place to call home. He became Tom to us, a beloved child of God. And I suspect that would make Joseph Burnett proud.