by The Rev. Deacon Barbara Ambrose
This blog post appeared on the Virginia Supportive Housing blog and was condensed from a sermon delivered at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on July 17 by The Rev. Deacon Barbara Ambrose.
My husband John and I often enjoy visiting Washington DC during the Christmas holidays to see all the decorations, visit museums and try out a new restaurant or two. It is not unusual for us to stroll downtown in the evenings when homeless people are emerging to set up sleeping areas in the doorways and niches of buildings closed for the night. It is surreal to be sharing the sidewalk with expensively dressed people heading to warm environments and nourishing meals and then look down and see another human being in deep sleep under blankets and plastic sheeting surrounded by all that they possess. Responding to these situations is difficult – I have felt powerless to do anything other than pray for the homeless person as I pass and wonder how human beings can live in such desperate conditions in the midst of so much wealth, power, and beauty.
Of course one need not travel as far as Washington to experience the reality of homelessness. For decades Richmond’s population has included people who make their home on the streets. Many suffer with mental and physical illnesses that impede their ability to make a living or different choices. Numerous groups work tirelessly to assist these most vulnerable members of society, but there is also a tacit effort to keep “the homeless” in designated areas. In recent months great controversy erupted as plans to improve Monroe Park included vanquishing the homeless individuals living there, removing them along with debris and pushing them ever further toward the margins of society.
Maybe it is our human nature to establish artificial constructs of “good” and “bad” and then to separate out the bad. As children, the criteria for separation may be the way someone dresses or the color of their hair. Disabilities can also render children the target of scorn and estrangement from their classmates. As we get older the lines of demarcation are just as arbitrary – athletic prowess, intellect, or career path. And disability, mental illness or chronic medical conditions often remain as lines of separation.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus makes it quite clear that the job of judging our fellow human beings will fall to the angels and not to us. As Matthew’s Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13:24) demonstrates, it is not our job to determine which plants should remain in the field and which should be removed. But I do believe that we are expected to tend the field – keep it watered and nurtured so that it remains a fertile ground for the plants to flourish and mature.
The Oregon Hill Neighborhood [where St. Andrews is located] is one such field, and we have long been aware that our community includes homeless people. While many within this congregation have longed for the ability to confront the challenge of homelessness in a meaningful and loving way, the path has seemed ambiguous and daunting. Fortunately an opportunity to participate in a city-wide initiative has emerged, and there has been some exciting planning underway to participate in 1000 Homes for 1000 Virginians – Richmond campaign. This project’s goal is to systematically locate and interview every chronically homeless person in Richmond and include them in a registry that will be used to provide housing to those in the most need as it becomes available. Virginia Supportive Housing and Homeward are the two agencies leading this initiative, along with the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness. The advantage of partnering with them is that they have the resources and expertise to develop and facilitate a comprehensive program that can make a substantive impact in lives of chronically homeless individuals. With their guidance we can engage in specific tasks that will contribute to this very ambitious undertaking.
After training on July 31, a group from our parish will go out into our neighborhood on three consecutive mornings to locate and interview our homeless brothers and sisters so they can be included in the registry. Volunteers are also needed to compile the information gathered by teams throughout the city, help manage the central command center, and support everyone involved with this project.
While registry week is the focus of this initial “mission trip at home” it is only a beginning. This is an opportunity to cross that elusive line that has challenged our engagement with homeless people residing in our community. Each of us can discern how we might be called to follow that path to tend our field and ensure that every plant growing here has a chance to flourish. Hopefully our efforts will enable some who live on the streets of our community to eventually move to their own homes, and as we grow in relationship with them we can help facilitate those transitions, all the while celebrating our shared humanity as children of the kingdom.