The homeless are literally everywhere. When I worked in the wealthy, and "Oh, so fashionable" Hamptons, they stood out like an infected blemish on the chin. In NYC, they were a normal part of the landscape. Here in Racine, I witness them in clusters at the Hospitality Center, Cup of Hope, HALO, or on the grid of downtown streets.
The homeless in Winter all look pretty much the same, fairly unkempt, dingy, skin weathered and worn, hands callused or chapped or red, and their feet in shoes a few sizes too large, with several layers of socks or none at all. They often wear more than one frayed coat or several hooded sweatshirts. Everything they own seems stained. Their hats are worn low, nearly covering their faces. They appear sad, anxious, distraught, and quite vacant.
On a recent walk downtown I was struck by the number of homeless individuals wandering about on Main Street. The sun was out. The temperature was blissfully above twenty. Folks were stretching their muscles. Most of the homeless folks were clutching steaming cups of coffee in large Styrofoam mugs. They never made eye contact with me. Even if I said “hello”, the best I could get was a polite nod. I understood. They stood out, because they carried their belongings with them.
After my lunch meeting, I walked back to my car. This time the sidewalks were full of well-groomed and nicely attired business folk. I would guess they were secretaries, accountants, lawyers, retail clerks, and an assortment of other professional people. I noted the absence of grime. I noticed that they were all snug and warm in their winter gear. They had good gloves, and scarves, and hats. No shock here. These people were of a whole different status and class. It showed.
But then it struck me right between the eyes. Their faces also looked quite grim. There were few if any smiles, and no greetings of any kind. This segment of the work force just hurried along. They were all business. They had places to go, people to see, and things to do. No time to waste. They also looked blank. Empty. Quite alone, and spiritually speaking, they too looked – well, homeless.
Our spiritual home is our soul. The soul is encased in the longings and yearnings and desires of the heart. The soul seeks contact with God, communion with a higher power, and intimacy with other human beings. The soul thrives in community. The soul also requires ample time in silence and solitude and stillness. The soul is what informs us of our wants, and wishes, and needs, and hopes, and even our dreams. The soul speaks God’s language. It is a language expressed in deep feelings and frequent sighs. The soul requires ample time to rest and play.
The physically homeless, those who lack a place to live, a dwelling to keep them warm, and to protect them from the elements, seek to find shelter. They need the comfort of a home, a place to be at home, to feel at home and to share with a family of some kind. The physically homeless simply want a chance to have a roof over their head, and walls which will protect them from Life’s fiercest winds. These good folks wander our streets seeking to find someplace to belong, to fit in, to stop the surging anxiety that courses through their veins.
I am sad to say it, and I may be reading too much into those professional faces and folks I saw hustling down the streets of Racine, Wisconsin, but they looked the same. The same alienated and forgotten look adorned their faces. The very same blank empty stares. I witnessed in them a lack of engagement, a detachment. I saw a longing in their stride. They were bent against the wind, and kept their eyes on their feet. Were they simply the homeless of the spiritual kind? Were they too seeking to find a place where they truly belonged, fit, and were accepted? A place where they might find the love we all seek in a home?
I am not sure. I wonder about it. I just sense that we have as many souls who are spiritually homeless, as we do those who are trying to find adequate shelter. Homelessness in America, on some level, is everybody’s issue. Homelessness which yields the absence of a soul may not be as immediately painful and agonizing, but over the long haul, it will be as destructive as daily beach erosion – until that which was once sturdy and solid, just slips away into the sea.
Homelessness is the basic human need for shelter. It can also be the basic human need to possess a soul. Without either, Life becomes a grind of epic proportions, a slogging we cannot survive, a devouring of the body and the spirit, and a breaking of the back or the will. Shelter and soul, without either or each, our lives are reduced to mere survival, and we become susceptible to a shattering hopelessness, which like a ferocious virus can sap our spirit.
Just surviving, mugs us of our integrity and dignity and maturity. We become cracked, soiled, stained, chipped, broken, dirt encrusted objects of little to no good use. We disappear. Fade into the oblivion of indifference or ignorance or both. We fail miserably to be the beautiful creatures we were indeed created to be. Life was never meant to be an endurance test nobody passes. It was meant to be a present, a gift, we received with a big bow upon it.
Homelessness spoils the party. It robs our days and lives of a reason to celebrate. It destroys our chance to receive all of the gifts. It fails to blow out all the candles. It drops the cake on the floor. We need to get rid of it, so we can once again rejoice.
The ministry can be a swarming disappointment. It can be getting up every day to consider who you will fail, or how you will not get it all done, and what excuses you will use to cover. It is a job which secretly expects us to be Jesus, and unfortunately, we often buy into the lie. Still, there are moments in ministry so magical, so miraculous, they leave us utterly transformed.
One such moment came for me upon a visit to a parishioner at the hospital. She was 80 and dying of congestive heart failure. There was a quiet but squirming acceptance of this truth in her family, and from her husband of 58 years, but it yielded not an ounce of calm. The first minutes of my visit were plagued by the expectations of my being able to create in her a whiff of hope. As if my words would somehow ignite within her a determination and drive to live several more days or weeks or even months.
I knew this was not the case. I knew how exhausted she was, how sick of being sick. I understood her dread of being put on the breathing apparatus once again, or having to slog her way through another bout of fighting to breathe. She was a trooper, but she was done. Her kids just were not ready to say good-bye, and clung to her presence with a tenacity which spoke volumes on the quality of her mothering. They knew life without her would be a bit barren, a little more brutal, and without an afghan under which to curl their own weary souls.
After about twenty minutes of strained awkward polite religious jargon filled chatter, her husband asked his children to step out of the room, in order that he and I might have a talk with his beloved wife. The children began to weep, as they knew the meaning of this signal. Dad would offer a good-bye for all of them, a farewell which would grant her permission to sail beyond all of this. Father did know best, and the children left with their mates, and reminded him they would be just down the hall.
He walked over to his wife’s bedside. I stayed put in a chair across from him, on the other side of his wife’s bed. He took her pretty pink hand, still remarkably smooth, and adorned with recent nail polish. He looked down upon her, and she up at him. They did not speak a word. The silence shouted of such love and mercy and joy and sorrow and having gone through so much together. In that single look I knew so much of what had made up the content of their lives.
Their commitment and coziness in being a couple, the pure unadulterated happiness of creating home and family, and their knowing it was never easy, and how the burden of this long slog was at times almost impossible to carry. It was a look which spoke of it now being over. It was a look which said that it and she and he were finished. It was a quiet moving tribute of a love which had weathered many storms, and created many clear blue skies.
Our hand holding prayer was brief and a rapid recounting of obvious blessings. He then looked at her and said, “Well?” to which she responded with a sliver of a smile, “Well?” We began to leave the room, when she spoke in a voice of power and might, “I will be waiting for you!” We turned, and he said with a quiver, “You had better be.” I grasped his strong shoulder and led him out the door and down the hall into the waiting arms of his children. They asked him what he had said to her, and he told them, “Nothing much.”
In the connected, silent language of those loving, long-married and long-loved couples, the phrase, "Nothing much," can be translated to really mean "Everything."
Reverend William R. Grimbol has spent the past 30+ years helping people create and develop strong spiritual connections with loved ones and God. He is also a published author, with over a dozen books to his credit.