Heart-less in Camden?


Editor’s Note: In today’s entry, Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works in Camden, NJ, reflects on his experience of living in close contact with homeless people. The fact that some people do not have basic necessities such as housing is a challenge to all Christians, and Mike wrestles with some of the questions this issue raises and different options for how we can respond in love.
Recently, some 300 people with connections to the Oblates in the D.C. area gathered at Bishop Ireton High School for “Live Jesus Day” a morning of reflection, prayer and community in the Salesian tradition. As one of the presenters, I used the occasion to share experiences and insights from life in Camden.
I talked about the experience of having Ken and Barbie live on the front porch of the Oblate residence for the fall and much of the winter of this year. I frequently talk about this particularly poignant experience since they are such nice people, and we have gotten to know them pretty well. They have been our most sociable homeless neighbors since we arrived in August 2008.
When cold weather came, they set up camp on the front porch. Our front door with its floor-to-ceiling stained glass panel became a thin wall separating our two worlds. Because of the glass panel, we could never forget they were out there in the cold and insecurity of homelessness, while we lived and worked warm and secure in our middleclass world inside.
If I have any insight to share from this, it is that it is important to be unsettled as Christians as long as anyone, anywhere, lives without the necessities of life. Beyond that is the insight that there are no quick and easy solutions to poverty, homelessness, mental illness, and addiction that plague our neighbors—near or distant.
I think I may have come across in my “Live Jesus” presentation as heart-less because I lived for months face to face with these neighbors exposed in the cold.
What could we do? We talked about inviting Ken and Barbie in out of the cold: we have three guest rooms. But then would we invite the next people who pick our porch as a home? How about the others in our parking lot or across Market Street in that lot? We have three guest rooms, but I also have a double bed—couldn’t I share? People could sleep on our couches. Our floors are carpeted—even the tiled kitchen floor would be better than sleeping outside. Even our basement would be better.
It sounds like we need a homeless shelter set up to help people in this situation. But even with a shelter, there would be a limit, finite amount of beds, rules for order. Speaking for our area, Camden has far too few shelters for the numbers of homeless in our region. And our entire nation has insanely inadequate mental health and addiction services.
We did not invite our neighbors to live in our house. But we did offer food, kindness, patience, respect, and encouragement to connect with city services. We continued to work with other area Churches and groups to develop some kind of shelter before next fall. But still nothing about the situation can let us rest satisfied. The fact that we live on top of the problem in Camden as literal neighbors to these “least brothers and sisters” keeps the unfinished nature of the situation before us. But really, wherever you or I live and work, our needy neighbors are here, even if they are out of sight or at a distance.
I always replay homilies and talks in my mind after I give them. Replaying this one after “Live Jesus 2010,” there is much I would do differently. Two specific things I would add are these questions for the assembly: “What would you do if two homeless people lived outside your door?” Second, because there is need, whether we see it daily or not, I would ask, “What do you do?”
The answer to “What do you do?” would likely include donations and great support for efforts in inner cities and in poor nations, prayer and study, and direct service. It would likely include support for public policy in our nation to make social structures more fair and just, to offer support for those who find themselves deep in holes, improvement to the U.S. health system, improvement for our education system. There are not quick fixes; justice has a complexity.
Whatever efforts we participate in, the point remains, that as long as anyone anywhere is without what is needed for a decent living, Christians cannot rest satisfied. We will be in that state until the Lord himself comes to establish the fullness of God’s kingdom. Until that “kingdom come,” we do our best to respond to the challenge.

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