Saturday, May 7, 2022

HOMILY – Fourth Sunday of Easter – Sacred Encounters


          Over the years, I've been asked by friends what they can do to help a homeless person they've met on the streets.

I tell them the most important thing we can do is be a friend, walk with the person, continue to offer the ministry of presence. This is the best medicine for our ailing unhoused friends – to let them know they’re not alone.

We do this every Wednesday with Sacred Encounters.

          In the winter of 2005, L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez was searching of a good news story. He never expected that his life would be forever changed, or richly blessed, or that he’d have a new lifelong friend in a homeless man.

As he was sitting in a downtown Los Angeles park one sunny afternoon, he heard a homeless man playing a violin. The instrument only had two strings on it, but the music being played was remarkably beautiful.

          Lopez struck up a conversation with the man and quickly discerned he was mentally ill due to his rapid-fire speech making little sense and seeming completely disconnected from reality.

But the man did make a reference to once being a student at Julliard (Julliard is the nation’s premiere music school based in New York City).

Lopez thought, ‘Now that’s a good news story: A former Julliard student now living homeless on the streets of L.A. playing a violin.”

So after his brief encounter, the columnist contacted Julliard and found out that in fact Nathaniel Anthony Ayers had been a student there in the early 1970s, but dropped out after only a few years.

In his early 20’s, Nathaniel suffered a mental breakdown at Julliard due to the onset of schizophrenia.

          Since then, he’d been living on the streets, surviving day to day by raiding trash bins and living off the throwaways and scraps of our society of abundance.

No one chooses to be homeless.  It’s never a choice.  Life circumstances lead people to the streets: abuse in the home, addiction, mental illness, poverty.

Often, these people feel frightening to us. 

But every one of these people living on the streets is somebody’s daughter, somebody’s mother, somebody’s son or father or sister or brother.

They were not born mentally ill. They were not born addicted to drugs or alcohol. They were not born homeless.

          There’s a story behind each one of these human souls.  And their story will break your heart – if you take the time to listen and learn it.

Homeless people are the most disenfranchised and neglected people in American society today.  And they don’t have a voice.  

You could be that voice.

The problem of homelessness is huge here in the Pacific Northwest. Our region has the third worst homelessness problem in the nation.  And over 90% of the homeless in our area are native Washingtonians.

There are a million reasons why people live on the streets. There are no easy answers, no simple solutions to the problem. 

          Experts say the homeless crisis is not going to go away until we resolve as a society to provide permanent housing for our sisters and brothers living on the streets.  

Some experts say, “It costs just 16-thousand dollars a person a year to provide an apartment and social and clinical services. It costs 100-thousand dollars a year if we leave a person on the streets and they cycle through the public health system and jail. And when they cycle through they always land back on the sidewalk and there’s been no resolution to their long-term homelessness and no improvement to their health.”  

These experts say, “We can end street-dwelling homelessness in about two years with the right investment and in the short-run it will actually save taxpayer money.” 

          L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez ended up doing not just one story about Nathaniel, but a series of stories that touched the hearts of millions of people who have now seen the movie and read the book “The Soloist.”

In one touching scene, Lopez finds his friend Nathaniel as he’s bedding down for the night amidst the chaos of the night streets of Skid Row.

As he’s preparing to go to sleep, the unhoused man starts to pray for all the troubled men and women around him, the mass of humanity that occupy a few square blocks of downtown Los Angeles, “a lost colony of broken, homeless souls.” He prays a simple and poignant Our Father. 

Lopez wrote of this scene in one of his columns, “Every night my friend Nathaniel tucks his instruments away and lays his head among the predators and hustlers, among fallen drunks, sprawled on the streets, as rats the size of meatloaves dart out of drains to feed off the squalor.  I tell him this is no place for him.” 

A line from the second reading from Revelation was read at a Memorial Service for a homeless friend who died on the streets of Everett.  His fellow unhoused friends heard the Good Shepherd’s voice with the line, “and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The promise of eternal life, a life free of pain and suffering is promised to us all, yes, even our brothers and sisters living on the streets of our community.

           In the end, Mr. Lopez and Mr. Ayers became good friends. And his friend Nathaniel, thanks to the power of their friendship, no longer lives on the streets, but in permanent housing.

Steve blessed Nathaniel with the ministry of presence and the relationship richly blessed both of their lives.

The ministry of presence is what we offer with Sacred Encounters, in addition to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, needed survival supplies, and socks.  Lots of socks.

          If you’re interested in finding out more, please ask one of our team members to share their stories.

The idea of joining us on the streets may seem daunting or overwhelming to you. That’s OK. There many other ways you can help us behind the scenes.

          You can help by making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Our young people can help by launching sock drives at their schools.

The day will come, my sisters and brothers, when we ALL will be joined together amidst “a great multitude, which no one (can) count, from every nation, race, people and tongue.”

          We all will stand before the throne of the Lamb, wearing our white robes, holding palm branches in our hands.

And "The one who sits on the throne will shelter (us). And (we) will not hunger or thirst anymore."

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