As many know, our parish is home to the latest exhibit of the WE ARE ALL HOMELESS project. We are, together with so many others, enhancing our vision to help the marginalized, improving the way homeless persons are given their humanity back, deepening our call to support those persons experiencing homelessness, and broadening the ways that we can actually help. We are also using our venue to allow others to come and change their views, deepen their own commitment, and educate the young on our mutual call as humanity to be nicer, to help others, demonstrate compassion, and to love one another. And, the primary reason we chose this time of year was to tie the vision and exhibit to our Lenten call to change for the better. Sadly, we have met with some unexpected resistance, and most of it right here within our very own walls.
This past week I have dealt with a few emails and two meetings of those who objected to our exhibit. Now their reasons ranged from some of the exhibit pieces containing ‘objectionable’ words like ‘porn stars’ to us not being a secure sight because people are coming to see the exhibit, but the worst reason of all, “these people and their signs are dirty.”
Let me first address the security issue: To be clear, the exhibit is open to the public from Wednesday – Sunday every week, but ONLY outside of school hours. And, every hour we are open to the public, we have two Ambassadors present to watch the exhibit, guide the visitors, and ensure nothing is amiss. The children in our school have always been and will always be secure because they are no longer in the school, or on the grounds, when the exhibit is open. It really is no different than when we have any other event outside the school portion of our facility. So, that is an easy answer.
Let me now address the prejudice: The original trigger to some was one of images I used for my blog. It caused them to write one of the cruelest letters ever received in my vocation as a priest. Somehow, because of this one sign from the exhibit, we caused inappropriate and vulgar material to be seen by the children of our preschool. The letter went on to say that they would contact the authorities to issue a complaint against us.
Now, mind you that of all the children in our preschool, only two can read at all and even they at a rudimentary level, AND that the large room they are using is exclusive to the parish, but permitted use is offered to the school when weather is inclement. However, since the exhibit opened on March 9th there has only been one such occurrence and when utilizing that space, the children were far more intrigued by the playing of games or the riding of indoor Tonka Trunks®! None of that mattered to the author because we, as clergy and members of a parish who chose to save a school that had been shuttered, invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in its renovation and safety, saved fourteen teaching jobs AND still to this day subsidizes that same school program so that anyone can afford to come, somehow still failed to protect a child from reading the sign of a person experiencing homelessness and seeking support with a bit of humor, and all in a nation – and during a time – where folks are bent on hate.
But it was the last email received that was the worst of all. In this email, the author was concerned because the ‘signs and the people who wrote them are ‘dirty’ and that our parish might actually welcome the homeless into the building and that would endanger her children. Really? I have news for you: we do welcome everyone, and yes even those who may be homeless, but they are not dirty; at least not in the way you intimated.
Sadly, and yet still unexpectedly, that same hated, division, and lack of willingness to communicate courteously now comes home to Saint Miriam, a place that has always practiced love over hate, acceptance over exclusion, of conversation even in disagreement, of welcome over rejection. It is hurtful and almost unbearable that after all that we have sacrificed to give a home and safe educational experience to anyone regardless of participation, membership, or even being Catholic, we would be subjected to such ill regard and outright untruths, but more so perhaps this is a taste of what the homeless on the streets receive every day.
I think the other overarching factor that wounded me so much this week was that anyone would be so presumptuous and so demeaning to demand that we comply with their own prejudices and hatreds without ever once making inquiry or collaborating to find common ground and a deeper understanding. Simply because they think the homeless too dirty, disliked a sign, or found it objectionable – a mere fragment of a much larger homeless art display – and felt it inappropriate as an educational awareness, they would then demand we remove the exhibit is simply beyond me. Instead of dialogue, they chose the path the world so often now takes: cut them down at the knees, threaten to litigate, and demand that the good-doer capitulate to the hater. No, sorry not this time. Not here.
You see, we have come too far and gone through too much. We, sadly, have learned to live with the hatred of others as we hold tight to the Gospel mandates. And, we have learned the valuable lesson that our brand of love is not for everyone. It doesn’t have to be. That really is ok. We know it is the brand that comes from knowing the goodness of an inclusive God who came to us in the form of Jesus so that we might do exactly what we are doing! As St. Francis was asked, so too we follow, “Francis, rebuild my church!”
After meeting with these persons and doing our best to reconcile and find common ground, we decided it best to ask one parent to find a new school home for their child, as we are unwilling to hate, bring any division, and we will not unwelcome others. And another chose to follow in order to protect their child apparently from ‘the unclean’ signs and people. It hurts, but that’s ok, too. We are not meant to be the bearer of hatred. We are not meant to cater only the rich or those with nice pristine homes in suburban neighborhoods where they can hide those in need behind their own contempt and freshly manicured landscapes. We are not meant to only minister to the clean and the tidy. We are called to love and welcome everyone, but the caveat – expressed and implied – is that hate is never allowed to reside here at any cost. Ever.
The founder of the WE ARE ALL HOMELESS project, Willie Baronet, said it best: “I see these signs as signposts of my own journey, inward and outward, of reconciling my own life with my judgments about those experiencing homelessness.” And this, too, is why I am now ending my blog this week in defiance to the unreasonable and the hater and the rejecter, by adding a preface to the quote of the sign from our exhibit that caused one to hate us so much, despite all the good we do, because I know that many of us – myself included – are but one or two paychecks away from drafting our own sign on some shard of discarded cardboard with a found crayon and standing on a corner, a bit unclean from the lack of a place to be so, all in hopes of some small bit of compassion from someone who might see our humanity again…
Priest and “Out of Work Porn Stars! Anything Helps!”
Bishop James St. George is the pastor of Saint Miriam Parish and Friary in Flourtown, PA. He is also the Bishop Ordinary of the Diocese of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in the Old Catholic Churches International. Bishop St. George is the provincial for the Order of Saint Francis, Old Catholic. You can visit Saint Miriam Parish at http://mysaintmiriam.org.