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by Joan Clair
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he poster hanging on a bulletin board in Newman Hall Church announced a presentation by Matthew Works, a homeless Christian brother, at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. The topic would be homelessness and “its connection to the Gospel” and the meaning of this for contemporary churches.
The presentation’s title, “Nowhere to Lay His Head,” referred to Jesus. The poster also reproduced a few of Works’ artworks. I decided to check the presentation out, and I didn’t come away disappointed.
Matthew Works became homeless after he stood up for himself and others in a job in which his duties were doubled without extra pay or compensation. He had been working in a warehouse in Boston and, in addition to these responsibilities, he was asked to be a truck driver and deliver the warehouse goods.
One day, while driving his truck to deliver goods, he nearly fell asleep at the wheel and barely made it to a curb where he stopped his truck. He realized that he could have killed himself and others. Instead of continuing the delivery, he drove back to the warehouse to confront his boss.
According to Works, before he decided to confront his boss, some pointed questions arose in his mind. “What would Martin Luther King do if he saw such injustice?” “What would Rosa Parks do?” “What would Dorothy Day do?” “What would Jesus do?”
Within one week of confronting his boss, Works was fired. Ironically, the individual who fired him had eight years of Jesuit training in high school and as an undergraduate.
Works then went into a downward spiral which involved nonpayment of rent and eviction, and he became homeless. He says not all people become homeless as a result of alcoholism, substance abuse or mental illness. However, he says, sometimes to get help, someone has to hit rock bottom or allow oneself to be unjustly labeled as mentally ill.
Works, however, found a different path. He spent ten years on the streets, sleeping in shelters and bus or train terminals in the winter months, and finding free meal programs to sustain him. After that ordeal, he was able to get off the streets through his participation in an outdoor Episcopalian church service for homeless people held on the Boston Commons.
After the services, people were invited to speak, and Works found he had an audience, not only among other homeless people, but among seminarians and others who attended the services.
He began to be invited to speak on his own at various churches and universities in Massachusetts, and later, in more faraway locales. For more than four years, he has traveled around the country giving his talks and being reimbursed for his travel expenses, given room and board by those who sponsor him, as well as an honorarium. In interim periods, such as summer vacations, he goes back to Boston and house sits, often for ministers.
What does Works have to say that his audiences find so compelling? His message, primarily directed to Christian churches, is that Jesus was homeless and churches should give sanctuary to homeless people 24 hours a day. Although the fact that Jesus was homeless may seem to be common knowledge, Works communicates it in a way that the knowledge is felt.
For example, when Jesus [Luke 9:58] says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head,” Works gets across the personal suffering of Jesus as a person without a home. When Works quotes from Luke 4:28,29, one can feel the pain of Jesus’ “eviction” from Nazareth, his hometown, when it is said, “And all they in the synagogue … were filled with wrath, And rose up, and thrust him out of the city….”
Works gives many examples to illustrate his central point that church doors should be open 24 hours a day to the homeless. He asks how churches which worship a homeless person, Jesus, on Sundays, can close their doors to and ignore other homeless people like Jesus on Monday and at any other time.
How can the altar which was used in the Episcopalian service for the homeless on the Boston Commons be withdrawn into the church building for protection at the end of the service, while all the homeless people are left outside the church without protection from the elements and other humans?
At one point, a church offered to store some of Works’ artworks. He questioned the church with, “How can you want to keep my artworks in your church and offer them protection, and not me? I’m a work of art.” To Works, homeless people are works of art created by God.
According to Works, nobody has a right to lock up God’s house (the Christian churches in particular) and leave Jesus outside. “How can you adore him and then lock the doors on him?” Works asks.
Raised a Catholic, he also asks, “How can you take and eat the flesh of a homeless man, drink the blood of a homeless man and then lock the door on homeless people?” He mentions one person in particular who froze to death one winter on the Boston Commons.
Works sees hospitality as a part of Christian identity in the early days of the church. Likewise, sanctuary, asylum and refuge have deep roots within the Judeo-Christian tradition, and not just for refugees fleeing from other lands, although much of the idea of sanctuary was originally based on the Jews escape from Egypt.
The idea of sanctuary and asylum in the Judeo-Christian tradition is inextricably connected with the mandate that the community of faith’s first obligation is to obey God. If human laws contradict God’s laws, then God must be obeyed first. God in the Judeo-Christian tradition is always on the side of the poor, the vulnerable and the oppressed.
Therefore, when city governments enact laws which criminalize the homeless, homeless people become refugees who must be offered sanctuary and asylum from the injustices of human laws.
In the pre-monarchic period of Israel, the Jewish forebears lived in an agrarian state in which the ruling elite — 2 percent or less of the inhabitants — owned half or more of the land used for agriculture. Pressed by taxes, rents and high interest rates (up to 200 percent), the peasants used their land as collateral and family members became debt slaves.
Today, in the United States, “The richest 1 percent of taxpayers earn nearly 1/4 of the nation’s income.” [San Francisco Chronicle, May 23, 2011]
Ironically, when Works talks about the altar being brought back into the church for protection and the homeless people being left unprotected outside, this is the opposite of the “altar sanctuary” movement in the monarchic period of Israel. If a person fleeing from danger due to a lack of just legal procedures was able to grasp the horns of the altar in a holy site, the person was given protection.
Jill Schaeffer clearly showed the role of sanctuary in the Judeo-Christian tradition in her study, “Sanctuary and Asylum” (edited by Schaeffer in Studies from the World Alliance of Churches).
Schaeffer wrote, “The authoritarian state is often the worst offender against such a process.” King Solomon violated altar sanctuary to have his rival for the throne killed, according to Schaeffer [“Sanctuary and Asylum” p.13].
Criminalizing homeless people through unjust laws such as anti-sitting ordinances, and creating more homeless and indigent people through cutbacks to the most needy and vulnerable in our society, are violations of God’s laws within the Judeo-Christian tradition and call for a contemporary “altar sanctuary” movement, protecting the homeless at all times.
“In the biblical frame of reference, ‘sojourners’ were often created internally in one state by socioeconomic causes,” according to Schaffer [Ibid, p.14]. These included the debt instruments of the ruling class, drought, famine and war.
The term “resident alien” or “ger” was used in the monarchic period for people whose point of origin could just as well be inside or outside the political boundaries of a state.
Schaeffer explained, “A ger was any person forced by any cause from his/her indigenous context and therefore vulnerable and/or without full rights and privileges. The biblical definition of ‘resident aliens’ entitled to full protection and rights was thus …broad and inclusive.”
Matthew Works has a mission to communicate to the churches that this “broad and inclusive” biblical definition of who is entitled to protection and sanctuary must be extended to homeless people, 24 hours a day. The doors of the churches must always be open to the “resident aliens” and sojourners in our midst.
Works also has a unique perspective on Jesus. He has three penetrating insights:
1) If only Christians had been taught from childhood onward to meditate on three simple words, “Jesus was Jewish,” the holocaust might never have happened.
2) If every Christian was raised to meditate on six simple words, “Jesus was a person of color,” there would not have been 400 years of the transAtlantic slave trade. Africans would not have been kidnapped by Christians.
3) If every Christian today was raised from childhood to meditate on three words, “Jesus was homeless,” churches would be true places of refuge, shelter and sanctuary — open to everyone.