Saturday, December 26, 2009

Speaking from experience...

Prince William and I finally have something in common: we have both spent a bitterly cold night on the street in support of the homeless. As I read about the prince's sacrifice on behalf of the British charity Centrepoint, I was reminded of the night when a couple of Congressional representatives and celebrities and some of us homeless activists joined the late Mitch Snyder in an overnight sleepover on the streets of DC. Unlike the real homeless, we (and I assume Prince William as well) had police protection. I do remember that the celebrities got first dibs on the "first class accommodations" -- the steam grates! The prince also went over to Centrepoint to help prepare breakfast for the homeless young people and cut a special 40th anniversary cake.

Commenting on his experience, Prince William said: "I cannot, after one night, even begin to imagine what it must be like to sleep rough on London's streets night after night. Poverty, mental illness, drug and alcohol dependancy and family breakdown cause people to become and then stay homeless. Centrepoint's work - along with many other organisations' - in tackling these fundamental causes is desperately important if we are ever to end homelessness in this country. I hope that by deepening my understanding of the issue, I can help do my bit to help the most vulnerable on our streets."

There really is no substitute for an actual experience of homelessness or poverty. To be so cold and the pavement so hard that sleep is impossible and you lie awake wondering what happens when you need to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. A nearby church opened its doors to us as a special favor but the real homeless have nothing. The experience stays with me, largely in the form of a recurring muscle spasm in my back which first occured after that night on the street.

A similar kind of experience informed the presentation on Luke's account of the birth of Jesus in our prayer group last night. The predicador and several other men from El Salvador who had worked in stables shared graphic descriptions of the sights and smells to exclamations of "Ew, gross!" from their urban US-born offspring. Suddenly we all had a much clearer picture of what Mary and Joseph went through.

The predicador also spoke of an experience of being temporarily homeless and having to call different relatives and being turned down several times before finding someone who would take in his family of five for a few days. In a small way, he said, it gave him a sense of what Joseph must have felt as door after door was closed on him and his pregnant wife.

The feeling in the prayer group was radically different than in the sanctuary the previous night. Everyone was included and made to feel welcome. Somehow there was enough food for all even though there were many guests who brought nothing. We all ate. There were little presents for all the children. The leftovers went home with those who needed them the most. I was invited to lead one of the prayers and to read a passage from Isaiah. Christ was born last night in that room in the church basement. Perhaps next year He will move up and into the sanctuary...

Photo: Prince William and Centrepoint CEO Seyi Obakin prepare for a night in freezing temperatures

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