Back to the Future?

While I would never consider myself one of those people who long to go back to the “good old days”, there are some things about “old time New York” that I definitely am nostalgic about….the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Tree at Rockefeller Center, the Boardwalk at Coney Island…I am so grateful that in the New York of 2012, you can still see all these perennial favorites! Of course, there are some things about the “old time New York” of my childhood I wish would remain just there – back in the past: distant memories that would fade into oblivion over time. One of those things, the sight of fellow human beings – homeless men and women – sleeping on the streets is perhaps the most disturbing of these “bad memories” which I’d like to keep back in the ever thickening fog of what I have the audacity to call my “memory”. Sadly, I cannot …its impossible…. It is tragically something that I witness with my own two eyes – with increasing frequency – every single day.

The Director of our Department of Social and Community Development here at Catholic Charities George Horton – who has worked for over 30 years trying to help the homeless and hungry of this city gain the food, the shelter, the jobs and other things that they need to live a more dignified life – has penned a reflection of those “not so good old days” and the response of two particularly courageous religious women he knew who took homelessness squarely on, and tried to make a difference in the lives of their vulnerable brothers and sisters who lived on the streets. Today I’d like to share it with you:

 

In 1986, when New York City and the nation were struggling to address the crisis of homelessness, when over 25000 men, women and children were living in shelters or on the street, two religious sisters felt a call to come to New York City and help. Sr. Theresa Skehan, a Mercy from Maine, and Sr. Dorothy Galant, a Charity from Massachusetts, met while volunteering at Emmaus House, a transitional residence for homeless men and women in Harlem, and began to discuss a mission to people living in the NYC public shelter system. Last September, the fruit of their efforts, the Life Experience and Faith Sharing Association celebrated  its 25th Anniversary with friends and supporters,  

From the beginning, Sisters Theresa and Dorothy understood that something more than the traditional handout model of service was required. They knew that for their endeavor to succeed, their ministry must embody the transformative power of Jesus Gospel message of love, and Church teaching on the God given life and dignity of every human person. Scripture reflection on the lived experience of homeless people, building of community among them, empowerment for growth and change and the long term support and nurturance, as well as assistance with immediate needs were fundamental to their work. They also knew that the movement and association they created could not be run by them alone and would only be successful if the leadership of their organization came from those who heard god’s word in the shelter and responded by wanting to help others themselves. At the 25th anniversary party, the extension of this invitation was evident.

The LEFSA team is now made up of primarily formerly homeless people who have taken to heart the invitation to “ preach good news to the poor”, who conduct sessions in NYC homeless shelters, provide a street ministry to homeless people in the Port Authority area, and hold monthly Leadership Study Days and men and women’s discussion groups. Since the team members have experienced homelessness themselves, they are a trusted resource for people living on the streets or in shelters, and able guides for the direction of their Association. While continuing to experience the daunting challenges of every day life, including recovery from addiction, family and health stresses, and living on low income, they are a source of inspiration to people whose experience they share. In addition to this wider community of homeless and formerly homeless people, who accompany them, the LEFSA team has enlisted a circle of individual, religious congregation and agency volunteer and financial support, including Catholic Charities. Further impact on the wider society has followed from social justice advocacy undertaken by the Team.

The creation of this Team, its wider community of homeless people and network of support, and the challenge of recognizing human dignity in everyone, are a sign of hope in difficult times and places. Sisters Dorothy and Theresa, strong and powerful religious women, challenged their own religious congregations, challenged public authorities to make room for their work and challenged the Church and the larger society to not only its responsibility to care for “ the least of these” but also that their voices be heard. Other religious women made the same commitment, among them Sr. Florence Speth and Sr. Barbara Lenniger, who developed transitional housing for homeless women, Sr. Ann Murray who worked at Catholic Charities, directed our Office for the Homeless and Hungry and help found an education program for homeless people, and Sr. Nancy Chiarello who founded the Dwelling Place.

Recently there has been an increase in the numbers of homeless people on the streets, in the shelters and coming to Catholic Charities food programs. The doldrums of the economy and the lessening resources of government are having an impact. However, unlike the crisis of the 80’s and 90’s, the upsurge in poverty and homelessness appears to be occurring in a much more hardhearted and less generous climate. Who will now answer the call to help as Dorothy, Theresa and other religious women have done?

 

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