“Women and children first” has been the motto of gentlemen perhaps since the chivalrous days of the Middle Ages and certainly since the era of stiff courtesy that marked the nineteenth century. Evacuating hapless passengers from the floundering Titanic and ushering unfortunate citizens into bomb shelters during the twentieth century, the familiar watchword continued to hold sway. More recently, and again under difficult circumstances, women and children understandably have been given prime consideration when communities face the challenge of homelessness.
Most and perhaps all of Rhode Island’s urban areas have maintained shelters for homeless women and children probably for decades. Lucy’s Hearth in Middletown and Elizabeth Chace Buffam Home in Warwick have tended to the needs of women for some time.
More recently the acute needs of homeless men have happily received long overdue attention. Harrington Hall at the state institutions in Cranston was one of the first statewide welcome centers followed closely by the Diocese of Providence opening Emmanuel House in South Providence relieving the plight of homeless men. Here in Woonsocket, the Harvest Community Church has set aside for the past couple of years one floor of its multi-storied building for the comfort of men during the winter season. In this era of “diversity, inclusion, and tolerance” as Governor Raimondo recently framed it, reaching out to all people in dire straits is certainly appropriate.
No one sitting in their family room lounge chair with slippered feet, sipping Earl Grey tea, and munching on a biscotti while reading The Quiet Corner would willingly switch place with any homeless man, woman or child. The plight of the homeless especially during a New England winter is clearly unenviable but also quite objectionable. Communities should do all they can to relieve the predicament faced by these brothers and sisters for whom Christ died.
Considering the jam that the all the homeless as well as a good number of the unemployed, the disabled, the elderly and the immigrant population face daily, it is difficult to accept St. Luke’s terse beatitudes proclaimed in this coming Sunday’s Gospel at face value. “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours. Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man.” What was St. Luke, or Jesus Christ for that matter, pondering when he wrote so glowingly of poverty, hunger, tears, and insults? Whatever did the evangelist have in mind when he wrote, “Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!” Few true believers would gladly take penury, starvation, sorrow and exclusion in stride or jump for joy at their prospect. Most Christians would probably agree more with English author W. Somerset Maugham: “There is nothing blessed about poverty. It is the surest road to bitterness and resentment.”
Perhaps the words of Jeremiah the prophet from the first reading at this Sunday’s liturgy might offer more sensible and more acceptable advice for the serious Christian: “Thus says the LORD: Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the LORD. He is like a barren bush in the desert that enjoys no change of season, but stands in a lava waste, a salt and empty earth. Blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose hope is the LORD. He is like a tree planted beside the waters that stretches out its roots to the stream: it fears not the heat when it comes; its leaves stay green; in the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit.”
For some Christian believers, their personal charism might lead them to shun the material and emotional worlds and then gladly to embrace poverty and solitude. St. Francis of Assisi comes easily to mind. The charism for most Christians however will be to embrace wisely the goods and consolations of this world for the glory of God and benefit of mankind never allowing the earth and the flesh to steal one’s soul and pervert one’s longings.
A person’s authentic wealth is measured not by his or her embrace of this world but rather by one’s grasp of God’s Will, God’s plan, God’s Providence. A willing detachment from the goods and consolations of this world while wisely utilizing those goods and consolations to improve this world is the key to all Christian blessedness.