Archive | April, 2015

Come unto me, you tired ones–try our spikes

28 Apr

“Sorry, no room in the inn.” “Come unto me you who are weary and heavy-laden. These aphorisms came immediately to mind when I just recently–for the first time, I must admit–ran across the photos that appear below.  Both of these are from the New Testament, to which I add a third from the Letter of James: “What good is it to wish a person peace and well-being when that person stands in need of food or clothing or shelter?”

I’ve been aware of homeless persons ever since I worked in a church in Albuquerque and then moved to Chicago in the 1950s. My relationship to them was mainly to give them a few dollars or buy them a sandwich. The church had a discretionary fund (the “Good Shepherd Fund”), which allowed me to send them to a diner across the street. We had an agreement with the diner that anyone we sent would be served a meal, billed to the church. I officiated at two burials, arranged by a charitable mortuary, for homeless men who died with no known relatives. When I lived briefly, in the 1980s, in Berkeley, California, where good year-round weather attracts people who are down and out, I noted that the city set aside areas where those who lived in their cars could park unmolested for the nights. The sprawling university campus offered many secluded spots for sleeping. But I never probed more deeply into the issues of homelessness.

I know that homelessness is a problem for cities, but it never dawned on me that we would lay down beds of spikes to make open spaces unsleepable. A Google search reveals that cities around our country and in Europe are taking recourse to spikes–see the internet links at the end of this piece.

We know that homeless men and women want to live in decent lodgings, but for many reasons cannot–poverty being the main reason. We don’t provide housing (dormitory-like shelters don’t qualify as proper housing), but we want them out of sight. As one blogger writes, “we should not presume to think that sitting and sleeping is the only major front that People Who Surely Don’t Have Anything Against the Homeless But Would Rather Not Be Reminded Of Their Existence are waging.” ( In 2006, Orlando, Florida, passed an ordinance against feeding the homeless in public. Several charitable groups have been the object of legal measures taken by the city to halt their efforts to provide food for the homeless who had settled in a public park.

imageWhat’s the underlying issue here? We have come dangerously close to accepting the homeless situation as a problem that we just can’t solve. We don’t seem to have the will to solve it. Susan Sarandon gives us a clue: “If you walk down the street and see someone in a box, you have a choice. That person is either the other and you’re fearful of them, or that person is an extension of your family.” Homeless men and women are the Other, and since pre-historic times we have been unable to live satisfactorily with Others. We’ve frequently killed them, ostracized them, persecuted them, and otherwise gotten them away from ourselves. Some communities don’t want mosques in their midst, or half-way houses, or homeless shelters, or food pantries.

Jesus said and did a great deal about the Other. He spoke about the Neighbor and love for the Neighbor. When he was asked, “Who is my neighbor,” he pointed to every person we meet. Susan Sarandon had it right when she compared the Other to our family.

I recall an incident from the 1960s in Hyde Park, Chicago. Some readers may know that Hyde Park prides itself on being a liberal community. As a student, I was working for alderman Leon Despres in an effort to have public housing units included in the urban renewal project that was getting underway–the first of its kind in the nation. Architects drew up plans that placed a dozen units of public housing in the center of the project. A public hearing was scheduled, and I expected widespread approval of our efforts. However, to my surprise, there was opposition to the public housing by some people who complained, “I paid a lot of money for a townhouse in this area, and the public housing units look just like my house. People won’t be able to tell the difference.” The Other–we don’t want them to look like family. Homeless persons show that they understand this when they say, “We are unwanted persons.”

Today, the Others are getting closer and closer. In previous centuries, white Europeans went to the lands of the Others and dominated them in imperial fashion. Now the Other has come to Europe and the United States–and every nation involved is feeling threatened. Britain no longer accepts every resident from a Commonwealth country as a citizen. Germany restricts rights of the Turks (mostly Muslim), who came in the 1950s because Germany suffered from a labor shortage. France, Denmark, and others experience frequent protests against foreigners. The European Union wants North African countries to prevent refugees from sailing to Italy. Trends indicate that within forty years white Americans will be only a minority of the nation’s population. We recall that we welcomed Africans to our shores, beginning in the 1600s and continuing until the 1860s–as slave laborers. As I write, Baltimore is being devastated, as was Watts, Los Angeles, and the west side of Chicago in the mid-1960s. These are upheavals against the Other, far from viewing them as family.

You may not agree that the homeless are viewed by many of us as Other, not neighbor, not family. But I cite Dennis Kucinich: “We have weapons of mass destruction we have to address here at home. Poverty is a weapon of mass destruction. Homelessness is a weapon of mass destruction. Unemployment is a weapon of mass destruction.” I would add that lack of sensitivity for and defensive action against the Other are also weapons of mass destruction.

We have a deep spiritual issue–alongside the political and economic dimensions–and I am quite sure that spikes are not the answer.

Phil Hefner 4/28/2015

Some useful links:…0.0…1ac.1.DFYk8HFbTRo

Engaged Living–and Beyond

8 Apr

Engaged Living–and Beyond

I named this blog series Liftthescreen to indicate that my postings would be part of my attempt to get a clear view of things. I made that decision at age 78 (in early 2011) when I moved into a retirement facility. Some cultures, the Hindu, for example, have clear concepts of the stages of life, as well as the activities and values that belong to each stage. I am at a stage of life where a clear sense is particularly important. Not that I have that sense, but that I strive for it. What I did not know when I moved here is what a special vantage point is offered by a retirement community–what we used to call an “Old People’s Home.” Of course, that term, OPH, is decidedly politically incorrect today. People retire, they mature, and they age, but never ever do they grow old, it seems. I try to avoid euphemisms, since they are strategies for screen-lowering. I have no problem saying that I live in an OPH.

The term “clear sense” reminds me of a lecture I heard 60 years ago, almost to the day. The lecturer was one of the wisest of my seminary teachers, Grady Davis. He recounted a visit to a parishioner, in the hills of Tennessee, who was in pain on his death bed. The doctor asked if the man wished to be sedated, to which the dying man responded,”I will not be deprived of what may be the greatest experience of my life–dying.” We may not agree with the man, and none of us can predict the moments of our own dying, but the story grasps me now, at age 83, as it did when I first heard it at age 23. Many of us–for reasons beyond our control–will not die with a clear sense, but we can strive for clarity in the days remaining to us.

The residents here are all in the same stage of life; we have finished our active careers, we have given our lives for whatever it is that we were called to do–whether called by our ideals or by circumstances we couldn’t control. The residents here are coming to terms with the worthfulness of their active lives, knowing full well that they are in a different, carefully controlled environment now with people they mostly did not know before they moved here. They wear with varying degrees of public expression their pride, their disappointment and grief, and their aspirations for the remaining time of their lives. In terms of economic-social class, the wealthy live alongside those of more modest means. The condition of their physical health varies from person to person. Those who were at the top of the local pecking orders in their previous lives often try to attain same top spot here. People whose lives were particularly lonely and difficult before are mostly grateful and even cheerful to be here living in relative comfort.

Religiously, you will find skeptical atheists, Jewish Holocaust survivors, those who go to Mass every morning, active Unitarian-Universalists, and even Lutherans (two of whom are ordained clergy). The full-time chaplain is provided by the Episcopal church. I believe there are a few Republicans here, but they are overwhelmed by a sea of liberal Democrats.

One thing that everyone in our community shares is that we will die here or in one of the local hospitals. We watch each other’s lives unfold, and we watch everyone on our journey towards death. At this moment, four photographs are on display of residents who have died in the last few weeks and whose memorial services are pending. Some of these people I knew quite well, while others were hardly even acquaintances. An acquaintance since graduate school sixty-five years ago and one of the most popular residents is clearly in his last few weeks, or days, of life.

Perhaps this sounds sad, even morbid. However, our residential community is not at all sad or morbid. There are sad individuals, to be sure, but the general mood is vigorous and often upbeat. My granddaughters talk about it as a resort hotel, since it is only 200 yards from Lake Michigan, with its parks and beach. I hope that none of you readers consider this piece to be morbid or sad. I intend it simply to be clear-eyed and in its own way, honest.

The psalmist writes : “How great are your works! How deep are your designs!”

Gratitude first, and then the unfathomable–what is the design of God’s mystery? In a way that I had not expected, living here provides a rich context for reflecting on the design of it all. A retirement community is a veritable laboratory for developing pastoral insight. Every year, senior medical students, in their family medicine rotation, come to talk for a couple of hours about how I view death and dying. Inspirational stories are here–my long time friend Clara, when, at age 90, she received the diagnosis of terminal lung cancer, shunned all treatment and concluded that she had lived a blessed life; she lived peacefully for more than a year before she died. At the other end of the spectrum is the woman so frightened of dying that I steer my conversations with her accordingly.

Last year the Chaplain organized a series of discussions of dying. Most of the talk was about filling out End-of-Life forms; there were complaints that “My grandchildren won’t talk to me about death.” Very little testimony about our personal views of death. I should say that the Chaplain is developing more productive conversations. As I write, she is attending a week-long seminar for this purpose.

The Chaplain is going against the stream. The national association of continuing care communities recently eliminated the term “continuing care,” because prospective residents don’t like the implication that they need “care.” My own OPH is following the advice of their marketing consultant to change our logo slogan from “redefining retirement” to “engaged living.” And they do not mean engaging the final stage of life.

Please carry on the conversation–with me here, if you wish. Perhaps (no promises) I’ll write a later blog that includes your comments. This is my last word–for the moment. I have written about this theme in previous blogs–see September 2013, for example. In the meantime, some of these thoughts were in my mind when I wrote this poem few weeks ago, as I watched an ambulance pull up to our front entrance.

Wild Lights

frenetic frantic flashing lights
unsettling me nervous jumping lights
we’re in a hurry to move
krankenwagen lights

in the night
there’s a wildness
about those lights
a deer frozen in place
yet wanting to flee

in a sheltered spot
porte cochere softened
from the storm for you
as you enter
to be driven now with
piercing screams

i do not want you to go
this night
i am in the wagon
with you
into the wild

(C) Phil Hefner

7 April 2015