When a Homeless Person Came to Church

Photo Credit: Lani Peterson, 2015 (c)

Tom at St. Mark’s. Photo Credit: Lani Peterson, 2015 (c)

The parish I serve, St. Mark’s in Southborough, was founded in 1860 by a local business man Joseph Burnett.  Joseph gave land and money to build our church building in 1862 with one stipulation: it had to be free to all without regard to wealth, color or station in life. Some businesses that are local sometimes use advertising flags to get customers from pavement traffic. In other words, if you wanted to worship with us you were welcome.

Yesterday we had two special guests worshipping with us. Lani Peterson of the City Mission Society of Boston came to talk about the BostonWarm program, our open plate offering recipient of the month (we give all undesignated money that comes in the plate to a worthy organization). But rather than just sharing about the program, Lani thought it would be best if an actual recipient shared about the impact. So we met Tom.

BostonWarm began due to the bridge leading to Long Island in Boston Harbor was closed amidst safety concerns. This led to the closure of a 500 bed shelter for the homeless and a more than 200 bed facility for those wanting to get sober. The most urgent need according to those impacted was a warm, safe place to go during the day. Two churches opened up their doors for this purpose through BostonWarm.

And Tom benefited.

During our announcement time, Tom stood in front of our assembled congregations talking about his normal day. Getting up between 4:30 and 5 to pack up his things and move on before someone forced him off the bench or from the location on which he had bedded down for the night.  How he must carry 80 lbs of stuff—all his earthly belongings—with him wherever he goes, even the things he might only need once a week. He and other homeless folks can’t be in one place too long without being told they have to keep moving, that they don’t belong and aren’t wanted.

Tom looked out over the people gathered and said, “I can’t go to a mall and sit on the chairs provided there. You could, of course. You could go and sit all day if you’d like.  If I sit for more than a couple of minutes, I’ll be told to leave because of how I look.” He then explained how the program gave him a chance to get in out of the cold, to be treated with dignity and respect. He could talk about issues of the day—like the problems with the local transit due to all the snow—and also leave his things in a locked portable storage locker.  “I’m not told that I’m not wanted or welcomed,” he told us. “I can come in and get warm and have coffee and maybe a peanut butter sandwich. What more could I need?”

I’m not sure if Tom is the first homeless person to worship at St. Mark’s, but I do know he’s the first who came and was given a microphone to tell his story. I know for certain he’s the first homeless person I’ve had over for a meal at my home even though the Bible is pretty clear I should be doing that regularly. Tom reminded us all that he’s just another human being on this journey of life needing companionship and conversation like any of us.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see Tom again, or what he’ll be doing tonight when the temperature once again falls below zero. But I do know this: he reminded me of the power found in Joseph Burnett’s words. All of us are God’s children regardless of the ways we label people in our world. All are welcome into God’s loving embrace. And I know that on a snowy Sunday morning for a few hours a group of parishioners got to know an intriguing and caring man who just happened to no longer have a place to call home. He became Tom to us, a beloved child of God. And I suspect that would make Joseph Burnett proud.

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eric nyland

I have talked several times with Tom while volunteering at the Boston Warm shelter and have found him to be a real person like you and I. Imagine that. And a darn neat guy that is an interesting conversationalist. I recall that he told me he had only been out of Massachusetts twice – once as a child on a trip to Maine and another 1 day trip to NYC. Yes, he’s a creature of habit but then aren’t we all in our own ways?
I’ll tell you they all are real people and usually not dangerous – most of them greatly benefitting from being noticed and treated in a friendly way. All God’s children. His “Least of These”.