Unwelcome Angels at Meeting
When God sends angels to us, it is not always for our comfort. This message came to me, after an incident as we settled down for Meeting this last First Day. I heard screaming in front of the Meeting house, and went out to find a neighbor who had no place to live in a state of fear and crying. There was another Friend there, a member of Ministry and Worship. The homeless neighbor was screaming that his bag was missing, with everything he owns, and that without it, in this cold weather, he could die. He had left it in the corner of our Meeting house's front courtyard.
I supposed our caretaker would know about it, so I brought him inside, trough a side entrance as not to further disturb worshipers. In the common room there were still some Friends from the earlier Meeting having tea and snacks. The fellow was still crying and begging Friends to give him back his bag, promising to be good and never leave it with us again. I found our caretaker, who began to tell me that he had thrown it away in the garbage and he had done so because the fellow was a problem. I told him to give the fellow back his things, and it was done, with a great deal of crying and begging from the owner, and angry justifications and banging of dumpster lids by our caretaker. He told me that (as best as I could follow, our friend's English is not great when he is angry) the fellow had sued to be allowed to live on the street, and that we were aiding a criminal act.
I started back to the Meeting house, but could not go in. I felt deeply ashamed that we had driven one of God's angels from our doorstep. I went out again, to give the fellow my phone number, so that I might address this to the Meeting, and let him know the outcome in light of this breech of hospitality. The Friend from Ministry and Worship asked that we speak first and told me that if we extended a blanket invitation to homeless people to sleep in our front courtyard we would loose members, and people would not enroll in Friend's Seminary - our Meeting's school.
I offered that we need to quickly address this issue in, at least a joint meeting of Pastoral Care and Ministry and Worship. During Meeting the message about angles came to me. I thought of how unlike our testimonies it was to turn away someone in need, when we had an abundance of resources. We had just spent a huge sum on placing blue stone over the entire courtyard at the behest of the school. In the message I related that several other churches in midtown, whose worshipers were the most wealthy and powerful New Yorkers, had gone to court to stop the police from driving away homeless people who would sleep on the steps of the church, seeking some small sanctuary. I related how, a Jewish friend who worships with us, describes a town in Israel where they seek to live the Torah in full. There, people will cross the street to not disturb a cat eating from the garbage, in recognition of all living things basic right to comfort.
I was reminded and spoke of a time, some forty years ago, when, to remind us of our neglect of homeless neighbors, a Friend lay across the sidewalk, and Friends stepped over him to enter Meeting. All did, except Friend Marjory Cornwall, who stopped, bent down, so she might see his face and said, "Oh, John!" I spoke of our Meeting as a place set aside for God and asked if we are not still stepping over John
Another message followed, from a visiting Friend, from another meeting. She was a young adult who had never given a message before, but felt forced to her feet the moment I sat down, to say she had just returned from the devastated parts of New Orleans, and that having a place that is a home is everything.
Two more messages followed hers. One Friend said that the examples of others should not be our motivation, but we should look to God's intention for us, and another said that our Meeting houses were not more sacred than a bathroom.
I agree with both observations. I do feel, however, that the examples of others help us, as witness to remember to seek God's guidance, not the guidance of expediency. If we followed the interest of worry over loss of membership or property there would never have been an Underground Railroad. And set aside for God, is quite different from sacred. Most places held sacred by people -- worshiped as idolic representations of God, are jealously protected. Our place, we nurture for God's use, should be a place open to God's intentions for us, not our worries over our many temptations to exclusivity.
Photos - Carl being awakened in the Park, - Lorcan Otway
In New York, the city has been removing benches for decades now, to keep homeless people from sleeping in sight of those of us with roofs over our heads. Our Jewish friend, told me after Meeting that in the most religiously observant places in Israel, when homeless people stretch out on public benches -- neighbors go out and cover them with blankets. This simple act, seems to be, so much more God's intention. I am mindful of the Christian belief that Christ comes to us in the least of our neighbors, in the most unexpected among us, and I hope that we find a way forward other than driving Christ from our doorstep.
Eva Mitten Otway and Henry Thomas Otway
My own family, in the past, was divided on driving God's angles from the door. My Grandfather, Salvation Army Divisional Commander Henry Otway loved the poor and the homeless ... just not on his doorstep. So, he placed a series of small openings in the stairs attached to a water line, to send a cascade of water down the front steps. My grandmother, Eva Mitten Otway, would never let him turn it on. My father was drawn to his father's side of the equation, I am drawn to Grandmother's.