This modern depiction of the ‘Flight into Egypt’ (Matthew 2:13-15) strikes a chord with us today as we see thousands of people fleeing their homeland in fear of their lives. Isn’t this precisely what Joseph and Mary did after being warned about Herrod’s intentions? Today’s refugees carry all they own in one bag too, and we have only to swap the donkey for a dinghy to complete the modern-day comparison. The vast numbers of people wandering, camping in refugee camps temporarily, whilst seeking an eventual permanent home also bring to mind the Israelites wandering in the desert, seeking the Promised Land.
Of course, it is not only refugees who need shelter. The opportunities for us to enact this particular work of mercy are many, which in itself is testament to the size of the homelessness problem. A failure by successive governments to build enough affordable housing here in the UK, coupled with a lack of restrictions being placed on private landlords, has resulted in a rise of the number of people simply being unable to buy or rent a place to live. This has placed pressure on the public sector, who themselves are unable to cope with the influx of people seeking temporary shelter. The cities of our diocese all have a large number of people sleeping rough, being supported by a variety of organisations, all of which are always in need of more volunteers (see below). This puts us in mind of Jesus himself who, during His public ministry, had no permanent home. ”Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20) Why do so many people today have nowhere to lay their head and what can we do to help them? How can the institution of the church better use its premises to shelter these people?
Before receiving the Eucharist at Mass we say, ‘Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed’. When we admit Jesus into our lives, or ‘under our roof’, a transformation takes place, healing us and enabling us to live out God’s love and mercy in the world. Sheltering the homeless can be looked at on this level, rather than focussing only on the actual practical application of this work of mercy. In our lives, in our communities, who do we allow ‘under our roof’? Who do we recognise as being without a spiritual home and what can we do to ‘shelter’ them?
Saint Faustina talked about the ‘three degrees of mercy’: the act of mercy, the word of mercy and the prayer of mercy. Looked at in this way, each of us can play our role in sheltering the homeless, be they lacking actual shelter or in need of spiritual shelter for their lost hearts. Below are a few suggestions on how we could perform this act of mercy, as well as a suggested prayer, but what about our words of mercy when it comes to sheltering the homeless?
The language we use in conversation with others when talking about this issue has the power to either enact this work of mercy or shoot it down in flames. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of believing what the media tell us not only about refugees, but also about our domestic homelessness issues, such as drug and alcohol addiction. It takes a concerted effort to use language of love when discussing this with others, especially when this makes us stand out from the rest of the crowd with our alternative opinion. The courage of this conversational language is the word of mercy, as much as the words of kindness we might say to the homeless themselves.
I recently was able to give a tent, donated by a friend, to a homeless couple I have come to know in Nottingham. Their reaction on receiving it was startling. Much as they were grateful for the tent, what really had an impact on them were the words of love which came with it and the face of kindness (translated from their native language). Their response was to ask how they too can get involved in showing this face of kindness to others. Upon receiving, they immediately wanted to give. It is not only in the Eucharist that we are able to admit Jesus ‘under our roof’, but in all of our encounters with others, especially the homeless. If we allow them the shelter of our hearts, we will find that not only will it transform their lives, but our hearts too will find a new and unexpected shelter in return.
The following prayer encapsulates all the works of mercy, just as sheltering the homeless itself encapsulates so many of the other works of merc
The prayer of Saint Faustina:
Help me O Lord, that my eyes may be merciful,
so that I may never suspect or judge from appearances,
but look for what is beautiful in my neighbour’s souls,
and come to their rescue.
Help me O Lord, that my ears may be merciful,
so that I may give heed to my neighbours needs,
and not be indifferent to their pains and moanings.
Help me O Lord, that my tongue may be merciful,
so that I may never speak negatively of my neighbour,
but have a word of comfort and forgiveness for all
Help me O Lord, that my hands may be merciful,
and filled with good deeds,
so that I may only do good to my neighbours,
and take upon myself the more difficult toilsome tasks.
Help me O lord, that my feet may be merciful,
so that I may hurry to assist my neighbour,
overcoming my own fatigue and weariness.
My true rest is in the service of my neighbour.
Help me O Lord, that my heart may be merciful,
so that I may feel all the sufferings of my neighbour.
I will refuse my heart to no one.
I will be sincere even with those who I know
will abuse my kindness.
I will lock myself up in the most merciful Heart of Jesus.
I will bear my own sufferings in silence.
May Your Mercy, O Lord rest upon me.
O my Jesus, transform me into Yourself,
for you can do all things.
Practical suggestions to help those who shelter the homeless:
Look into how you can support the following organisations with your time or money.
Download this document – Word: Shelter the Homeless
Download this document – PDF: Shelter the Homeless