Time as Thomas

by Will Harris
Post Immersion Paper
Urban Plunge: The Church in Action
THEO 33963

“We are not trying to imitate homelessness,” says Alan Graham, the founder of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, before we set off on to the streets of Austin, Texas for our Street Retreat.

What exactly were we trying to do then? We were leaving our money, phones, wallets, IDs and more behind and carrying only what little we could in a backpack, a small sleeping bag, a water bottle, and maybe a toothbrush. Alan continues to explain that we will never be able to truly understand homelessness unless we are living it; rather, we are just playing the role of Thomas the apostle. As Caravaggio imagined in his The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, we, as Thomas, are barely reaching into the wounds of Christ and grimacing and looking away in fear. We entered the streets on a sunny January day not to be homeless for two days, but to enter into relationship with those living on the streets.

While out and about on the streets of Austin, I witnessed that broken families plague those who are without a home. I meet Otis, also known as L.A., who has grown children and grandchildren out in California, but they won’t take him in. I was told about Lexi who is a sixteen year old living on the Drag by the University of Texas. Her mom lives in Austin but she doesn’t get along with her and doesn’t want to go home. I heard many stories like these which give evidence to the devastating effects of broken families, but none were as painful to hear about than the story of one man, fresh to the streets of Austin: Anthony.

Anthony, originally from Minnesota, moved down to San Antonio when he was young with his family. He grew up in a family full of Christian pastors who helped him develop a strong faith in God. However, when he came out as gay, tension with his family began and only grew. He then lost all of his stuff in a house fire a short time ago which only added to his struggles. He then left San Antonio for Austin where he had heard it is easier and cheaper to get your identification, like a Social Security card and Driver’s License, both of which he had lost in the fire. His strong faith, hope, and generosity even after everything he had been through amazed me. He told Alyssa and me that he believed that God saved him from that fire. A friend had called right as he was about to go to bed and asked if Anthony could come help him fix his computer, and begrudgingly, Anthony said yes and left the house. Forty-five minutes later the house was up in flames and basically everything he owned was lost. After rejection by his Christian family and a devastating house fire, Anthony still told us that there was no way that God does not exist that in fact he was looking after each one of us. I was and still am amazed by the strength of Antony’s faith through all of these incidents.

In addition to his faith, Anthony also seemed to live with great hope and generosity. I imagine that it is extremely difficult to keep such a positive attitude within a community full of the frustrations of life without a home but Anthony proved me wrong. He told me about the importance of generosity on the streets. For example, he ran into a man in a t-shirt, shorts and flip flops on streets this winter and didn’t even hesitate in giving him his down coat; in fact, he did not even ask if the man wanted or needed it, first. Anthony explained that homeless need to show each other this respect and compassion since they are all in the same situation and can build each other up. Anthony’s trust in God continues to inspire me and has pushed to look at my life a little differently. He has encouraged me to look past the things I own to my relationships and prioritize those around me. Hopefully, I can be even a bit more like Anthony and look beyond my circumstances to be the best Son of God that I can.

Reflecting on my discussion with Anthony and other homeless people, I am realizing that there is a strong connection between the brokenness of their families and the Catholic Social Teaching principle of Living Solidarity. According to the Center for Social Concerns handout on Catholic Social Thought, Living Solidarity means that “as members of the common human family, we should strive to foster community and to live in solidarity with all our neighbors.”

This common human family begins with our biological family at home. In our nation, the strength of the family has seen to be deteriorating as there are more and more single parent homes and divorce is common. Living Solidarity calls us to strengthen our relationships with our neighbors and a great way to do this is to strengthen our familial relationships first. However, out on the streets of Austin, familial brokenness violates this call to live in solidarity and the rest of humanity must respond with love.

Mobile Loaves & Fishes provides an example of one possible solution to this violation of the call to live in solidarity. They have started the Community First Village about fifteen minutes outside of downtown Austin. It is an RV and tiny home community which will serve as a home for 250 people by the end of the year and has thirty residents already. Most people, who will live there, were chronically homeless but there are also so people from the community who work or volunteer for Mobile Loaves & Fishes. In addition to the homes, there is a large garden, goats and chickens, two chapels, a wood shop and a blacksmith shop, a community grocery store and a medical center. Everyone there has to pay rent but there are occupations on site that pay residents so that they can in turn pay their rent. This village not only brings people off the streets, but also brings them into a community, a new family, really. Our street retreat ended at the village for a housing warming blessing and party for Dennis. He was moving in to an RV in the village and I was amazing how many people from the community were there to welcome him home. They really emphasize the community aspect of the village. While I’m sure there are many potential solutions to the issue of broken families and the call to live in solidarity, I believe Mobile Loaves & Fishes has found one by bringing people from all walks of life into a community and allowing them to live and work in solidarity there. Some biological families may never be able to heal wounds without lots of help from God but showing people what true community feels like may inspire many to reach out their families once again. It will also provide stability to their lives in a way that will free them to give more attention to any brokenness in their past.

In light of the final class on race, I wanted to see if I would notice any racial issues present on the streets of Austin. I noticed that there was in fact somewhat of a racial divide among the homeless. While I meet homeless people from all racial backgrounds, there was a division between them. It seemed as though racial groups separated themselves. Most African-Americans seemed to be down by the ARCH (Austin Resource Center for the Homeless); the younger mostly white crowd hung out on the Drag near the University of Texas; and, the older white crowd I was told spend their time out in tent communities in the parks. I am definitely curious on how these divisions began and I wonder how aware of them the homeless people are of them. However, my observations tell me that despite these splits there is a bigger homeless family that exists as evident by the generosity I saw in others while on the streets.

In terms of personal growth, I felt freed by my lack of possessions. I did not have my phone, money, keys or wallet for those two days and the second I dropped them back into my pockets afterwards, I felt a weight pull me down. Maybe this freedom is what allows the homeless people I met to be as generous as they were. They are able to focus on those around them while avoiding distractions of the stuff that clutters our lives. In addition, it was freeing to not have a schedule for the two days. As busy as I am, it was a big change of pace to have nothing on the agenda for those two days, except entering into relationship and community with others. I hope that I can avoid bogging myself down with too many meetings and activities in the future and allow myself free time to find this feeling of freedom again. I would love to devout more time to God and those who are near and dear to my heart. Throughout these freedoms, I felt at peace and ready to engage in relationship with others.

This experience out on the streets of Austin has not only taught me a little about the daily difficulties of homelessness, but also truly taught me a lot about myself. It pushed me to be thankful for what I have but not to rely on it. It pushed me to use my free time well and really to seek unscheduled time. Sometimes I get too busy to call my parents or see my friends and when it comes down to it, they should be the top priority in my life, along with God. The people I meet on the streets of Austin gave me confidence and courage to approach strangers and to do it with love. I hope I can move forward from this experience with a new perspective on my life, especially in relationship with God and neighbor.