“The strategy of Jesus is not centred on taking the right stand on issues, but in standing in the right place – with the outcast and those relegated to the margins”
– Father Gregory Boyle, Homeboy Industries
Three weeks ago I stood in the early morning rain outside of a crematorium in the North East of England with a small knot of friends in quiet prayer and reflection. Together we were taking part in a small act of solidarity, and of gentle protest against an event which felt more 19th than 21st Century.
We were there to mark the passing of a man called Peter, and of what was intended to pass as a committal. Whilst it didn’t define him – indeed the details were unknown to most people until the very end – Peter had been homeless in the last years of his life. He had died the week before in a local hospital, without family or anyone able or willing to take responsibility for funeral costs.
Despite our best efforts to gain permission to enter the crematorium to hold our quiet vigil, we were standing outside because hospital protocol denied us and any other friends unable or unwilling to pay the thousands of pounds required for a funeral the right to join the undertakers and the hospital chaplain beside Peter’s coffin at the end.
As a concession to our determination to be there, the authorities had reluctantly allowed one of our group – and one only – to stand with the coffin for the three or four minutes that it took to load and dispatch it. They were not happy about this. Fears of funerals on the cheap and uncertainty about the beliefs of the deceased had been hinted at in the days before as we made our case for being allowed to attend. Arguments about tough spending choices and a prioritisation for care for the living were made.
And yet our presence inside the crematorium building for 15 or 20 minutes would have made no difference whatsoever to the cost of what happened there that morning. As it happens, Peter’s friends knew that he was a Christian, and so a simple Christian burial would have been possible. But regardless of whether his faith had been known or not, whether Christian, Muslim, Atheist, Agnostic or other, there was no need to leave him alone, or to allow his passing to be unmarked.
In a not entirely unkind attempt to outline what was set to happen that morning and to perhaps dampen our conviction about being there in places that the lashing rain had not yet reached, the undertaker explained that this was “more of a disposal than a funeral”.
More of a disposal than a funeral. What has our society become? How do we now value human dignity to such a poor extent that the end of someone’s life is regarded as a disposal if they don’t have the financial means to provide otherwise?
Yes, care for the living should be our priority. But how did we get to the point where our choice was either care for the living or dignity and recognition for those who have passed? We have to aim for better than that.
And in truth, our society had let Peter down long before this last indignity. That he had been sleeping rough under bridges and in abandoned buildings for the last nine months of his life was an even bigger affront to the inherent worth of his humanity, created in the image of God like every one of us.
There is a plaque on the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour which contains a sonnet that I have reflected on in the weeks since the events that I describe here. The second verse reads:
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
That the current President of the United States is actually intent on building a wall to keep out these huddled masses tells us a great deal about the state the world in 2018.
In our work at Oasis Aquila Housing we are determined to be a place of hope, both for our staff who see untold horrors on a day to day basis, and of course for those whom we serve, whether they are seeking safety from domestic violence, are sleeping on the streets, are stuck in a cycle if joblessness or have suddenly found themselves homeless.
As it happens, we are a charity with a Christian ethos. But we serve anyone who needs us because we recognise the inherent worth of all people.
In a statement which has reverberated through the ages, Jesus said “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
And so, the question that all of us are left with as we mull our response to what society has become is this: where will we stand?