A few years ago I saw a man on Bloor Street in Toronto who caught my attention. He was not young, but a hard life made it difficult to tell his age. His hair was long and dishevelled under a woolen hat. He had an old, rusty bicycle which was laden with plastic bags filled with all his possessions and also on his bicycle were handwritten signs. One sign was boldly printed with the message: THE LORD IS COMING!
Perhaps here was the twentyfirst century John the Baptist, not dressed in camel skins and living in the wilderness, but just as much an outcast of society. Unlike John, the man was being ignored. He was rejected and shunned by the people passing by. His sign—The Lord is coming!— was a cry in a different kind of wilderness, not a wilderness of desert, but a wilderness of hectic, urban, secular life. Perhaps this wandering man also had rejected the world around him. He lived a different set of values and his presence on the street caused others to question the values in their lives. Looking at this homeless man, I wondered if his sign was a message of hope, for the poor, for the outcasts, even for the people hurrying by him.
Homelessness is a huge problem in our neighbourhoods, our cities, our country, and the world. It is a problem for all levels of government in nearly every country, large or small, rich or poor. People are searching for shelter from poverty, oppression, civil unrest, or war. In recent years, migration has become a global phenomenon. Sometimes it seems that the population of the planet is on the move from south to north or east to west or the opposite. All of this movement is made much more difficult and dangerous by the disasters of climate change.
Peoples’ lives seem unstable and uprooted. The COVID-19 pandemic also has made people feel vulnerable to new and uncontrollable dangers to their loved ones, their neighbours and themselves. Being homeless is much more than not having a roof over your head. Being homeless can foster despair and hopelessness. We see all of that anguish in the news media—the desperation of men, women and children risking their lives to find safety and a home.
This phenomenon of migration is reminiscent of the search for a safe home in the Hebrew scriptures. The prophet Isaiah was writing at a time when the Hebrew people were in exile. Isaiah prophesies a new kingdom for God’s people and for all God’s creation and yet Jesus was born in an imperfect world of poverty, treachery, and cruelty. Jesus was born in the wilderness of brutal oppression and violent uprisings.
As winter approaches in our northern hemisphere, the reality of homelessness becomes more urgent. As governments struggle to find means to help and to save lives in our harsh climate, people of faith can help in small but meaningful ways. In parishes around our diocese, people are collecting warm clothing to distribute to people who are homeless or lack the means to survive the cold of our Canadian winter. Some parishes open their doors for an hour or two, one or two days a week to offer rest, a warm drink and a warm welcome. These gestures of compassion do not solve the problem of homelessness but they do offer the hope of survival for another day.
That homeless man on Bloor Street had faith that the Lord was coming to comfort him and he had his greeting card already made. Despite his wretched circumstances, he had hope for another day in which kindness would overcome despair and compassion would overcome intolerance. His faith and hope can be an inspiration to us all as we look toward the coming of the Lord and as we strive to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8).