By Sister Sharon Havelak, OSF
Homelessness. Between Thanksgiving and the beginning of Advent, it’s been weighing on my mind.
On Thanksgiving Day, a group of us Sisters were discussing an upcoming panel presentation on homeless schoolchildren. It turned out to be eye-opening. The facts certainly were staggering. Some 2.5 million children in the US are homeless, with about 47,500 homeless children in Ohio. Toledo ranks #1 in homeless kids, some 2700 in the Toledo Public School system alone, not counting private or charter schools. The national average age of a homeless child is 4 years old.
Two things the panel said really resonated with me. Homelessness is so much more than a lack of a house; it’s much more complicated than that. One panelist compared it to driving through a construction zone on an unfamiliar road, around many obstacles. Another speaker was very emphatic: it’s not their fault; systems create homelessness as much as an individual’s poor decisions. Community response is needed. Most poignant was the story of the child worried that Santa wouldn’t know that he was living in a shelter now.
Last week I spent a day collecting signatures. We were signing Christmas cards for the people that Campus Ministry serves at Helping Hands of St. Louis and through the Labre Project. Though they were on their way to or from final exams, many students, faculty and staff stopped to sign cards, many including personal notes. One young man chatted with me for a while about what it meant to him to come to know the poor and homeless as real people. One young woman wrote a long message inside her card; she had been homeless and knew what it was like.
To top it all off, the other day, I checked to see whether Pope Francis had announced the theme of this January 1st Day of Peace message, so we could plan a prayer service. I was thrilled to see that he announced the topic early – and that his theme was: Migrants and Refugees: Men and Women in Search of Peace.
As I reflect on all this, I can’t help but feel that this sense of restlessness, of up-rootedness, this longing for safety and stability resonates so deeply with the longing of the Advent season. The stories of the ancient exiled Jewish people longing for their homeland, the anawim longing for a messiah, the story of a young family traveling to Bethlehem and finding no shelter there and then needing to flee to Egypt are foundational faith stories. They’re also stories that speak to our own present day hopes and longings.
My prayer is that, this Advent season, in the flurry of preparations and as we celebrate the joy and blessings of Christmas, we keep the forgotten ones tucked in our hearts, knowing that our God of surprises often chooses seemingly unlikely paths and people to bring us salvation.