At the end of this conference on homelessness, let me offer five concrete images and stories that we can bring home after this gathering.
May each metaphor lead us to the spirituality of seeing the homeless person in the vision of Jesus and challenge us to take care of them to become empowered and evangelizing agents in the Church of the Poor.
1. IF WE ONLY HAD A BETTER HOUSE
Let me start with a local metaphor. In the last seven years in the Philippines, under our past President, Rodrigo Duterte, the police officers were encouraged and commanded to catch and kill drug addicts. Duterte wanted to cleanse the country of “illegal drugs.” So, he tried to eliminate them.
But only those who lived in small makeshift shanties were executed. Those who lived in big houses with fences and gates were not killed. That is why the war against drugs was also dubbed the war on the poor. One widow said to me: “If only we had a better house if only our house had a stronger door, it would not have been easy for the police to enter and shoot my husband.”
The right to housing is not just one of the human rights. In our context, and for most of the world, it is also the door to the most fundamental of all rights — the right to life — without which there is no right at all.
2. THE HOMELESS STRANGER
That is why the right to housing is close to the heart of the Christian faith. The second image is the homeless stranger in the bible.
In the first reading, from the book of the prophet Isaiah (Is. 58: 6-10), “to fast” means to loosen the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, in concrete, to share bread with the hungry and to bring the homeless into your house. When someone does not have a home, lend your own roof to shelter him. That is what is meant by fasting. Not your religious observance, not your glum faces, not your temple sacrifices, not your liturgies, not your self-flagellations, but to feed the hungry, to work for justice, to shelter the homeless, to welcome the stranger.
The book of Leviticus writes: “If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so they can continue to live among you” (Lev. 25: 35). You were also homeless strangers before. So, take care of the strangers.
In the gospel (Mt. 25: 31-40), Jesus identified himself with the homeless stranger, the hungry and thirsty, the sick and the poor. “Whatever you do to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do it to me,” Jesus says.
3. THE HOMELESS JESUS
The third image is the “homeless Jesus.” The poor and homeless are truly “the flesh of Christ.” But in this throwaway culture, it is Christ whom we have actually thrown away. Even Churches are guilty of this. Even we, as people working in the churches, are guilty of this.
I think everyone is familiar with the statue named “Homeless Jesus.” The Canadian Catholic sculptor, Timothy Schmalz, was inspired to make this sculpture after seeing a homeless person sleeping on a park bench sometime in 2012. After the election of Pope Francis, he went to visit him and presented a miniature version. The Pope was so touched. Timothy recalled: “He walked over to the sculpture, and it was just chilling because he touched the knee of Jesus, and closed his eyes and prayed. That is what he’s doing throughout the whole world: Pope Francis reaching out to the marginalized.”
But the big Churches rejected it. The sculptor offered it to St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto but was declined because the leaders there said: “The appreciation was not unanimous.” St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York also refused because of its ongoing renovation.
But Matthew’s gospel is still a real challenge in today’s world. Even as we try to analyze and talk about their situation in this conference, it is not easy to see Christ in the homeless poor. Do we really see Christ in the poor person? Or are we tempted to keep the Lord at arm’s length, being comfortable in our “personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune” (Evangelii Gaudium 270)? Is keeping distance our knee-jerk reaction? When the statue of the Homeless Jesus was displayed in a park near a residential area somewhere, some frightened people in the neighborhood called the police, saying that a homeless person is sleeping nearby. They were feeling unsafe.
Pope Francis gives us this challenge: “When you give alms, do you look into the eyes of the man or woman whom you are giving alms to? Do you touch the hand of the person to whom you are giving alms, or do you throw the coin into the hand? This is the problem: the flesh of Christ, touching the flesh of Christ, taking on ourselves this suffering of the poor.”
4. ST. VINCENT AND THE BEGGAR
The fourth image is a painting entitled “St. Vincent and the Beggar” done by Meltem Aktas, which is now found at the Vincentian Rosati House in Chicago. We always assume that St. Vincent, famous for his charity work, is the one giving the bread to the beggar. But if you look intently, it might also be that the beggar is giving the bread to St. Vincent. Vincent’s tattered clothes are no different from the beggar’s dress, and his deformed feet, which were the cause of his infirmities in old age, are no different from the beggar’s gnarled hands.
Who is Vincent, and who is the beggar? Who is the giver and who is the recipient? Who is the servant, and who is the master?
In the view of St. Matthew, as in St. Vincent’s eyes, the world is inverted. The poor who receive have become “our lords and masters”; and we who give have become the servants. As a point of reversal, the beggar becomes Christ, and Vincent assumes the poor man’s place. Only the poor can tell us the truth of our own poverty.
The French philosopher Jacques Derrida refers to this same reversal in our acts of hospitality: “It is indeed the master, the one who invites, the inviting host, who becomes the hostage — and who really always has been. And the guest, the invited hostage, becomes the one who invites, [he becomes] the master of the host. The guest becomes the host’s host. The guest (hôte) becomes the host (hôte) of the host (hôte).”
My last image is Maribel. She is a homeless woman who lives on scavenging waste on the streets and sells them elsewhere for food. But during the pandemic, the police would apprehend them when they roam around. So, people like her hid under the bridges in Manila. Until today, if you pass by a bridge, almost always, there is a community under it.
When we went to distribute food packs during the lockdown, Maribel’s task was to cook the meager supply to make it last for the whole week until the next food aid came. But her constant complaint was that the supply was lacking. She told me that there were many people who came, and the food was not enough.
“Those who come, do you know them?” I asked.
“No, I don’t know them,” she replied.
At a time when we needed to distance ourselves from people we did not know who might be COVID-19 virus carriers, she just welcomed them under the bridge and fed them. For where else will they go?
Maribel looked me straight in the eye and asked me a question I will never forget: “But how can you ever eat your share when they are around and have nothing?”
That statement put me in my place. It was supposed to be me, a priest, who should say that. But no, it was Maribel who reminded me. Society looks at Maribel and people like hers as wastes to be thrown away, as dirt that needs to be cleaned, and as dangers to society. But in an act of reversal, it is Maribel who tells me what an inclusive and synodal church would look like.
The Church of the Poor is not in our well-furnished church buildings. It is found here under the bridge where everyone is accepted. No qualifications, no IDs, no interviews, no questions asked.
Talk about the Eucharist? We usually celebrate it in churches with all its liturgical norms of propriety, rules of membership, and also rules of exclusion. In a twist of irony and act of reversal, I think it is more authentically celebrated here under the bridge where people feed and nourish one another, wherever one comes from, whoever one is.
Let me paraphrase what St. Vincent told his followers: “The homeless — they have so much to teach us. We have so much to learn from them.” This might be a fitting reminder as we go home.
Father Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M., is the President of Adamson University in Manila. He is a theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community on the outskirts of the Philippine capital. He is also Vincentian Chair for Social Justice at St. John’s University in New York.
Fr. Pilario delivered this piece during the International Conference on Slum Dwellers at the Adamson University in Manila in January 2024.