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Mass for the Deceased Homeless | November 8, 2012

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of attending the dedication of a new permanent memorial to the homeless who’ve died in our city.  The memorial is called the Tree of Remembrance, and it’s located in Victor Steinbrueck Park, near Pike Place Market.  If you haven’t had the chance to visit it yet, I would recommend you do so, as it’s really quite beautiful.  The memorial is in the shape of a stylized tree, with cutouts in the shape of leaves, representing homeless persons who have died scattered throughout our community.  I was quite moved by some of the comments made at the dedication by the sculptor who created the tree.  In referring to the leaves, and the deceased homeless persons they represent, he used the word “lost” – the leaves are lost, just as the  homeless persons they represent are lost.  I must tell you, that word “lost” has been haunting me ever since. 
We come together tonight to remember those same homeless persons who are memorialized in the Tree of Remembrance, those who have lost their lives on our streets this past year, and who, even in life, were in many ways lost to us.  Did you know that we have over 8,000 homeless people living here in King County alone?  Did you know that, according to some studies, about 40% of the homeless are children?  About 20% are victims of domestic violence?  About 40% of homeless men are veterans?  If you didn’t know some of these statistics, you’re not alone.    In a very real sense, the homeless right here in our community are unseen, forgotten, invisible – in a word, lost – lost to a culture that is too busy to see them, too distracted to see them, or too often simply does not wish to see them.   
People often ask: what causes homelessness?  And the response I hear over and over again from those who know best – people who study homelessness, people who work in agencies and ministries trying to respond to homelessness, people who are or have been homeless – they all say the same thing – there is no single cause.  There are, instead, a whole host of factors that contribute to homelessness, but all of them have to do with some kind of loss.  It may be the loss of a job, or the loss of family connections, the loss of the struggle against addiction, or the loss of health, or the loss of mental health.  Homelessness certainly has to do with the loss of a home, and, very often, the loss of hope.  And in the case of the 57 people we remember and pray for tonight, homelessness also contributed to the ultimate loss – the loss of their lives. 
Amid all of this loss, we turn to Scripture for words of meaning and hope.  The first reading, from the book of Lamentations, expresses our sense of loss and grief.  Hear again the words:   “My soul is deprived of peace, I have forgotten what happiness is…the thought of my homeless poverty is wormwood and gall, …”  The author of those words knows loss, deeply and profoundly.  He names it, he speaks it, he does not run from it or sugarcoat it.  And yet, even from the depths of such grief, he reminds us that we are not alone in our losses, that God stands with us:  “This I will call to mind, as my reason to have hope. The favors of the Lord are not exhausted, his mercies are not spent, so great is his faithfulness.” 
Tonight’s Gospel readings are also about losses – but more than that, they’re about a faithful God who is unrelenting in his searching, and overjoyed in his finding.  Today we hear two parables about losing and finding, the parable of the good shepherd who searches and finds the lost sheep, and the parable of the woman who searches and finds her lost coin.  These parables are found in the 15th chapter of Luke, which also contains a third parable about losing and finding – the famous story of the prodigal son, who was lost to his father, and whose homecoming was the source of such joy.  Each of these parables gives us an image of a God who will go to impractical, unrealistic, even foolish extremes to find and reclaim what has been lost.  It’s foolish, isn’t it, for a shepherd to abandon 99 sheep to search for one that has become lost – will not the 99 also wander off and become lost while the shepherd is off searching for the one?  Likewise, it seems foolish by our standards of efficiency for a woman to stay up all night searching her house for one lost coin – especially since she immediately calls her neighbors to celebrate with her when it’s found – surely the cost of the celebration will be more than the value of the coin she’s spent all night looking for!  But God’s faithfulness and mercy are beyond our notions of what’s sensible – these stories tell us that God will stop at nothing to reunite us to himself.  If the sculptor of the memorial tree was right – if we can think of our homeless brothers and sisters as lost – then surely we can be consoled by the image of a faithful God who will not stop in his efforts to find them and to bring them back – back to community, back to health, back to homes.  And, for those homeless persons who have died, and who we remember tonight, bring them back home to himself to share in his eternal life.    
And what about those of us who are housed – where do we find ourselves in these readings?  I think if we’re honest, we’d have to admit that we are also lost.  Yes, we may still have jobs, and health, and intact families.  We may still have homes, but haven’t we also become lost?  Hasn’t our society lost its moral compass when we tolerate persistent homelessness, when we accept it as business as usual so that it becomes invisible to us?  Hasn’t our economic system lost its way when a growing percentage of our people are left behind, unable to earn a living wage despite hard work and diligence?  As a nation, we’ve recently been riveted by the pictures of so many people on the East Coast who have been made temporarily homeless by Hurricane Sandy.  We have been deeply moved by the suffering of those who took refuge in emergency shelters and by the outpouring of generosity and caring from so many who’ve responded to their suffering.  Hurricane Sandy was front page news for days, and rightly so, but thousands of people are chronically homeless every day, storm or no storm, right here in our city and across our country, and that persistent homelessness fails to make headlines.  Our tradition of Catholic Social Teaching tell us that the moral measure of a society is the way in which its most vulnerable members are faring – by this measure, I think it’s fair to say that yes, we as a society are also pretty lost.
My brothers and sisters, it doesn’t need to be this way.  We don’t need to remain lost.  The good news of the Gospel is that God does not will for us to be lost.  The good news of the Gospel is that God is faithful; God’s mercy extends to all of us, the homeless and the housed.  Just as there is rejoicing over the return of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son, so too does God desire the return of all of us to a more just vision of society, a society in which no one is forgotten, no one is homeless, in which no one is lost.   Tonight, as we pray for and remember our homeless brothers and sisters who have died in our community, let us resolve to continue our work of finding homes for every one of us.    

Patty Bowman


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Seattle, Washington  98104
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