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Following the homeless shepherd

I HAVE just listened to an early morning talkback program on Radio National. I came into the conversation during a discussion with a City Councillor from Alice Springs who was defending the Council’s decision to introduce a by-law to prohibit begging on the streets of Alice Springs.

It opened up a fascinating conversation about the apparent increase of begging in Australia.

Why do people beg? Are they really poor? Why don’t they, or can’t they, access welfare services?

What has happened in their lives and within the Australian community that the only option seems to be to beg for help?

Various people rang in with their experiences and explained their decisions to help, or refuse to help, beggars.

One person said that the problem with begging was not that it did any harm rather that it made the rest of us feel uncomfortable.

This caller suggested that many of us feel embarrassed, guilty, helpless or frightened when approached by a beggar.

It is our discomfort that we are trying to address, rather than the plight of the beggar.

I found myself admitting that this is true for me. However somewhere in the background of my thoughts were the words of Jesus: “Foxes have holes and birds have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”. (Matt 8:20; Luke 9:58)

I follow one who was homeless and who was dependent upon others for his daily sustenance. How does this shape my attitude to those who live that sort of existence in my world?

How do we live out the commitments we made at our last Synod (see page 7)? Why do we want to help those who sleep rough on our streets?

Is it just to appease our consciences or do we have a genuine concern for those who try to live without a place to lay their heads at night?

I am impressed that in the midst of our struggle with the difficult financial situation we face as a Synod, we were prepared to look beyond ourselves and commit ourselves to playing our part in addressing the needs of those who have nothing.

We could dismiss those commitments with the excuse that we don’t have the financial resources to do anything; or we can see this as the perfect time to reach out.

As I listen to those who find themselves with no place to call home they talk of their loneliness and isolation. They lose their sense of identity and worth in the community.

We may not have a simple answer to the lack of affordable housing but we do have the capacity to offer inclusion in our community.

We could move beyond our own feelings of discomfort and embarrassment to acknowledge them, to learn a person’s name, and to listen to their story.

One of the talkback callers recalled the day she received her first pay packet.

Her parents had prepared her for this event giving her advice about how to use it wisely and not to allow herself to be cheated out of her hard-earned money by street people. So when she emerged from the hospital after night shift with her pay in her pocket she knew that she should not hand over money to the ‘bag lady’ who pleaded with her for help.

However, she felt for this woman with nothing so she invited her to have breakfast with her. Together they ate bacon and eggs in the local café. I am sure that both women were blessed that morning; a blessing far richer than if that young nurse had simply handed over a few shillings.

I wonder what stories lay behind the words in Matthew’s Gospel about the women who stood at the foot of the cross.

I am glad there were some people who saw more than just the homeless wanderer of Galilee.

Why was that homeless man more deserving of our care and love than those who roam the streets of most cities and towns today?

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt 25:40)