Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #065. First published in the St. Cloud Times Dec. 25, 2012

A Times news report earlier this month (“Number of families seeking shelter climbs,” Dec. 8) put the Christmas story in a new frame for me.

Nativity scenes have mangers, usually some straw and a farm animal or two. It’s clear the Holy Family isn’t in the presidential suite. However, everything seems cozy.

But Mary, Joseph and Jesus are, for a time at least, homeless — and soon, when they flee to Egypt to escape the murderous wrath of Herod, they will be not only homeless but refugees. “Number of families seeking shelter climbs” is part of the Christmas story.

The Times report was about an organization that has no illusions regarding this shadowed side of Christmas. The Salvation Army is known to everyone by its kettles and bell ringers. The people who know it best are those who, like Mary and Joseph, can find no room in the inn and who don’t even have a house to go home to, but get shelter and food — and backpacks for their kids — at The Salvation Army.

Alarming numbers

Statistics from the Times story are appalling: 14 families on the St. Cloud Salvation Army shelter waiting list; 10 children — children! — in the shelter every night; and, by a Wilder Foundation 2009 estimate, 9,630 Minnesotans homeless on any given night, 1,268 of them youths ages 12-21.

St. Cloud public schools have staff whose mission is to eliminate barriers to school attendance and academic progress for homeless students (204 so far this school year), while providing support, resources, or assistance to the families, often beyond the scope of school supplies, busing and registration.

Affordable housing lags way behind the need. As the Times story noted, “Stearns, Sherburne and Benton counties all rank among the 15 (of Minnesota’s 87 counties) with the lowest number of available and affordable units for extremely low-income renters — Benton 30 units for every 100 seekers, Stearns 31, Sherburne 36.”

It's not only local

As if to make sure I didn’t miss the message that homelessness is the topic this Christmas, the Dec.10 The New Yorker has an essay about homeless gay youths in New York. These young people, many of them cast out by their parents, have to negotiate a tangled web of regulations, institutions, suspicions, even weather. But in the midst of all this turmoil they manage to construct among themselves a viable semblance of family.

In the most poignant moment recounted in the essay, we learn that “homelessness narrowed Samantha’s field of vision, making the future so abstract as to be nearly imaginary. The concerns of the day — finding food and a place to sleep — eliminated all other thoughts. By early 2011, she was making herself reserve at least one day a week for ‘dealing with the future.’ ”

The Salvation Army’s Maj. Lee Morrison in St. Cloud states it bluntly: “Kids need a safe place to stay.” Even more, they need a roof they can call their own.

The message

The Interfaith Children’s Advocacy Network, whose advisory council I chair, and which represents religious communities (Christian, Jewish, and Muslim) that include 80 percent of Minnesotans who claim a religious identity, has these among its 2013 legislative policy recommendations: Passing the Family Economic Security Act to enhance earnings for low-income Minnesota parents; and ensuring availability of affordable housing to combat the growing issue of child and youth homelessness in Minnesota.

There’s a Christmas message for the Legislature!

Merry Christmas — and I wish it to all of you, just as I’m pleased and honored when a Jew wishes me Happy Hanukkah or a Muslim Happy Eid or an African-American Happy Kwanzaa, though if you want to say Happy Holidays, that’s fine with me, too; I’ll take happiness in whatever form.

But what I urge is this: Today, when you imagine the original Christmas scene, think not of a Nativity set in a cathedral or of the one under your roof, but of The Salvation Army homeless shelter. And as a community, let’s start seriously “dealing with the future.”