A few weeks ago, Peter and I attended a wonderful APO concert entitled, “American to the Core”. The programme included; Bernstein, Gershwin and Corigliano. The music was joyous, loud and emotional. The symphony by Corigliano was a memorial to three friends who had died during the 80s Aids epidemic. This was a wonderful, edgy production that had a social and political message not your usual concert fare.
At the interval I went outside and looked across the road at the Night Shelter in Airedale St where I had a few hours earlier referred a man who had been brought to the Mission by the Police.
This was an auspicious night for the shelter; it would be the last night the emergency shelter would be available in Airedale St. This shelter had been running for many years and had 30 beds for both men and women. What struck me as inequitable and short-sighted, was that Hamilton has just opened their own shelter, Wellington and Christchurch has one but Auckland with one and half million people cannot keep this facility operating. We seem to be unable to provide services to our less fortunate citizens because it just costs too much.
The Gospel, last week told of the feeding 5000 and this week’s reading is a continuation and the crowds need for an explanation of the sign and miracles that Jesus performs. John is a Gospel full of signs and the world when it was written was in desperate need of signs, of the positive kind. The followers of Jesus had been expelled from the synagogues and the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. The followers were being persecuted by the Romans and have lost all connections with their original Jewish roots.
This 2nd century world included homelessness, overcrowding, dislocation, unemployment and hunger. Not that dissimilar to our current world scene for many, whether they live in the US, Africa, Europe or Aotearoa NZ. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury has recently described David Cameron’s concept of the ‘Big Society’ as “aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable”. This description of British society could be so easily be transposed to describe our own, in Aotearoa New Zealand. In fact this same paper states there are 7 million families living on the edge of poverty and the effect on their health, relationships and capacity to flourish is devastating. While we don’t have such large numbers being affected, the effect on our similar group is the same.
I recently saw the movie ‘Margin Call’. It follows the key people at an investment bank, over a 24 hour period, during the early stages of the financial crisis that continues to impact the world’s economies and subsequently driven millions of people into homelessness.
The extraordinary thing about this move was that the key players were not worried about the long term effect of the imminent financial crisis after all it had happened before and it would happen again. At no point did the idea that the system they were working with was flawed, come up for serious discussion. That sign was both frightening but oh so real!
It is unlikely that homelessness and living on the edge of poverty will ever be eradicated while such institutions accept that the inevitable result of their business process is economic “booms and busts”.
Bread as we all know is a staple in most diets throughout the world in its many variations. Another essential for human life is community. Without connection to community we as individuals never reach our full potential, we need each other to live our lives abundantly. The statement “I am the bread of life” was quite challenging for those listeners as it is for us. What was being implied? The challenge is to see which things perish and which things endure, and to embed ourselves - to abide in, to focus our living on things that endure. Are there signs in our lives that we are ignoring, or are there things that we want more “proof’ of in order to believe? The message of Jesus is that we have been shown the sign- the proof- of God’s presence among us, we just need to see it. God has already provided all that is needed for life and community. Our souls are nurtured – some might say fed – by doing his work in God’s world.
Working in hospitals, social services, food banks or with the homeless, all of this “works” flow from the practical demonstration of Jesus feeding the 5000. Through sharing, we can help others experience the abundance of life that Jesus speaks of later in this Gospel. Sharing the essentials of life, like bread means that we are caring for God by caring for each other. We too can be a sign of God’s presence in God’s world. We have bread and love to share, by the grace of God.
What “sign” is God calling us to be, as individuals and as a church? Remember, a ‘sign’ is an action that has the potential of revealing God’s presence in order to generate belief. We as a church community have begun an exercise of looking at ourselves and what we would like to see ourselves be as an inner city church. I really enjoyed meeting both new and the more established members of the congregation and hearing why they came to St Matthew’s and what they would like to see St Matthew’s to become. Reflecting on what we are and what we can be as a Christian community is a pathway that we walk into the mystery and wonder of God.
As a member of the Crisis Care Team at the Auckland City Mission, knowing the Night Shelter was to be closed filled me with dread, the thought of having to tell people that there was no shelter available and sleeping rough was their only option, is not a pleasant one. However we have managed to house most of the long term users of the shelter and we now have a very limited number of beds available at another hostel in the inner city. It has made us more aware of our mission to care for the marginalised and disadvantaged of Auckland City. At this point in time I am not aware of our new Super City coming up with any suggestions or alternatives, to solve this emergency accommodation crisis. It has been collaboration between the Auckland City Mission and Lifewise with some help from Housing NZ who are finding and funding the new option.
Remember the man who slept at the Night Shelter? The Policeman who brought him to the Mission rang me the following day. He, with Housing NZ’s help, had found him permanent accommodation and we have been able to put in place the necessary support service the man needed to live his life well. That for me is a wonderful and unexpected result of community working to care for the less able in our own society.