“Jesus, Mary And Joseph
Were certainly Homeless on That Holy Night.”
Walking through Dublin city centre in the month of December one could easily fool oneself into thinking that this is a wonderland where any expectation can be fulfilled. The multi-coloured streetlights are blinking and flashing. The vendors are shouting their wares. The atmosphere is electric. But the thought strikes me, “In January, this will all have faded away.”
Not too far away I arrive at my destination, the Capuchin Homeless Centre where I have been a volunteer for ten years. Outside the church, a large banner undulates in the fresh December breeze. It reads ‘For us a Child is born’.
On this morning at the Centre, as on every other morning, about 300 homeless people of all ages, nationalities and religions are enjoying a little heat and a good wholesome breakfast. Everyone is here for the same reason – there is no room at the inn for poor, destitute people and at the Centre a hot breakfast is available. No judgements are made and no questions asked. All are equal and all are welcome.
Every day, except Sundays and Christmas Day, about 350 homeless people come for breakfast. Every day up to 500 homeless people come for a hot dinner. On Wednesdays, about 1,500 come for a bag of groceries. The queue begins around 6am. People come from the parks, the streets, shop doors, bus shelters or the hostels provided for the homeless. No one likes to stay too long in the hostels as they aren’t safe. Four or five can be put in one room and often they are robbed there or fights break out. The parks or streets are chosen in preference.
At 3.30pm the Centre closes and those still there have to leave and look for a safe place for the night. Street sleepers are very vulnerable. Jimmy is an elderly man who has seen better times. I saw him one day wrapped in his over-sized overcoat, an old soiled rucksack thrown over his shoulder. His face was puckered and unshaven but that didn’t hide the pain in his face or the tears in his tired eyes.
He told me the rucksack held his one possession – a folding-up tent. It was flimsy and I doubt it would have kept the wind or the rain out. He usually slept in a park as he felt the streets were too dangerous. He told me that when he woke up there was a tear in his tent and his mobile phone – the one like he had with another human being – was missing. Also gone was the €20 note he had hidden in the seam of the tent. He said, “Sister, I don’t want anything from anyone. I’m just happy someone cares and was interested in my story. Thank you for listening.”
These are the people who like Joseph and Mary on the First Christmas found no room at the inn. They are the poor, the maimed, the drug and alcohol addicts, the homeless whom society forgets about. They are the women of the streets, women who have been badly hurt and those whose children have been put in care but who may be pregnant again. They are those who fell on hard times and who just weren’t able to pick themselves up again. In fact they are you and me except for the grace of God. On 23 December a silence falls in this hall. There are around 150 people sitting at the tables or standing around. At one end is the Christmas Crib. It is a traditional Christmas scene. One of the Capuchin friars comes to conduct a Christmas prayer service. As I look around I see tears on some faces. I see the look of remembrance on other faces as they recall happy days of childhood in the company of their family sitting by the fire in expectation of Christmas presents.
When the service comes to an end, one after the other, they make their way spontaneously to the Crib. Each one lifts the new-born infant and kisses it. It is a very poignant moment when those of us looking on realise that the first Christmas must have been a little like this scene. Jesus, Mary and Joseph were certainly homeless on that Holy Night. And we know that the shepherds from the hills were their first visitors. They had no beautiful presents to bring or beautiful scented clothes to wear. They came as they were out on the hills – scruffy and perhaps smelly. But great was their belief and hope in the Saviour of the world.
May the blessing of the Christmas Season come to all of us and especially to those who have least among us. May the bells ring out and remind us when we look at the Crib that Christ is born in everyone’s heart especially in those who feel excluded from society, those who are lonely, those who can’t seem to make it in our sophisticated world. Spare a thought for them this Christmas and remember – ‘There but for the grace of God go you or I’.
A teacher and personal counsellor by profession, Sr. Abbie has taught in Ireland and been missioned in Hong Kong, Croatia and London.
She now works in Dublin as a counsellor in a boys secondary school and part-time in the Capuchin Day Centre for homeless people.