A Time for Prophetic Audacity
The following is a personal reflection from Will O’Brien, who has been part of the Project HOME community for over twenty years. As part of his work, he acts as a liaison to the faith community.
The last couple of weeks have been trying ones for Project HOME’s Education and Advocacy Department. We’ve been working on a few fronts, including fighting efforts by legislators in Harrisburg to impose voter ID requirements (what many are calling the “Voter Suppression Bill”) and trying to forge an effective response to Governor Corbett’s proposed state budget, with its numerous cuts to human services and programs for the most vulnerable Pennsylvanians.
In fact, a team of Project HOME advocates, both staff and residents, were in Harrisburg last week, attending hearings and meeting with legislators and staffers – only to returned feeling discouraged and frustrated.
At one recent meeting, we were poring over numbers and assessing the budget’s impact. We were also struggling with what kinds of organizing efforts might be effective. As I personally took in a sense of soberness at the tasks before us, I found an old memory stirring: Back in the 1980s, Philadelphia was the scene of an important event in the history of modern homelessness in this country: the formation of the first shelter started and operated by homeless persons. The group that started it called themselves the Committee for Dignity and Fairness for the Homeless (CDFH), and named the facility Dignity Shelter. The group would later launch the Union of the Homeless, a dynamic advocacy group which would eventually form chapters in several cities around the country.
In particular I remember a point around 1990 when street homelessness was increasing, and the City was cutting back on services, Chris suddenly announced that he would undertake a fast. For over a month he camped in City Hall, outside Council chambers, diligent in his nonviolent witness. Obviously he garnered much media coverage, and daily supporters joined him for an ongoing protest and call for urgently needed resources. After over 40 days of fasting, which eventually took Chris and other advocates to the State Building, a major commitment of new State funding was secured – and Chris took to the hospital to recover.
One of the founders of CDFH/Union was Chris Sprowal, a tall and imposing former social worker and union organizer who had experienced the degradation of life on the streets and in shelters. Sprowal turned his own suffering and rage into action, with the realization that persons who were homeless needed to be at the forefront of the struggle for housing and dignity. As he sought to change conditions in Philadelphia, he demonstrated remarkable imagination and audacity in his political actions. He bathed naked in a public fountain to protest the lack of showers in city shelters.
On a few occasions he organized dramatic “sleep-outs” to demand funding for shelters and service. And he spent no small amount of time in jail for civil disobedience. In many ways, he was a mentor to some of us who were part of the early history of Project HOME.
The memory of Chris Sprowal jolted me to a sense that perhaps today we need to again consider imaginative and audacious actions to raise the urgent issues of basic justice and compassion in our increasingly polarized society. Just a couple of days later, I was speaking with another Project HOME staff member, who was passionately questioning: “Where is the prophetic anger from the religious community? There’s all this poverty and suffering, and the United States may be entering yet another war soon!”
Yet a few days later, at one of our advocacy committee meetings, the same theme struck again, when someone said, in yet another tough conversation about the proposed state budget, that maybe we need religious leaders from around Pennsylvania to raise profound moral and spiritual issues about current directions in public policy. Something in me stirred – yes, we need that voice, a powerful, prophetic cry for justice.
Then, just this past Tuesday, I spotted a headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer saying that "Catholic bishops were calling for a day of fasting to protest,.." Could it be, I thought? Our spiritual leaders calling for action from all the faithful on the urgent issues of our day? A prophetic voice being raised about human suffering, poverty, and injustice?
No – it was about contraception. Protesting the recent White House statement about federal mandates for insurance to cover contraception. Protesting an assault on religious liberty.
Well, I am all for religious liberty, so I don’t begrudge the bishops’ actions. But, as a person of faith, I do lament that much of the religious community in this country suffers from a myopic vision of social responsibility. Both in the pulpits and the pews, too many of us have become too comfortable, too immune from the suffering of millions of our sisters and brothers. And we seem to be largely impotent in the face of continuing systemic assaults on our most vulnerable citizens, while wealth is being amassed by the few.
We need to reread the biblical prophets and the gospels. We need to tap into the holy anger of the prophets and of Jesus when God’s precious children are being neglected, exploited, marginalized, or dehumanized.
And we need elders like Chris Sprowal to remind us that sometimes we need to take imaginative and audacious risks.