“We are all equal in the eyes of God”

Alice Leahy
Director and Co-Founder Trust

To be invited to address you today at a very important time in our country where hope and vision is in short supply is an honour.
TRUST is a non-denominational, befriending, social & health agency working with people labelled homeless since 1975. Those we work with are generally treated and seen as outsiders in our world. Cities are about diversity – a fact we should not forget.

I am not a theologian and I am not exercised in challenging theologians but I do find the language of theology like law and medicine for example – a bit daunting with the potential to isolate. Institutions of all types fail to encourage debate and we can all be institutionalised in our thinking. We are here today to look at the basic values of Christianity and what the Gospel message means to us I think.

The aim of TRUST:
“to serve homeless people in need by promoting human services which would meet their immediate and long-term needs and by these means to encourage their development and give their lives a dignity which is their birthright.” (…from the Deeds of TRUST.)

We are sandwiched between St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Christchurch Cathedral in the Liberties area of Dublin. We own no property and work in the basement of a Hostel building over a hundred years old.

The philosophy of TRUST is based on two central principles:

The recognition of every individual’s right to be treated as an autonomous and unique human being.

The need to restore the dignity of individuals whom society has labelled deviant and undesirable.

Our work would not be possible without the enormous generosity and support of people from all walks of life, rich and poor, lay and religious of different denominations.

The people we meet are perceived by the wider society as being different and difficult and indeed many are difficult. They suffer from the effects of isolation, neglect and health problems, exacerbated by what are often described as chaotic lifestyles. We meet increasing numbers of people who were ‘re-settled’ in totally unsuitable accommodation, and then find themselves homeless again – becoming part of a community something they are unable to do without support and acceptance, and what about Parish life?

The people we meet suffer all of the medical conditions common to the general public but exacerbated by their living conditions. We are now coming across conditions long disappeared since the advent of good food e.g. malnutrition, trench foot and impetigo (wild fire) – conditions clearly associated with extreme poverty and many of these people are our new neighbours from Eastern Europe, we should not forget our own Irish who immigrated in the past seeking work. Racism is a daily challenge.

Some people we meet cope with very serious addiction problems, including gambling, drugs, alcohol – all seen just as statistics in our increasingly bureaucratic world.

Many people we meet struggle to create a sense of normality after years locked away in institutions and others who have been relocated from one institution to another. Some people locked in prisons they have created for themselves, often out of the frustration of not being understood or ignored. Many people we know have attempted suicide, and many have died on the streets.

Everyday we meet up to 50 women and men who sleep rough as they present themselves to us – all outsiders in a European Capital City. These women and men, many of whom are extremely vulnerable come from all over Ireland and from right across Europe and beyond. Many people we meet have lost contact with family and we regularly get calls from people looking for their loved ones who have disappeared. Some of the people we meet may be in touch with other agencies who attempt to meet their needs while others may be totally cut off from mainstream society. At times some people we meet appear to be beyond reach, they bring their own challenges and others inspire us everyday to look at the way we live our lives.

I am reminded of Joe who one day with tears in his eyes told me that when attending morning mass in an Inner City Church the woman beside him refused to take his hand at the sign of peace – yes he had the weather beaten cigarette stained hand of poverty.

Homelessness is not just about housing alone, it is much more about not fitting in, being different, being an outsider.

“To be without a home is to be suspect. The homeless are easy targets. Their bodily integrity is constantly at risk. Their lives are an offence against the sacred canons of private property and consumerism. Their privacy is regularly intruded on as part of the price of being statistics in the poverty industry; their painful experiences are reduced to sociological research data. The true test of a civilised community is how people at the margins are treated. Not only must individual liberties be defended, but society should be educated and sensitised towards a broader vision of life and living. In an area dominated by the culture of individual acquisition, homelessness may have important lessons for us all.” – Dan Sullivan, then President of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, describing what it means to be homeless in Ireland in a piece I asked him to write in 1995 for a book I co-authored with Ann Dempsey “Not Just a Bed for the Night” published by Marino Books in 1995.

Today many people including those in Church, State and Community groups who work hard in building and fostering community involvement are frequently challenged by an insensitive bureaucracy and meaningless jargon. But that challenge forces us all to question our commitment to love our neighbour and dig deeply into our human resources and beliefs.

The message of the Gospel is an inclusive one and silence in the face of people being excluded cannot be an option. We also need to care for each other and defend those who speak out.

I reflect often on the words of Pastor Martin Niemoellen in 1945 – “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and Trade Unionists. I was neither so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out and when they came for me there was no one left to speak for me”.

A number of years ago on Christmas Day I happened to catch Eurovision Mass from Circus Pinter Top in Paris. I was struck by a few quotes from the Pastor: “Encounters with people move us” … “It is the blind application of the law which makes us inhuman”. I am of course not encouraging breaking the law but we are all humans sharing this earth at this time in Creation. The dignity of every individual should be at the very centre of everything we do. We should not be afraid to pose awkward questions and if we don’t I suggest Christianity is a meaningless word.

We should never forget the amazing work being done daily by Religious groups all over the world and so much of it now being taken for granted, particularly in our own country. Their energy has been sapped and their vision in danger of being obliterated.

Let me describe to you one hour in TRUST last Autumn

To our small inner city basement centre (TRUST) on an autumn morning in 2011 one after the other they arrived, all in the first hour: 23 women and men. (Lack of space meant others had to be turned away). All having a hot cup of tea or coffee with fresh brown bread, lost in their thoughts, waiting to have a shower and change of clothes their first in ten days, socks and shoes not removed in that time, feet treated and wounds attended to etc.

People came from squats, open spaces and under bushes all over City:
Earlsfort Tce., Merrion Square, The Quays, Civic Offices, Dawson Street, Portobello,
Garda Stations, Drumcondra, Dollymount, Ulster Bank, Cook Street, Bray, some not knowing where they slept, two lucky to get a hostel bed for one night, 1 female sofa surfing after one night in Casualty. The universal look of misery and hopelessness, life’s history private to themselves etched in their faces reflecting on a life less ordinary. All reluctant to leave to make way for others. Some were Irish, others from Poland, Romania, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovakia. Common denominator the label homeless – labels do define us and stick.

Tom who lives in a hostel, attends a psychiatric clinic made his usual visit to sit quietly with a hot cup of coffee listening to Lyric FM. Josef who is hard of hearing always pleasant and gracious, shaking hands on arrival and leaving, says it is better here than in the place he once called home. Pat called with his mother. His shoes soleless, walking around on his sore bare dirt caked skin like a dogs paw. He asked for nothing more than a hot cup of tea in a quiet space.

Most were unkempt, unshaven, filthy and ashamed to be, apologising for their state – the majority known to us for some time. Joan called for the first time after two months on remand in prison. On release after attending Court, the urge to meet old friends on the day for a drink or share other drugs too much to resist. All pre-release plans if any gone in 5 minutes. Some trying to sleep for a short time, others drunk from early morning to blot out the pain of living.

We see too often the anger and despair replaced by apathy and resignation to ones plight. Dull, dead eyes have replaced the once bright ones when dreams of a better future existed.
The work is difficult, hard, dirty, misunderstood, devalued, time consuming, unquantifiable, challenging and especially soul destroying at times, but invaluable when you see people better able to face the day, confidence regained to meet a friend, reconnect with family and address one’s addiction – all this takes time, money energy and commitment.

If Christ in person visited Dublin today I have no doubt he would be sitting amongst these people and challenging us to the limit.

Seeing people lose all they have, including hope, others where truth has become the first victim of addiction, some whose life from birth has been defined by misery and poverty likely to be seen as a problem for life, never having a chance to reach their full potential. Seeing 3rd generations coming through our door as we did in that hour is challenging. We learn so much from these people, all who live in the moment who inspire us to reflect on the world we live in.

How does Parish defined conveniently by geographical boundaries look at these people/outsiders? Boundaries after all create exclusion. Many working in the field of poverty and social exclusion can too feel excluded. My colleagues and I are daily called Sister – this highlights the fact that people seen to be working with the poor are only religious often giving the illusion that only the religious have the commitment and expertise required to create caring and inclusive communities. Theological expressions of love become tiresome and lofty at times. Love is about justice often requiring personal sacrifice and being unpopular. The Church is about all of us, no matter what the label and a vibrant Church can only claim to be so if it practices love. Ordinary men and women living extraordinary lives believing in Gospel values expressing concern for their fellow human beings are important to Christ who makes no distinctions.

Many people who are part of Parish and speak of love never see the real miracles that take place on a daily basis when barriers are broken down.

The simple words of Eleanor Roosevelt to me are very important:

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. They are the world of the individual person: the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works”.
Eleanor Roosevelt

I would add to this “and in our Church, particularly our Parish”. Her words and the words of the Gospels written in simple language accessible to all are all that’s required to help us question our commitment to create a better world and live our faith to the best of our ability.

Women and men, lay and religious must discuss and debate what type of world we want, indeed what kind of Church we want. In former times when Ireland was poor Churches provided services through some very dedicated people and this has been dissected under the microscope in recent times. We know only too well that these were well documented tragedies at many levels. In TRUST we have met people who were abused in their own families, and by the many institutions including Church and State run. We also meet some deeply hurt women and men left to deal with the after-effects that was not of their making – added to by the non- acceptance of our shared humanity.

If we believe in the Gospel in action we must be prepared to be unpopular, questioning the status quo relentlessly and supporting those unable to speak for themselves, even if of a different faith or no faith.

We are after all, all vulnerable, its part of our shared humanity. There is a tendency to think that Christians, and I guess all religions to think they are the only ones who care. On the contrary, there are many with no religious or dormant religious beliefs who care for vulnerable people in society and we are all as Bob Dylan said “prisoners in a world of mystery”.

Director & Co-Founder
Friday 15th June 2012