Pope Francis, remember Jenny

Two weeks ago, a woman who had become known to our church community through the course of the past several months suddenly passed away on the sidewalk in front of our church building. Her name was Jenny. Jenny was a particularly private person and at the time of her death we didn’t even know her name, let alone much about her life. We did know her, though, for her gentleness of spirit  and her smile. She was one of so many who make their dwelling on the streets of our city and one of the number who make their way to our particular community of faith.

For our church, Jenny’s passing has only deepened our resolve to reach out in friendship and service to those most in need, at times right there on our doorstep. Yet her death has also opened up a more mutual space of relationship and identity for us. A couple of days after Jenny died, family members from across the country began to get in touch. We were able to gather with them for an evening’s service of memorial in the side chapel that Jenny had sometimes known as her church home. The family members who came joined us around the communion table as we were reminded in that simple meal of bread and wine how our difference is subverted by the Spirit who binds all humanity into one.

Within the little time that has passed since these events, another church’s doorstep has become the focus of some attention as the Roman Catholic Church announced that it has a new pontiff, Francis. Pope Francis is known to be a man who has chosen to live into a simpler expression of his vocation, electing when he was formerly the Archbishop of Buenos Aires not to live in his episcopal palace but in a simple apartment, cooking his own food and travelling to work by bus. Francis is also known as a champion for social justice and of the poor and has denounced the “demonic effects of the imperialism of money.”My request to the new Bishop of Rome is simply this: Pope Francis, remember Jenny. There has been so much focus in my own Episcopal tradition on civil rights issues from an internal church perspective – the rights of women and of openly gay men and women to be in positions of church leadership – that the struggle for life free from oppression and degradation beyond the institutions of the Church has fallen away from the forefront of our focus. The Church of Rome has also been beset with internal struggles, from the alleged corruption at the Vatican Bank to the institutional failures surrounding a myriad of abuse scandals. My hope for Pope Francis is that he may remember his vocation to remember the poor and help all Christians re-discover forms of living that embrace simplicity and justice in the same movement.

For me, the question of how we retain the memory of Jenny’s life and loss is to ask how we are to be the Church in the liminal space between street and sanctuary. In the night, Jenny would straddle that edge between the street and the sanctuary, sleeping under the eaves of our church entrance. In the day, she died on a small strip of grass with that sanctuary space as most likely her last image of life on Earth. The between-space, that for us marks a death, is now the place where we are called to find the Lord of life. As we seek him there, may we dare to hope that by pitching the tent beyond the church walls something might be changed, starting with ourselves.


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