On December 21, I was invited to the 23rd Annual Interfaith Homeless Memorial Service, a service which is held annually on the shortest day of the year.
It wasn't a great day for arriving anywhere early: the tail-end of winter storms from the Midwest has saturated Boston with torrential rain and I was sodden. On the positive side, it certainly gave me a glimpse of empathy: there's nothing warm and hopeful about Christmas lights and winter decorations when your trousers are wet and your coat leaks. I was feeling rather sorry for myself by the time that an angry man in a green sweater cursed me, pushed me to one side and vigorously rattled the locked doors. He sloped away before the doors were opened, leaving me standing there, sheepish and alone on the stoop, apologizing in my awkward English accent as a man quickly hurried me into the church – afraid, no doubt, that I might otherwise break the door down – and then returned to the music rehearsal.There were four men, each smartly dressed in black, rehearsing the songs for the service. I took a seat in one of the pews near the back, feeling conspicuous as the only person to have (accidentally) arrived. The church was filled with gray cardboard headstones. Some were propped against pews, some were taped to the walls, some leant drunkenly against the altar. Each carried a person’s name. Each was hand decorated: rainbows and flowers, love hearts and splashes of bright color.
A woman came and sat next to me. She travelled all over America giving homeless people vouchers that they could use in Dunkin Donuts. She was very polite and smiled a lot. She told me that she didn’t particularly like eating donuts herself. She had once bought a man in San Diego a chicken quesadilla, but he had refused to eat it. I asked her if she knew anything about the headstones: she told me that each one represented a homeless person who had died in the Boston area that year. She didn’t know how many there were. She came to this service each year, and once there had been 260. But, she mused, last winter hadn’t been as cold so there would probably be fewer.I misread the name on one headstone - No Man – and I felt a rush of anger. These people weren’t invisible nobodies, anonymous no-mans. They were people’s friends, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, lovers, partners, parents, acquaintances. When I looked more closely, I could see the ‘r’, small and crooked and partially obscured by an enormous yellow felt-tipped sun, on Norman’s gravestone. He was one of 130 people to have died in the Boston area this year. During the service, each person’s name was read out and a candle was lit in their memory. Jeff Olivet, one of the musicians, reminded the congregation that, ‘We do justice to their memory by lighting candles but, God help us, we should be doing justice to them while they’re living!’ Throughout the service, people drifted in and drifted out like the ebb and flo of a tide. But, even at its fullest, the congregation held fewer people than the list of those that we commemorated.
There was one headstone which looked like one of Iola’s drawings: it was a square house with a symmetrical window on each side of a bright red front door and an inverted triangle for the roof. It was in remembrance to someone called Daniel. The woman next to me told me that the average age of a homeless person in Boston was eight years old.
The service lasted an hour, each group of recited names interspersed by a song from our four black-suited men. Each took a turn to sing a solo: a hymn called ‘It is Well with My Soul’, written by an American from the 1800s after he lost all his money and all his children were killed in a sinking ship; Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, which soon became a very loud rendition as more and more people from the congregation joined in with the words that they knew; an operatic performance of ‘Empty Chairs on Empty Tables’ from the musical Les Miserables (‘There’s a grief that can’t be spoken, there’s a pain goes on and on. Empty chairs at empty tables, now my friends are dead and gone’); and a rousing rendition of Leadbelly’s ‘Bourgeois Blues’ which, Jeff Olivet warned us, contained more than a little righteous anger.I don’t think that I knew any of the people who were being commemorated: in Cambridge, people come and go and I’m not well enough established there to be able to put names to everyone’s faces, but I was welcomed anyway. The service ended with the congregation singing ‘Peace, Salaam, Shalom’. People rose to their feet and joined hands. It was a moving tribute to the people who had died and a powerful way to come together as a community. Afterwards, we were invited upstairs for a light luncheon and the opportunity to share and celebrate the memories of those who had died. The woman with the Dunkin Donut vouchers was one of the first in the queue. I lingered in the church for a while. A group of people had gathered around the piano and were having a raucous sing-a-long, the operatic baritone leading the way in a honky-tonk version of This Little Light of Mine, while an old man in a long tweed overcoat stamped the heel of his hand against the piano top. A woman leant towards me and told me that, if her friend had still been there among us, she would have been singing too.