Monsignor James St. George was walking into his Montgomery County church not too long ago when he teared up at the sight of the Beggar Christ statue at the parish’s front doors.
The life-size bronze rendering of a homeless Jesus has stood at the entrance of Saint Miriam Parish and Friary in Flourtown for years now, but the sight of it that cold winter day, covered in rain and snow, seemed to refocus the church’s mission. In the words that Father Jim has long and often shared with his parishioners, of “sinking into a life of service and caring for the marginalized, the lost, the lonely and the forgotten.”
Focus less on giving up for Lent candy or coffee or whatever small worldly luxury they enjoyed, Father Jim advised, and focus more on the people we too often choose not to see.
It was why he had reached out to the Texas-based artist Willie Baronet about bringing his “We Are All Homeless” project to the church. In response to his own discomfort at witnessing poverty, Baronet had been buying and collecting signs since 1993 from people on the streets. In 2014, he and filmmakers drove across the country interviewing people and buying hundreds of signs for a documentary called Signs of Humanity. Among them was one held by Eddie Dunn, then homeless and addicted to heroin in Philadelphia. In part, his sign read: “What if God occasionally visits Earth disguised as a homeless guy … ?”
Even with that Philly connection, Father Jim wasn’t sure if Baronet would accept his invitation to bring the exhibit to his suburban church when so many of his installations since 2009 were in larger spaces around the country. But he hoped.
Baronet accepted. His mother, Baronet later shared on social media, was a devout Catholic who had died 15 years earlier without seeing her lapsed Catholic son’s project.
“I’m confident if she saw this email from Monsignor St. George,” he wrote, “she would have glowed.”
The exhibit opens Saturday and runs through April 27.
Though that will hardly be the end of the church’s outreach. I could fill a few columns with the ongoing efforts of the inclusive church.
Take their “Blessing Bags” for homeless people that began as one bag with food, and then food and socks, and then morphed into a second bag with feminine-hygiene products and then a third with pet food.
And most recently there is the Car Safe Project, which opens up the church’s parking lot to individuals living in their cars. The project was prompted by a woman who stopped by the church seeking help. She was driving a fairly new luxury car that she later explained to Father Jim was all she had left: transportation, shelter, and safe haven for her and her teenage daughter.
And then there is the reason I first found my way to the church in 2015 and have returned numerous times over the years to stand over a stranger’s grave.
After Father Jim read my columns about Diamond Williams, a transgender woman who was murdered in Philadelphia in 2013, he opened up his heart and church to bury her ashes on the grounds.
I thought of Diamond, who’d experienced homelessness several times in her life, as I walked through the exhibit, spread over two rooms. The signs, suspended from the ceiling on hangers, caught the day’s light from nearby windows and seemed to come to life when hit with air from a heater.
“What I told my parish is ‘When you start to engage this, I want you to do it over and over again, because it’s kind of like Scripture. You read a passage today and it might not mean much, but you read it later, depending on your mood or what you’re going through, and it may strike you in a whole different way,’ " said Father Jim.
It was on my second viewing when I noticed how often God and prayers were invoked into the messages scribbled onto the cardboard signs.
“Single father struggling wants work, needs prayers."
“I pray blessings over you for the help you’ve given me.”
On my way out, I stopped at the Beggar Christ statue, and thought: What if God really is the homeless person we so often pretend not to see?