Collaboration Can Overcome Homelessness – Hawaii Catholic Herald 1/31/2014
Diocese of Honolulu
January 14, 2014
Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace
Homilist: Father Robert Stark, S.S.S.
Director, Office for Social Ministry, Diocese of Honolulu
Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedules to come here today to celebrate this Red Mass together!
To all our public servants, mahalo nui loa for your generous service.
When Bishop Larry Silva asked me to speak here today about how faith is related to the formidable challenge of affordable housing in Hawaii, frankly, I felt overwhelmed.
But then I remembered what a medicine man told me when I was working as a missionary in Latin America. That wise man said, “Those who can see the invisible, can do the impossible, and we learn to see by listening.” That simple, profound truth continues to help me in my current work at the diocesan Office for Social Ministry, where daily I try to listen more and strive to see what is invisible to the human eye in order to attempt to do what appears impossible for the human hand.
When I came to these beautiful islands, I was immediately struck by how folks here love to “talk story.” What a way to connect! For example, by talking story, listening, connecting with Makia Malo, an amazing blind storyteller from Kalaupapa, I have learned to see plenty of what he says I “never care for look.” Through “talking story” here, I have come to see some of the often invisible examples of collaboration around the seemingly impossible challenges of providing affordable housing in Hawaii. Today I simply come to connect, to share some of these stories in the framework of our faith and the scriptures we just heard.
The lyrics of our entrance song this morning are very fitting. “We come to share our story.” Those words were first connected to a traditional Hawaiian melody at Malia Puka O Kalani Parish
in the historic Hawaiian homestead of Keaukaha where I am blessed to serve on weekends. It was there that I received a blessing from a kupuna Auntie Ulu who taught me the Sign of the Cross in Hawaiian — a combination of prayer and gesture that helps us connect, communicate and be in communion, collaborate with our God and our neighbor.
In this Sign of the Cross, we reverently invoke the image of Makua-Father, Keiki-Son and ‘Uhane Hemolele—Holy Spirit: Three Persons in one divine collaboration connecting God and humankind through creative love, compassionate sacrifice and merciful healing. This image of collaboration is especially appropriate as we come together to ask for our invisible God to help us work together, to connect, communicate, collaborate, to govern well — a task that can often seem impossible. The blessing of a collaborative God challenges us this morning to go beyond the mere visible appearance of cooperation — among faiths, between church and state — to deepen our genuine desire to join together, to be nourished by what we share, to be sent forth to labor together on what may seem like impossible tasks for the good of all.
Our Scripture readings today challenge us to recognize our connectedness and God’s call to compassionately collaborate on building a better world for all, especially the vulnerable.
The prophet Micah calls us to “do justice, love compassionately, walk humbly with our God.” The Acts of the Apostles describes early Christians “dividing resources among all according to each one’s needs.” Luke’s Gospel recalls Jesus beginning his public ministry by quoting the great prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor, liberty to prisoners, sight to the blind.” Then in conclusion, Jesus says, “Today this Scripture is being fulfilled in your hearing.”
These scriptural challenges may seem like impossible tasks, but Scripture also tells us, “With God, all is possible.” These Scripture passages were chosen to help us connect, communicate, collaborate so we can see the invisible, and do the impossible — to overcome the hopelessness of homelessness and lack of affordable housing. How? By recognizing that when we collaborate together, seemingly unattainable or unfeasible tasks can be fulfilled in our midst.
The proof is right here! Saints Damien and Marianne of Molokai prayed in this cathedral more than a century ago, as we do today. They shared these same scriptural challenges. We know their stories. How they dedicated their lives with those considered even more outcast than the souls who sleep on our sidewalks today. Damien and Marianne’s compassion inspired collaboration between government, hospitals, businesses and faith communities—to do the impossible for those, whom some of society wished were invisible. We are invited to follow in their footsteps in a mission of mercy today; to put our faith in action, in service with the most vulnerable, in a way that is healing for all of us—as sinners struggling to become connected.
Now in our day, Pope Francis, the once invisible Argentine bishop, has been working on the impossible task of transforming the church today into a hospital of healing for all right before our eyes and TV cameras. He was recently on the cover of TIME magazine as Person of the Year.
Why are people paying attention to him, even those not Catholic? Perhaps because, like his namesake St. Francis of Assisi, he lives by a phrase: Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”
This pope’s recent writings call us to “keep our ear to the people,” to “be positive,” to seek “unity prevailing over conflict.” He warns that if we remain trapped by what divides us, we will lose a sense of the profound reality of what connects us. By focusing on what we share in common, we can achieve far more together than by going separate ways.
Yes, Pope Francis’ words are inspiring. But his actions speak even louder. You probably recall recent images of him washing the tattooed feet of female Muslim prisoners, embracing persons with distressing deformities or disabilities, celebrating his birthday with the homeless—These are the pictures of our scripture readings being fulfilled today.
Pope Francis reminds us we are all connected. And he calls us all to reconnect, be about forgiving, healing! That is why TIME MAGAZINE called him A People’s Pope. This People’s Pope recently urged priests to prepare better homilies by focusing on real questions in people’s lives. Well the need for affordable housing is certainly a real issue for people in Hawaii. We’ve all heard the statistics about Hawaii having the highest rate of homelessness and the highest housing costs in the nation. Hawaii’s working and middle class families often pay 50% or more of their income on housing. But the real issue is about so much more than statistics.
It’s about real people like Christy, a 34 yr old from the Big Island a veteran diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and like Lynne, a 61 yr old disabled UH Manoa security guard with sciatica- who both live in fear of losing their affordable one room or studio units in nearby Chinatown.
Because it is real issue in so many people’s lives, six years ago the diocese’s new strategic plan, “Witness to Jesus,” listed homelessness and affordable housing as a priority action. In 2011, the U.S. bishops called for renewed commitment to increase affordable housing. That same year, Bishop Silva’s appointed Homeless and Affordable Housing Task Force launched a Plan whose goal is to increase affordable housing in Hawaii by partnering with public and private sectors, non-profits and faith-based communities. This collaborative effort contributes to the governor’s overall plan for ending homelessness and it underscores that partnerships with many others, including government, help make it all possible.
Here are some examples from these collaborative partnerships, snapshots from stories of how “Today these Scriptures are being fulfilled now in our midst.”
- On the Big Island, Habitat for Humanity, in partnership with Annunciation Catholic Parish in Waimea and Hawaiian Homelands, built a house for four elderly women, one with cancer, all had been living in a boarded up shack with no windows. It came about after neighbors, troubled by what they saw, gathered with others to “talk story”—connect, communicate and collaborate. Soon the community was coming forward with money, building supplies and willing hands to construct a new home for these kupuna. Also on Hawaiian Homelands in Kona, Habitat for Humanity organized 16 churches, community groups and the public and private sectors for an Apostles Blitz Build, constructing 5 houses in 10 days with and for low-income working families, some headed by single mothers. Impossible? Well they did it, and Habitat for Humanity collaborations are now building another 5 houses in Waimanalo.
- The Pahoa Recycled Housing for Kupuna Project on the Big Island is another example of a creative, inspiring public-private partnership. This involved a donation of 20 vacant emergency shelter units in Kawaihae donated by Nasay, a private firm, to HOPE Services Hawaii, a non-profit supported by the Diocese and formerly a part of our Office for Social Ministry. The County of Hawaii trucked the units down the Hamakua Coast to Sacred Heart Catholic Parish in Pahoa. The County acquired three lots from developers to meet their housing credits. The County deeded the lots to HOPE Services Hawaii with the condition they be sold and the funds used for the Pahoa Recycled Housing Project. Certain this is a creative way to connect and collaborate to care for our kupuna, (some of whom are widows without families here).
- In Kailua, a retired Methodist minister donated his home to provide a stable environment for women coming out of prison, like Amy, struggling to find and build a home that is safe, substance-abuse-free and loving, something she has never known. This Beacon of Hope Home is run by a former inmate, Daphne, and is part of the “Going Home” collaboration that brings together the Department of Public Safety, the Pu‘a Foundation, HOPE Services Hawaii and a diverse group of churches around the Women’s Community Correctional Center. Likewise the “Going Home” public-private partnership on the Big Island provides transitional homes, work opportunities and family reunification for the formerly incarcerated, preventing homelessness and reducing recidivism. The Good News is “Going Home” collaborations are beginning to spread statewide.
- Another very effective partnership involves Catholic Charities Hawaii and HOPE Services Hawaii working with private landlords to open up hundreds of affordable housing units to the poor. These non-profits, with government funds, help homeless persons, Vets, the disabled and elderly as well as low-income working families become sustainably “rentable.” Families such as Marty and Francine’s, who are raising their five month old grandson, but who lost their housing when Marty was laid off. Or like Chassie, a single mother with four children working at multiple jobs and living in substandard shelter on a relative’s property. Over the past 3 years, this Tenant-Landlords Solutions collaboration has put more than 2,000 valuable vulnerable persons such as Marty, Francine, Chassie, their children and grandchildren into affordable housing in Hawaii.
- The Housing First initiative, which focuses on rapid re-housing ( on re-connecting combined with wrap-around services) for the chronic-and often the most visible-homeless in our communities, is also helping the invisible working families, who are 39 % of people living in our homeless shelters. The Institute for Human Services and Waikiki Health Center, among others, all successfully use Housing First.
These are just some snapshots of the many amazing, often invisible, stories happening here and now. People who are connected to these stories, who are committed to overcoming homelessness and to building affordable housing for all, are suggesting several ways we can collaborate in 2014. Here are two examples:
- Provide the $1.5 million needed to continue the Housing First initiative as a standing budget item. This will provide stability and continuity of services for individuals and families who depend on Housing First funding.
- Restore funding for the Rental Housing Trust Fund to 50 % of the conveyance tax, and appropriate $100 million to the Rental Housing Trust Fund for at least 600 new units of affordable rental housing.
There are plenty reasons and opportunities for collaborating including the critical concern about the current sale of 12 city-managed affordable rental housing complexes where Christy and Lynn live; or the multiple needs of migrant populations such as workplace housing, driver licenses and living wages. All are part of the challenge to fulfill in our midst the Scripture we heard today.
If we care to look, and can tap our invisible capacity for collaboration, maybe someday the Time Magazine Person of the Year Cover will have not just one person, but one image of one people of Hawaii—hand in hand, unified in a rainbow of efforts to create affordable housing for all. Impossible? Not if we remember those who can see the invisible, can do the impossible. And if we are connected and collaborating with God, all is possible.
Let us leave here more connected with one another, like a flower lei artfully joined, woven together and the stronger for it, with differences but of ONE loving heart— a pu’uwai aloha – in our collaborative service to be Good News with the vulnerable, so that together, with Jesus, we can say, “Today these texts are being fulfilled in our midst.”
Ma ka Inoa, O ka Makua, A o ke Keiki, A me ka ‘Uhane Hemolole. ‘Amene.