Homeless Journeys in History

By Leslie Morgenson, Good Work News, December 2001

Time is often marked by movements. Journeys from one place of thought to another, like a mass exodus of collective minds. And one movement can be the inspiration for another though hundreds of years may divide them.

Such was the case in 1843 when a woman named Isabella, inspired by Moses who led his people out of Egypt, out of slavery, felt a call from God to journey throughout the United States spreading her message. Her words were about the wrongs of slavery. Because of her new role as wanderer, she changed her name. Leaving behind the woman who was a slave, she now became Sojourner, meaning ‘only passing through’; Sojourner Truth.

She had no home and few possessions. But what she did possess was far greater than any material possession; a powerful voice and message, an imposing presence and years of insight bred from an accumulation of insurmountable injustices. What she knew, what Moses knew, was that no one has a greater sense of a nation’s lack of democracy than those who find themselves at the bottom. And what governments don’t count on is that those at the bottom (whence they rise) yearn not for material possessions but crave with the deepest passion for their voices to be heard; for a message of change and justice to be heard by as many as possible; to reach all people for all of the time.

In the early to middle 1900s there was another woman, “Mother Jones”, born Mary Harris. She and Sojourner Truth share many similarities. Both women showed remarkable ambition at an early age, ambition born of despair. Sojourner Truth was born into slavery and lost her children to slavery. In the face of adversity she learned (not in a formal sense, but from listening) English, the language of her captors. Mary Harris, born in Ireland during the potato famine, demonstrated a spirit of bravado, becoming a teacher and a dressmaker in her adopted country, America. She later lost all of her four children and husband to yellow fever. She set up a dress shop, only to watch it be destroyed by fire.

Like Sojourner Truth, Mother Jones was an activist who spoke for labour, fighting low pay and long days with a battle cry that can still be heard today. ‘The rich continue to get obscenely rich while the poor get poorer.’ She fashioned herself as the mother of the downtrodden, dressing the part with a “granny look.” She became an irreverent, harsh speaker travelling across America delivering her message. And, like Sojourner Truth, became homeless in her mission. “My address is like my shoes,” she said. “It travels with me wherever I go.”

Two imposing figures whose lives forced them into an incubation period otherwise known as despair. A place filled with losses and deprivations. After they sank, they rose and with nothing but their reflective thoughts translated into strong words they travelled, and were homeless for the rest of their lives. Homeless because delivering the message was more important than having a place to put up their feet.

It is reminiscent of two other figures from history who, like these women, wanted nothing other than to spread the word. Who welcomed their homelessness and the freedom it gave them to move and reach more people. Impressive figures whose manner of dress stood out in its simplicity.

Like Sojourner Truth, and like Mother Jones, St. Francis of Assisi, and Jesus spent the middle of their years in idleness and thought. Idleness, not in the sense that they did nothing, but whether known or unbeknownst to them quietly preparing for their future delivery. A powerful brew of time and solitude that allowed them to hear God’s call when it came.

St. Francis turned his back on his family’s wealth and his life of abundance and decadence. He retreated to think and, when he emerged, wore a brown sack cloth and nothing on his feet. He embraced poverty and demonstrated that life is richer without material trappings. According to St. Francis, only then can we commune with nature, embrace animals and truly reach God and ourselves.

And today it was Brian, waiting to start the cleanup at St. John’s Kitchen, who mentioned to me that Jesus was homeless. “He lived wherever people put him up and kept his home in the hearts of everyone. He was known as a transient, without money. He hated banks. He was a simple person. If he were around today, he would have been in the line up, the person at the end of the subway car, or the guy on the park bench.”

And like St. Francis, Jesus had a deep affection for animals, Brian tells me. From his humble beginnings in the stable, animals taught him. His parents weren’t popular, shunned and forced as they were to sleep and give birth outside. Living close to the ground develops clear thoughts of right and wrong. And like the others who followed, he too had years that remain a mystery to us while he prepared himself so his voice would be strong enough to echo for millennia.

All of these true witnesses forced people to view the world differently. In other words not from the perspective of the dominant culture. A phenomenal feat.

And what does it mean for many of us today who fail to live by these standards? How can we feel reverence for such historical figures and continue to do what they abhorred? Despite such wise teachings we remain an economically driven world; a world of “haves and have-nots”; a world filled with many different kinds of slavery; a world that does not value idleness as fodder for tomorrow.

But hark! There is a place. A small forgotten place where idleness allows for active minds; where people move slowly but talk fast politics, thoughts that are clean, without small talk. Where the appearance of someone’s clothes does not reflect what powerful words will come out of their mouths. A room filled with rule breakers and homeless who therefore have a keener sense than the rest of us of the limitations of living in this so-called democracy. A place, I have pleasantly discovered, not to be underestimated. St. John’s Community Kitchen affectionately known as “The Duke St. Diner.”

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