The real spirit of the season

Anna Quindlen

December 16, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

New York TEN YEARS ago Harold Brown decided to do something that he had never done before but that he believed his Catholic faith required him to do. He began to help house the homeless.

He and his wife, Virginia, and a group of volunteers from Sacred Heart Church in Queens set up a small shelter in the basement of the church in response to a call to action from the mayor, the cardinal and the Partnership for the Homeless.

For a decade they have provided a bed each night, as well as breakfast, a bag lunch, a hot dinner, a change of underclothes and, after the plumber hooked extra water lines up, a shower and the use of a washer and dryer.

The city housed almost 7,500 people in shelters the other night; Sacred Heart housed 10. Alleluia and pass the excuses.

This is an answer to people who have said they'd like to help the homeless but don't know how. This is an answer to all those people who find the holidays a fearsome round of eggnog and revolving charges. It doesn't have to be that way. Even now there are friends preparing polite ecstasies for gifts they neither want nor need. Even now there are people penciling your party into their date books and quietly wishing they could spend the day at home.

The important thing to remember about Christmas is not closing time at Macy's; it is the story of a pregnant woman and her husband who turned up looking for a bed for what some still think was the most transformative event in history and were told to get lost.

The irony of the fact that there is no room at the inn for millions in this country is potent at this time.

Ten years ago this month the Partnership for the Homeless began the church/synagogue network with a simple premise: that with thousands of institutions in New York built on charity and compassion, surely there must be some willing to provide a bed for the night.

Tonight there will be something like 1,365 homeless people sleeping in 126 churches and synagogues. At a time when homeless men and women are being rousted from public buildings, subway stations and assorted doorways, apparently in the belief that a moving target is less offensive to the community comfort level, that is no small thing.

These small shelters, all with fewer than 20 beds, are scattered throughout the city. Their success gives the lie to dire predictions surrounding the city's plan to build small shelters in residential areas, ranging from plummeting property values to soaring crime.

Brown says he was "scared to death" of opposition when the parishioners opened their little place in the community of Glendale, which is where Archie Bunker was said to have his home. Last week, Brown took up a collection to pay for food for shelter guests. At the end of the day there was $2,100 in the baskets. Last month he called for more volunteers. Fifty people put their names on the list.

Surely there are more churches and synagogues out there that could do this. Surely a shelter in the basement would do more to teach the values that are supposed to inform the holidays than 100 sermons.

Surely there is more connection with Christmas in setting up cots and serving stew than in the frenetic round of the season, which is habitually cited as exhausting but rarely as satisfying. Parents have railed against shelters near schools, but no one has made any connection between the crazed consumerism of our kids and their elders' cold unconcern toward others.

We question the efficiency of government, and with good cause. We say that something permanent needs to be done, and that is true. And if we agree that government has done a rotten job reducing the quotient of human misery, Brown has an alternative: Do it yourself.

"I work in midtown," says Brown, who is a vice president in futures and options at Dean Witter, "and I saw these poor souls on the subway grates. We're just trying to do what Christ asked us to do."

That is, to do good.

Boy, does that seem distant from the white noise of modern life. "If I am for myself alone, what good am I?" said the Jewish sage Hillel 2,000 years ago, around the time that his co-religionists Mary and Joseph found themselves homeless in Bethlehem. "And if the time to act is not now, when will it be?"

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