[Hpn] NYC, NY - Unusual sabbatical sends Episcopal Bishop to the streets - Episcopal News Service - February 21, 2003

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Fri, 28 Feb 2003 01:11:44 -0600

Unusual sabbatical sends R.I. Episcopal Bishop to the streets

Was it hard not to be a priest, a bishop, even for a little
while--to be the one helped rather than the one helping?

"Discovers, at some level, we are all homeless"
by Jan Nunley - Episcopal News Service - February 21, 2003

NYC, NY - I knew I was meeting my bishop. I had no idea what she'd
look like.

The phone rang around 9:30 a.m. "I'm coming in on Greyhound
around 10, but I have to leave at 1:15 at the latest. Where can
you meet me?"

"At the clock in Grand Central, around 10:30?"

"See you then."

Try as I might, I couldn't spot her in the crowd. I knew she'd
grown her hair long. The irony wasn't lost on me that, just a few
years ago, she'd shaved it all off in preparation for
chemotherapy. Back then people gave her hats to cover her bald
head. Now she was using her own hair as part of a disguise.

But the woman standing in front of me just didn't register. Her
hair was pulled tight in cornrows; her lips were smeared
generously with red lipstick. She had on huge sunglasses, a blue
parka, carried a big backpack. "What are you lookin' at?" she
mumbled. Then she took off the sunglasses.

The Rt. Rev. Geralyn Wolf, 12th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese
of Rhode Island, was homeless, in New York--and in need of a
handout from one of her clergy.

No flash of lightning

Just about a year ago, Wolf was contemplating how she'd spend the
first sabbatical she'd taken in more than a quarter-century of
ministry. "It wasn't a flash of lightning," she told me. "It was
a sense that in my rather privileged position I was losing touch
with what I was yearning for, which was a sort of earthiness,
people of passion and generosity."

She remembered her days as a parish priest at St. Mary's in
inner-city Philadelphia, where, she said, she met plenty of the
homeless but knew little about their lives on the street.
So--with typically no-nonsense directness--she decided to find
out firsthand.

She first told me of her plans last fall, that she'd start right
after Christmas. She'd been growing her hair out, consulting with
staff at Travelers Aid in Providence on how to dress, what to
say. How would people in the Episcopal Church react? Would it
make a good story? A good book? She'd let me know if anything
changed. "Keep a journal," I said, remembering the moving entries
from the diary she'd kept during her struggle with breast cancer
in the first year of her episcopate.

On the road

We sat in the downstairs dining concourse at Grand Central
Terminal, just two blocks from the Episcopal Church Center in New
York. She had money--all of $13--but I insisted on buying her
coffee and a bagel. "It just wouldn't look right for me to go
Dutch treat with a homeless woman," I said, feeling strangely
protective when I saw a police officer and a National Guardsman
in camouflage glance curiously in our direction.

She'd been on the road almost three weeks, she said. The worst
part was the food--all sugar, starches and meat, exactly the
opposite of the fresh vegetables and fruits she always craved.
Soda, bad coffee, no decent tea. The shelters were more crowded
than usual, the result of a bitter cold snap in the Northeast.

The first week or so she spent in Rhode Island as "Aly," a
contraction of her first name she'd invented as part of her
"homeless" identity. Had she gone to Episcopal churches? Yes, she
chuckled, and no one recognized her--not even her clergy. She
told of getting the cold shoulder from most parishioners at
coffee hour, of the surprise she felt at being greeted by someone
she wouldn't have expected to give her a second glance.

Then she'd hopped a bus: to Boston, New York, Philadelphia,
always staying in shelters, eating at soup kitchens, visiting
churches--mostly Episcopal, but other denominations too. She felt
conflicted about how she was treated, keenly aware that in her
real life as a bishop, she too had been complicit in ignoring the

"You wanna see my journal?" she offered, pulling the small book
out of her backpack. The words and sketches spilled unevenly
across the pages, stories of real human beings struggling with
addictions and temptations that are foreign to the daily lives of
Episcopal bishops, trying to negotiate a system seemingly
designed to meet the needs of those doing the providing, rather
than those for whom help was provided.

But was it hard not to be a priest, a bishop, even for a little
while--to be the one helped rather than the one helping? "At some
level, we are all homeless," she said.

A blessing

What did she plan to do with what she was learning? Her eyes
brightened. She had plans. She wanted to investigate a
microcredit program, like the Five Talents program that Bishop
Simon Chiwanga was part of in Africa, something that would
provide the homeless of Rhode Island with a way to start earning
money for themselves.

There were smart people on the streets, she said, talented people
whose lives and abilities were being wasted. You couldn't expect
them to pull themselves up by the bootstraps when they didn't
even have the boots. Next month she'd go to Honduras, check it
out, maybe take a couple of her homeless friends with her.

We shared a little church news: meetings, decisions, the upcoming
General Convention. She inked my cell phone number along with the
others she'd put on the inside waistband of her heavy wool
trousers--just in case.

Then she had to go, to catch a bus to Boston. I asked for a
blessing from my bishop. And a homeless woman laid hands on my
head and prayed for me in Jesus' name.

The Rev. Jan Nunley is deputy director of Episcopal News Service.
source page:   http://www.wfn.org/2003/02/msg00262.html