Travelers on Church Street

Keleti Station, Budapest.

I work as the Church Street Ministry Coordinator at First Parish Unitarian Universalist on Church Street just off Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., and one of my jobs is to educate the Congregation on issues of housing and food insecurity in our neighborhood and beyond. I wrote the following for our monthly newsletter after having been asked by several congregants how to approach individuals they assume to be homeless in the neighborhood. 

One of my favorite things to do when I was a young teacher in a little village in Eastern Hungary in the mid-’90s was to take the train 25 miles East to the Provincial Capital, Debrecen, near the Romanian border. It was a beautiful city, to be sure, but it was that hour traveling by train across the plains of Pannonia, the great Hungarian Puszta, that was the real attraction for me. The landscape, “flat as an ocean,” in the poet Sándor Petőfi’s words, reminded me of my Indiana home, and being a stranger among strangers on the old no-frills Soviet-era intercity train was oddly calming. Whenever I was homesick I could ride my janky old bicycle (provided at no cost by the local gimnázium) to the station, hop on a train, and I suddenly felt right at home amongst the rabble.

It’s good to be at home among strangers, and despite growing up in suburbia, where the appearance of a stranger is often cause for suspicion if not outright alarm, I think it’s in my blood. I recently became mildly obsessed with ancestry.com, and what struck me after doing a little research was the staggering scope of global displacement over the last several generations. Take my great-grandparents, who, like so many of their compatriots fleeing the grinding rural poverty of their Southern Italian home, arrived in New York around 1900 in what’s known as The Great Arrival. But while “L’America” was a land of opportunity, the story my genealogy tells of the century that followed was one of even greater fragmentation and displacement, with two World Wars and the Great Depression, and a relentless push West that saw relatives scattered from New York and Pennsylvania to Indiana, Texas and California. Growing up I hardly knew my relatives on my father’s side at all. I met my grandfather once. We’ve been in this country for 120 years.

First Parish Cambridge has been here much longer, of course. Many of its current congregants can no doubt trace their lineage back 400 years as well. One thing I’ve learned in my own short time in New England: folks take enormous pride in being of a place. I do it, too. Each September when the next freshman class floods in from parts unknown, despite only having lived here a mere 15 years, I’m suddenly a native. We often draw the arbitrary line of belonging to a place from the moment we arrived, whether it’s the queue for our morning coffee or Plymouth Rock. We take great, sometimes comical umbrage at strangers and newcomers, puffing our chests as if to say: “we were here first!” And when it comes to the line at Starbucks: yeah, ok, fair enough. But when we telescope out a bit, things get a little more complicated. Here isn’t always here. Take First Parish. In our first 200 years the Congregation moved five times (not to mention the much greater trek from Calvinism to Unitarian Universalism that accompanied all those moves.)

We are a people on the move, a species of travelers from the beginning, for whom “home” is a fairly recent adaptation. The first shelters may have been built as long ago as 400,000 years, but the first proto-houses did not appear until just 15,000 years ago, give or take. We would do well to keep that in mind when we think about homelessness. Like “displacement,” “homelessness” is a word that hides its privilege in plain sight. We rarely dig too deeply into the root — “home,” “place,” even less so “placement” — when we think of those who are homeless or displaced. We sometimes lament that they (and they are always a “they”) have had to leave their homes, but we invariably conceive of “home” as the place they are from, not the place they are in. It is a way of reinforcing that they are “out of place” here and now. The fact that many have had to leave the place they are from doesn’t mean that they need to feel or be treated as out of place where they are. We sometimes assume that those we encounter on our streets have nowhere to be without considering how it is that we have found our place here, on the same street where they are. They are here, we sometimes seem to be saying, in the place where we belong!

But home is not just an ephemeral and transient idea for them, as much as our own good fortune in having found a place for the moment might suggest to us. I say this as a renter in Boston who has been forced to move eight times in the past 13 years. And that’s stable compared to friends earning the minimum wage. In Cambridge today they’d have to work 145 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom rent. If we zoom out to the even bigger picture, we are in the middle of an epoch of global displacement, fueled by radical income inequality and unstoppable climate change. A recent study from the Union of Concerned Scientists warns that rising sea levels will, by the end of the century, cause a third of the homes in Cambridge to face flooding every other week.  A third of Cambridge underwater. (It seems likely this will only exacerbate the housing crunch.)

We have one home, not many. That much is obvious. It can be hard to remember that in moments of encounter with those who seem out of place to us in the here and now. When I forget, myself, I like to hop on the train. It doesn’t really matter where to. It’s just good to be at home among my fellow travelers.