Hobos in the Church

When she died in November of 2010, Harriette Anderson had been a member of our church for 82 years! She officially joined in 1928 at age 17 and was a fountain of stories and church history. She loved to recall how the whole city of Concord closed up for the Unitarian May Day party and the May Pole dances, with people celebrating from ten in the morning to eleven at night. She, of course, was one of the dancers. This was before the church had moved from its downtown location to our current campus on Pleasant Street.

The story reminds me of the role we have played over the years in staffing and supporting Concord’s Multicultural Festival or SouperFest, the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness fundraiser our own David Canfield turned into a major city event.

And then there is Harriette’s story, as remembered by Loren Hill, of our church playing a crucial role in providing temporary shelter during the Great Depression. Our church building was located near the train depot where homeless and frequently penniless migrants (‘hobos’) would stay for a short time while roaming the country for any job they could find. Apparently our building was left unlocked intentionally, so the ‘hobos’ could come in at night, get some sleep, and be safe from the elements. In the morning, church members often provided food and other essentials, and our church soon had a reputation for being the place to go during these hard times of the depression.

I love this story. I love the fact that our building was open and welcoming to those in need, not in some symbolic way on Sunday mornings, but all the time – a real sanctuary, practicing radical hospitality. I understand the inclination to lock our buildings, to secure our sanctuary, to make sure no stranger roams our campus without our permission.

Yet, I wish we had at least some space that was always open, always accessible, always a sanctuary for those looking for a safe and sacred place to be. Some of the old churches in Europe have chapels that never close – a gift I have gratefully accepted during my own travels over the years. What might such a space look like on our campus? What fears would we need to overcome? What values would we need to prioritize? What impact might we have on our community? What stories might others tell 82 years from now?

With love and a curious heart,