Working in Solidarity
In 2005 I went to work in the Yakatamachi parish where a group of Brothers and priests, inspired by Charles de Foucald, lived simply and worked among the homeless. They went to the public parks and other places where the homeless lived, looked after them and put pressure on the local government to play their part.
When I arrived they were holding their monthly meetings in the church hall, where they shared a big meal with 60 to 80 homeless individuals (mainly men) and offered haircuts, medical attention and clothes. Initially I was not involved but had ample opportunity to meet the De Foucald Brothers and Priests. I soon began to go to the monthly meetings and one of my roles became to accompany those who wished to get cigarettes to the local Seven 11 store, where of course I paid.
Fr. Ota Masaru is the leader of the De Foucald community, and he coordinated all the activities with the homeless. He, like his companions, worked a day job, which was their way of both supporting their community and living close to the people of the local community. Fr. Ota went to the best schools and a top university and could have had a career in the upper circles of Japanese society. He, like all the members of his religious community, has chosen to put his talents at the service of the poorest of the poor.
Their priests do not staff parishes but serve their own religious community and may help in the parish when necessary. They and the Brothers come to Mass like any other parishioner and maintain an unobtrusive presence in our parish community. Most Christian families in our city come from low caste families as, for centuries, this part of Japan was home to a huge tannery center and those who engaged in this work were relegated by an ancient government decree to the lowest caste in society. While the caste system is no longer officially recognized in Japan many families continue to be aware of their caste origin and, in general, prefer to avoid social contact with those they consider beneath them.
There was a period when many low caste families in the Wakayama area entered the Church but not all members of the community were happy with this. They unsuccessfully requested a parish for themselves apart from the low caste Catholics.
In due course I came to admire the work being done by Fr. Ota and his companions. I decided to do what I could to support their work. So, at a meeting of the group (made up of Christians and non-Christians) that worked with the homeless I proposed using the church hall for accommodation during the winter months. Some Christians present wondered whether the parish council would go along with this proposal but that was not a problem. However, they did request that first, all drinking and smoking be outside; second, one member of the organization group stay with the homeless in the church hall at night.
Fr. Ota stayed with them the first night and assured us that all would be fine after that. There were around eight men (after a while it was down to four) who came along regularly, and they themselves eventually decided that they would come in after Christmas and leave the first day of Holy Week. I feared they would make a mess, but each day they cleaned up and showed a great respect for the church. Often one would say to me: "We like that guy on the cross; he's one of us."
Fr. Ota and his companions would help them get a small apartment funded by the City and so, once they had an address, they were able to access the financial help offered by the City. However, there are always some who don't like to be confined to a single room; they prefer the freedom of the streets. Part of that freedom is the sharing that is so common among people on the streets, which might be difficult to come by if living independently in a small apartment.
One man I met, Mr. Tanaka, lived under a bridge and slept in a cardboard box that he had made himself; it was like a drawer, sliding in and out. Even in winter he slept in his box with five pairs of socks on and a number of layers on the rest of his body. He stored his clothes and other belongings in the girders of the bridge.
Then, one day he and his bicycle and all his clothes and things disappeared. No one knew what had become of him. He seemed to have left no trace. About a month later I was at the church at around 6:00 a.m. and I heard a quiet voice: "Fr. Joe, it has been a long time since I saw you." Mr. Tanaka was standing under a bush. "What happened to you? We've been worried about you." I said to him.
Then he began to tell me the whole story. "I decided to kill myself because I was just a nuisance to everyone. I got rid of all my belongings. I jumped into the river but every time I jumped I came up again. So, I went to the sea but every time I went out the sea brought me back. I tried to hang myself but the rope broke. [He was probably using second hand rope!] I decided that I'm not meant to die. I have to live. I thought of you Joe Chan [familiar form of address] so that's why I'm here."
He went on to say to me: "Joe, I'd love to be homeless again because when we found something we'd share it." The homeless have never caused me any trouble. I'm now in another parish a few hours away but, whenever possible, I return to Wakayama for the monthly meal and gathering of the homeless. Afterwards we head to the local Seven 11 for cigarettes and, as a friend said to me on a recent visit: "These trips to Wakayama can be quite costly for you!"
I left that parish six months ago, and the homeless took up a collection for me. It was the most joyous collection I have ever received.
Columban Fr. Joe Broderick lives and works in Japan.