In a metropolis like New York, homelessness can blend into the urban landscape. For editor Susan Greenfield, however, New York is the place where a community of resilient, remarkable individuals are yearning for a voice. Sacred Shelter follows the lives of thirteen formerly homeless people, all of whom have graduated from the life skills empowerment program, an interfaith life skills program for homeless and formerly homeless individuals in New York. Through frank, honest interviews, these individuals share traumas from their youth, their experience with homelessness, and the healing they have discovered through community and faith.
Edna Humphrey talks about losing her grandparents, father, and sister to illness, accident, and abuse. Lisa Sperber discusses her bipolar disorder and her whiteness. Dennis Barton speaks about his unconventional path to becoming a first-generation college student and his journey to reconnect with his family. The memoirists share stories about youth, family, jobs, and love. They describe their experiences with racism, mental illness, sexual assault, and domestic violence. Each of the thirteen storytellers honestly expresses his or her brokenheartedness and how finding community and faith gave them hope to carry on.
Interspersed among these life stories are reflections from program directors, clerics, mentors, and volunteers who have worked with and in the life skills empowerment program. In his reflection, George Horton shares his deep gratitude for and solidarity with the 500-plus individuals he has come to know since he co-founded the program in 1989. While religion can be divisive, Horton firmly believes that all faiths urge us to “welcome the stranger” and, as Pope Francis asks, “accompany” them through the struggles of life. Through solidarity and suffering, many formerly homeless individuals have found renewed faith in God and community. Beyond trauma and strife, Dorothy Day’s suggestion that “All is grace” is personified in these thirteen stories. Jeremy Kalmanofsky, rabbi at Ansche Chesed Synagogue, says the program points toward a social fabric of encounter and recognition between strangers, who overcome vast differences to face one another, which in Hebrew is called Panim el Panim.
While Sacred Shelter does not tackle the socioeconomic conditions and inequities that cause homelessness, it provides a voice for a demographic group that continues to suffer from systemic injustice and marginalization. In powerful, narrative form, it express the resilience of individuals who have experienced homelessness and the hope and community they have found. By listening to their stories, we are urged to confront our own woundedness and uncover our desire for human connection, a sacred shelter on the other side of suffering.