From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Episcopalians: Unusual sabbatical sends Rhode Island bishop to the streets to discover 'we are all homeless'
Fri, 21 Feb 2003 14:23:41 -0500
February 21, 2003
Episcopalians: Unusual sabbatical sends Rhode Island bishop to
the streets to discover 'we are all homeless'
by Jan Nunley
(ENS) I knew I was meeting my bishop. I had no idea what she'd
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
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 poor.
"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.
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
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. She was ordained and is canonically resident in the
Diocese of Rhode Island, and served as its diocesan
communications director from 1997-2000.
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