From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Episcopalians: Unusual sabbatical sends Rhode Island bishop to the streets to discover 'we are all homeless'

Date 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 
look like.

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 
out firsthand.

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. 

A blessing

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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