Godliness and the Homeless: Did British Priest Ray Blake Really Lay Into the Poor? September 6, 2013

Godliness and the Homeless: Did British Priest Ray Blake Really Lay Into the Poor?

Let me share with you what the trouble with the poor is.

The trouble with the poor is that they are messy.

Oy. That’s the opening line from a blog post written by British priest Ray Blake.

A few paragraphs in, he explains that

…’the poor’ challenge our complacency. They interrupt our comfort, our prayer, our routine, bringing the mess of their lives into our lives.

It would be easy — and it sure is tempting — to hang Father Blake with his own (admittedly inartful) words; and sure enough, various journalists in the U.K. did just that. For instance, The Daily Mail gleefully said that Blake launched “a scathing attack” on the very people he is honor-bound to love and help as a servant of Christ. The Argus claims that the priest “condemned” the poor and that he “raged” about the topic. And so on.

To be honest, when I skimmed the headlines that the priest’s controversial piece generated, I thought it might be fun to join the melee and rip him on this blog. But a funny thing happened on the way to this trial-by-Internet. I read his article, and it seems to me that Blake got a raw deal. My reflex to pile on turned into my wanting to say a few words in the man’s defense. While I do, hold the pitchforks.

Despite that unfortunate first sentence, Blake doesn’t actually say he has problems with the poor as a whole. (Quite the contrary, but we’ll get to that.) Instead, he has problems with a few homeless characters, possibly of unsound mind, who hang around his church. With more candor than might be good for someone in his position, he calls one of them “an irritating bastard.” Blake is talking about people who do things like these:

There is a secluded area between the church and our hall, a passage, occasionally we find someone has got a few cardboard boxes together and has slept there and if it has been raining leaves a sodden blanket, cardboard there to be cleaned up, often it also smells of urine and there is often excrement there and sometimes a used needle or two.

There is a man who comes into the church, especially during the trad[itional] Mass and during the silence of the Canon will pray aloud, “Jesus, I want you to bless Fr Ray, and God, can you persuade the good people here to give to the poor, I am poor”, unchecked he will take his cap off and have a collection. It makes a mess of our prayers, it stops some coming to Mass here.

If they are not doing that they are ringing the door bell at every hour of the day and night, and they tell lies. They tell you their Gran is dying in Southampton and they need the train fare, you give it to them and if you don’t find them drunk in the street they are back the next day and the other Gran is dying in Hastings this time.

If you’ve lived in a European city, you know that this is all too often a reality in certain streets and neighborhoods (I imagine it goes on in some places in the U.S. too, though I’ve not seen it first-hand).

Don’t get me wrong: it would be a travesty to tar all street people with the same brush. I’ve encountered some really nice ones (like a few families I met when I volunteered my services at the Emmaus shelter up the road). They were simply down on their luck, and needed help starting over.

But fair’s fair: There are also plenty of homeless people who are aggressive panhandlers and grifters. I’m embarrassed to say that the train-fare schtick is a tried and true one that I once fell for myself, a couple of decades ago, when I lived in Amsterdam.

His Christian mission notwithstanding, Father Blake is surely entitled, as are we all, to express dismay over the kind of behavior he chronicles in the first part of his post. Leaving human waste and used syringes for others to clean up is disgusting and a health hazard; repeatedly interrupting others’ serious-minded get-togethers with loud, thinly-veiled demands for money isn’t much better. And whatever Blake’s faults, it’s hard to argue that they top the lying, cheating, and hustling he rightfully hates.

Yes, I know: Many street people have mental issues that led directly to their homelessness, and it wouldn’t be fair to blame them for their condition any more than it would be rational to blame an asthma patient for wheezing. Even the homeless who are sane may be desperate, and desperate people, junkies included, can do terrible things. We must take all that into account.

As for Blake, he’s guilty of being an astonishingly clumsy author, but I don’t think he intended his piece the way the British press interpreted it. When he says that “the poor interrupt our comfort, our prayer, our routine, bringing the mess of their lives into our lives,” he seems to say that’s a good thing, because it shakes us out of our complacency.

The sin of the Pharisees, of the rich man in the story of Dives and Lazarus is complacence. The rich man didn’t even notice the mess that Lazarus created at his front door, he didn’t respond to it, he needed someone to bring him out of his complacency. … I have grown complacent in my lifestyle, I don’t want it changed, the message of the Gospels seem to be let the poor into it to mess it up a little.

And he’s okay with it. In the end, he invites it. For instance, we learn from the Argus that Blake has long been in the habit of washing the feet of the downtrodden at Easter, which doesn’t sound like the act of a man who indiscriminately hates the poor. (Funny how you never see Joe Klein washing poor people’s feet!)

I’ll put my atheist bona fides up against anyone’s. All the same, it might be best to pick our battles with more deserving targets than priests with shitty writing skills.

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