One Man's Movement to Get Houses of Worship to Open Their Doors to the Homeless

Matthew's work is as simple as it is convicting. Through his art and his talks, Matthew is bringing a challenging message to religious congregations: "Stop locking the homeless out."
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He moved to Boston on May the 1st, the day that many Catholics will recognize as the feast day of St. Joseph the Worker. Thus he ironically, yet perfectly, took "Works" as his last name. Matthew Works. When asked why he took a new last name he replies, alluding to both the necessary caution in street life and the lack of respect that homeless men and women sadly endure, "There are no names on the street."

Matthew is his real name, and Works is something like his religious name -- in the same way monastics often receive new names after entering a religious order.

Matthew is homeless and he has been since he was let go from his job nearly 15 years ago for speaking out against dangerous working conditions. But Matthew still works, only now, he works as an artist who communicates a message that is critical, powerful and makes an impact on one person, one school, and one congregation at a time.

You see Matthew's work is as simple as it is convicting. Through his art and his talks, Matthew is not only raising awareness about the experience of women and men on the streets of the United States who are trying to navigate life while being homeless, but he is also bringing a challenging message to religious congregations: "Stop locking the homeless out."

A few months ago, Matthew came to Philadelphia for a series of talks while his art was on display at the University of Pennsylvania. His first talk happened to be on the feast day of St. Francis, the 13th century saint whose powerful witness of being one with and loving the poor has been domesticated and reduced to being the guy on whose day we have pet blessings.

Francis' ministry began when, while sitting in a church in San Damiano he heard God say, "Go and repair my house, which as you can see is falling into ruins."

And so on this St. Francis Day, Matthew, a bit of a modern-day Francis, unveiled one of his earliest pieces of art -- a white card board church that he made while living on the streets of Boston. The structure stands about three feet tall and was expertly built to resemble the New England churches that probably inspired it. The tall steeple on top has a place for a votive candle which Matthew lights while describing the work. There are words written on the church. One panel quotes Jesus saying "Come unto me all ye that labor and I will give you rest."

My eyes move from the warm light of the steeple, and from the words gently written on the walls to the front doors of the church that Matthew built.

There is a black and white, steel pad lock on it.

I'm not the only one in the room in tears. And it would not be the last time I cried that night. Walking to the subway that evening in the cold Philadelphia rain, I walked by a beautiful church and saw just what we were talking about only minutes before -- a woman sleeping on cold stairs, literally right in front of the church's doors. Locked doors. This is the church that Matthew is working to rebuild.

This week in Philadelphia, on the first night of winter, we (like a number of other cities) observed Homeless Memorial Day. This is a day to remember our homeless sisters and brothers who have died over the course of the last year -- many of whom died on the streets. Members of our community stood in the cold Philly air holding signs with the names of those who've died. And they say there are no names on the street.

Well there are names this night, but one can't help but wonder if this list of names being held and read aloud could have been shorter, if we had done just a little bit more, if we had opened our doors.

Matthew, in his gentle way is literally moving around the country asking churches, synagogues, mosques, and all houses of worship to do just that -- to unlock their doors and to unlock their hearts. Charity isn't enough. Canned food drives, though deeply necesssary, are not enough. There's no risk, no vulnerability in those. And if there is no risk, there is no love.

At another speaking engagement during his Philadelphia visit, one student asked him about the feasibility of the notion of churches as havens for the homeless. Matthew smiles and tells a story. He recalls how after one visit to a congregation where he showed a group of congregants and ministers his artwork, one sister present was so taken and moved by the church he built, that she offered to take his church sculpture and store it inside so that it wouldn't be ruined by the harsh weather outside. "We can't leave it outside the church. It might get ruined!"

Matthew pauses to let us get the irony for ourselves.

We would provide shelter for the art, but not for the artist. We raise millions of dollars for our worship house building funds, but only collect a few boxes of cans for those who are not allowed in our buildings. We fear for the well-being of our valuables inside the church and so we lock the doors not caring about the valuables sleeping outside.

I've been reflecting on Matthew and his Open Churches movement a lot during this season of comfort and joy, peace and goodwill, gift-giving, and generosity. And I can't stop singing that melancholic prayer from the end of the Charlie Brown Christmas song.

"Oh that we, could always see, such spirit through the year..."

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