Kevin Williamson has a typically smart and charitable essay about the emergence of what he calls the “Sunday Hijacker.”
The “Sunday Hijacker” is a vagrant who stakes out city churches and accosts worshippers, sometimes begging, sometimes being intentionally disruptive of services until he’s paid to go away. Having lived in–not really “in,” but rather “of”–Washington for almost two decades, I’ve seen a little (but not a lot) of this behavior. I understand what Williamson is talking about.
My favorite church in Washington has a normal retinue of beggars outside. I’ve never been sure how needy they are. Once, I saw one of them getting out of a car, a few blocks away from church. But by the same token, I don’t know that they’re not needy, either. And I’ve seen, more or less, the same contingent on the church steps since I first started attending Mass. They’re never threatening. They’re always kind, even to people who don’t offer them support. They’re also friendly and respectful to the monseigneur. Like most people (I suspect), I wrestle with whether or not it’s prudent to offer help directly to them, or rather direct my support to Church services. The uneasy conclusion I’ve reached is that while giving money to a panhandler who’s just a rational economic actor might have some negative consequences, it also might help someone in need. And since I can’t know which is which, it’s probably best to err on the side of trying help.
But that’s neither here nor there. What I wanted to do was share with you the story of Jean. Jean is a homeless woman who lives, more or less, on the steps of my favorite church. I couldn’t tell you how long she’s been there–she predates me. But her story is part of the church’s legend. A long while ago, Jean showed up. She had had a vision, in which God spoke to her, and told her that it was important that she be at this church. And so she came. And has never left.
Jean spends most of her time during the day inside the church, in prayer. If you pop into church mid-morning, say, for confession, you’re likely to see her contemplating Mary in the Chapel of Our Lady. Or praying to St. Anthony, in another chapel. During Mass, she often assists in the collection of the gifts. In conversation she is friendly, lucid, and serene. Whatever you might be thinking, she does not come across like a crank. She seems, actually, rather holy. The priests at the church trust her implicitly and try to look after her, but she is clearly not on the make. She views herself as having been given a duty to watch vigil over this church, until further notice.
A thousand years ago, Jean would have been regarded quite differently than she is today, and the idea of being given a mission from God–even an obscure, difficult one–would have been more readily accepted.