In the early years of the church, when Christianity was illegal and most Christians were slaves or peasants, they performed a service for the pagans that was so convicting, such a testament to Christ’s love for all mankind, such a recognition of the image of God in every human being, an affirmation of the value of life and the resurrection and an affront to the coldheartedness by which the pagans only valued people by their riches and station, that it was the crack in the structure that eventually led to Rome being turned on its head and Christianity becoming the dominant religion. What was that service? The Christians would go out to the city dumps and retrieve the bodies of the pagans who were too poor to afford a funeral and bury them properly with prayers. Bishop THOMAS told me that the Orthodox Church still has a service for burial of non-Christians in use.
Lately there have been a lot of deaths among friends and family of those we serve. One man has lost eight family members in the last couple of months, half to violence; the latest was his 19 year old grandson, caught in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting. So many of these end up cremated and disposed of by the city, because their families are too poor to afford a place to bury them. The average burial plot in Philadelphia costs $6,000. For years, I have been grieved whenever I have thought of indignity piled upon indignity for the homeless whom I have known, and for those grieving their passing; to have their bodies incinerated by the city and disposed of like so much refuse. I am sure the city tries to deal with this with as much respect and dignity as they can muster. There is probably a plot somewhere where the “cremains” are somberly placed. They do what they can afford to do. I am not faulting them.
When we started The King’s Jubilee, the intention was not that it was just going to be about feeding homeless people on one or two nights a week. We had a vision to make a much larger impact. We wanted to protect or introduce greenspace in the city. One of the fundamental causes for homelessness and disintegration of society is our disconnection from the natural cycle of things; sowing and reaping; composted leaves feeding flowers and vegetables; life from death; hard work produces beauty and bounty. I have fallen in love with idea of restoring native habitats. I think if we involve some of these broken, beat up people in an enterprise of restoring acreage to native plants and tend it to keep it in a good balance to propagate itself and attract natural pollinators, birds, insect, butterflies, it has the potential for great healing. If we do this in a context of worship and prayer to God and a community of love and respect for one another, it has the potential to be revolutionary.
In early October, Bishop THOMAS told me to dream big for The King’s Jubilee. What would we do, if we could buy a facility and staff it, even if it cost a million or a million and a half dollars? That question has had me pretty tense and basically stumped until this last Thursday. It was Thursday that the ideas of the last three paragraphs finally collided in my careenium. (Most people spell this “cranium.”) I called Nick Papas to share my idea with him. I envision a cemetery where we can bury all of the abandoned poor in Philadelphia, in traditional fashion. Modern embalming is contrary to the canons of the church and dishonoring to the body and polluting to the earth, so we would not use that. We would use traditional myrrh. We would use colorful, handcrafted, grave markers. The property would be entirely planted in native plants and would help support itself by also serving as a nursery and educational resource for native plants. We would hire homeless people to tend the grounds. If possible, a shop would be added adjacent or on premises to build simple coffins and fabricate vaults, if they are required. The homeless would be trained in work skills and life skills working alongside staff and volunteers in landscaping, gravemarker fabricating, coffin building, tree pruning, grave digging, snow removal in the winter, etc. Friendships would be forged. Connections would be made. When the time is right, they could transition to employment in the wider community making room for someone else.
Thursday evening I shared my idea with Deacon Herman Acker, on the road to and from Phila. He said, “How could anyone be against such a thing?” We were excited, but at the same time I thought, what is the likelihood that there is any ground where we could do such a thing in or near Philadelphia? We think it would be a high impact ministry for the Orthodox Church. Who are these strange people who would take such care to bury people whose own families abandoned while they were alive? Who are these strange Christians who even bury the poor, Muslim dead? What kind of ministry turns around to bring such beauty to a city that has tried to chase it out for a quarter of a century? It could be the start of something big.
When I got home, I did a simple computer search. On the second page of results was an amazing thing. It is a derelict cemetery partly in Philadelphia that needs a non-profit org. to take over its operation. It is the largest cemetery in Pennsylvania with 380 acres. We are going down to see it on Monday. Pray! I spoke with Bishop THOMAS about it this afternoon. He likes the concept. He said he didn’t think the million dollars in start up money was the biggest hurdle. It sounds crazy, but I agree. Pray! We need to have our ducks in a row as to how to properly manage this. Please pray for wisdom. Several of us are going to visit it on Monday. We plan on meeting some of the concerned neighbors next Saturday. Pray!
Until the Bishop comes through with the big donor, we still need money to keep laying the groundwork for the dream. Please use the Donate button or mail a check. May God bless you!
A Prayer For the Dead
Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend the souls of thy servants, NN., and beseech Thee to grant them rest in the place of thy rest, where all thy blessed Saints repose, and where the light of thy countenance shineth forever. And I beseech Thee also to grant that our present lives may be godly, sober, and blameless, that, we too may be made worthy to enter into thy heavenly Kingdom with those we love but see no longer: for Thou art the Resurrection, and the Life, and the Repose of thy departed servants, O Christ our God, and unto Thee we ascribe glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.