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Anthony Cleary: Each name comes with dreams and hopes

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Bishop Terry Brady leads prayers for the homeless at a gathering in Elizabeth Bay in late June, 2021. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Bishop Terry Brady leads prayers for the homeless at a gathering in Elizabeth Bay in late June, 2021. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

The final hours of my father’s life were eerily silent, broken only by his occasional laboured breathing.

He laid unconscious, his brain and body ravaged by a devastating stroke.

On this warm summer’s afternoon, it was if time stood still. As we waited for the inevitable, I intently studied my father’s face, and I imagined a very different time.

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I tried to picture the day he was born, in this very same hospital some 82 years before. I imagined the joy of his mother and the hopes she held for her newborn son.

Had the man in front of me lived the life his mother would have dreamed of, when she first laid eyes on him?

In a very real way, I am sure that the birth of every child raises similar sentiments—mothers longing for the happiness of their children, desiring what is only good for them.

We know however, that even with the best of intentions, not all lives go according to plan.

On the longest night of the year, I gathered with hundreds of Sydneysiders for the memorial service for the homeless in Martin Place.

It was a poignant and fitting way to remember and honour those living in shelters and on the streets who had died during the last twelve months.

The reading of names was especially moving, for it removed the anonymity that can sometimes accompany the use of group labels, such as “homeless.” By saying a name, we help recognise the dignity and worth of individuals.

As the names were read, I tried to picture a person in my mind so as to put a face with a name. I had never met them, but I wondered about them. And as with my father I imagined their coming into the world and the hopes that had been held for them.

While people experience hardship and sadness in their lives, they also normally experience love and joy. Very few lives are totally devoid of these.

Throughout the service, it was my hope that those who had died knew the feeling of being loved.

Teresa Hodal (second right) and fellow ESM participants offer hot food to the homeless in New York.
Teresa Hodal (second right) and fellow ESM participants offer hot food to the homeless in New York.

In a sense, I know that this was the case. As was evident on the night, a tremendous camaraderie exists between those living on the streets.

Sharing life’s difficulties seems to forge life-long friendships. They enjoy too, the company and non-judgemental compassion of countless volunteers.

The number of homeless people in Australia highlights the extent of this social crisis. It rings alarm bells, and it moves many of us into action.

Paradoxically, the use of these same numbers can also create a problem.

Like the road toll, and the incidence of domestic violence and youth suicide, the numbers shock us. Numbers are powerful and they enable us to see the magnitude of a problem.

But strangely, they can sometimes desensitise us to the true nature of a problem and we think of “statistics” rather than human beings. We can lose sight of the individual.

We must remember that people are not statistics, they are human beings. They are created in the image and likeness of God, are valuable and are worthy of respect. Each and every life is sacred.

People are not anonymous in God’s eyes. They are not random accidents. Rather, they are known and loved. They have been willed purposefully into creation and into their very being.

God’s knowledge of and love for each of us is depicted beautifully in Isaiah 49:16, “I have carved you on the palms of my hands.”

My father was with his family when he died. Sadly, many others die alone. No matter the circumstances of a person’s death there will be others who are affected in some way and people will grieve their loss.

As Christians, we should not only mourn our friends and our loved ones, but we should pray for the “strangers in our midst,” especially those who were alone or in need.  May they rest in peace.

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