In 1994 I spent three months working in a refugee camp in Bosnia with those who had escaped the vicious conflict that raged there.
I’ll never forget the “welcoming” I received when I returned to Melbourne to my employment as a youth worker in a government hostel. It was a place that provided temporary accommodation for young people who had been removed from their homes, for reasons ranging from neglect to abuse.
Due to my extended absence I did not carry my keys with me so I knocked on the door. I found myself facing a very angry and hostile young woman who had moved in during my time away. She was clothed in darkness, both in dress and demeanour.
“Who the **** are you?” she hissed through clenched teeth. It was my first real understanding of a condition that I have since referred to as the “homelessness heart”.
I had just returned from a war torn nation where the young people I worked with had literally been stripped of everything that they owned; houses, possessions and often, family members. Many had left the only place they had ever known with only the clothes on their backs, yet there remained a peace somewhere within them that radiated through the devastating but temporary turmoil that had shaken their world. In a material sense they were impoverished, yet the foundation of familial love on which their lives were built was able to sustain them when everything around fell apart. It was such a contrast to the bitterness that drove the young woman who met me at the door that day.
As I came to know her over the ensuing months and learnt of the abuse that she had endured from her mother and the parade of step dads that had invaded her life, I came to understand why she had cut her heart free from the moorings that should have been her emotional home. It was less painful to detach oneself from a place devoid of love than to live each day under the roof of this reality.
Materially the government provided this woman with everything that she could physically need; a roof over her head, the latest fashion, adequate food, school, training or work opportunities and a selection of counselling options, yet none of these could accommodate a heart that had been set adrift. None could fulfil her need to be loved.
Sadly, there are many who share her affliction. These are the people that we read about in the newspapers; see on the six o’clock news or even pass in the streets.
They can be violent, dishonest, drug-addicted and often clog up our hospital, police and prison resources with their socially destructive and self abusive behaviour. Many have only known the world to be ugly and vindictive. They have never felt that they belonged.
They respond by blurring their memories with alcohol, pills and solvents or by sticking needles in their arms. They cut themselves in an attempt to release the pain and to give the world an outward sign of what is going on inside them. Young women give themselves to any male that shows them attention, as they desperately search for the love that they never knew. Young men viciously lash out as they battle the unresolved anger that festers within. Their choices are born from hearts that have no home.
But how do we as Christians respond when we see or hear of these self-destructive behaviours? Do we simply turn the page, switch the channel or just keep walking?
Or do we allow ourselves to experience the discomfort of sharing another’s pain? Whether we realise it or not we are, on a spiritual level, making these choices every day. We are either inviting the hearts of the most wounded into our own, or we are leaving them on the doorstep outside.
Let us never forget the words of Jesus, who was very specific when he told us, “In truth I say to you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40).