Unusual sabbatical sends Rhode Island bishop to the streets to discover 'we are all homeless'

February 21, 2003

I knew I was meeting my bishop. I had no idea what she'd look like.

The phone rang around 9:30 a.m. 'I'm coming in on Greyhound around 10, but I have to leave at 1:15 at the latest. Where can you meet me?'

'At the clock in Grand Central, around 10:30?'

'See you then.'

Try as I might, I couldn't spot her in the crowd. I knew she'd grown her hair long. The irony wasn't lost on me that, just a few years ago, she'd shaved it all off in preparation for chemotherapy. Back then people gave her hats to cover her bald head. Now she was using her own hair as part of a disguise.

But the woman standing in front of me just didn't register. Her hair was pulled tight in cornrows; her lips were smeared generously with red lipstick. She had on huge sunglasses, a blue parka, carried a big backpack. 'What are you lookin' at?' she mumbled. Then she took off the sunglasses.

The Rt. Rev. Geralyn Wolf, 12th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island, was homeless, in New York--and in need of a handout from one of her clergy.

No flash of lightning

Just about a year ago, Wolf was contemplating how she'd spend the first sabbatical she'd taken in more than a quarter-century of ministry. 'It wasn't a flash of lightning,' she told me. 'It was a sense that in my rather privileged position I was losing touch with what I was yearning for, which was a sort of earthiness, people of passion and generosity.'

She remembered her days as a parish priest at St. Mary's in inner-city Philadelphia, where, she said, she met plenty of the homeless but knew little about their lives on the street. So--with typically no-nonsense directness--she decided to find out firsthand.

She first told me of her plans last fall, that she'd start right after Christmas. She'd been growing her hair out, consulting with staff at Travelers Aid in Providence on how to dress, what to say. How would people in the Episcopal Church react? Would it make a good story? A good book? She'd let me know if anything changed. 'Keep a journal,' I said, remembering the moving entries from the diary she'd kept during her struggle with breast cancer in the first year of her episcopate.

On the road

We sat in the downstairs dining concourse at Grand Central Terminal, just two blocks from the Episcopal Church Center in New York. She had money--all of $13--but I insisted on buying her coffee and a bagel. 'It just wouldn't look right for me to go Dutch treat with a homeless woman,' I said, feeling strangely protective when I saw a police officer and a National Guardsman in camouflage glance curiously in our direction.

She'd been on the road almost three weeks, she said. The worst part was the food--all sugar, starches and meat, exactly the opposite of the fresh vegetables and fruits she always craved. Soda, bad coffee, no decent tea. The shelters were more crowded than usual, the result of a bitter cold snap in the Northeast.

The first week or so she spent in Rhode Island as 'Aly,' a contraction of her first name she'd invented as part of her 'homeless' identity. Had she gone to Episcopal churches? Yes, she chuckled, and no one recognized her--not even her clergy. She told of getting the cold shoulder from most parishioners at coffee hour, of the surprise she felt at being greeted by someone she wouldn't have expected to give her a second glance.

Then she'd hopped a bus: to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, always staying in shelters, eating at soup kitchens, visiting churches--mostly Episcopal, but other denominations too. She felt conflicted about how she was treated, keenly aware that in her real life as a bishop, she too had been complicit in ignoring the poor.

'You wanna see my journal?' she offered, pulling the small book out of her backpack. The words and sketches spilled unevenly across the pages, stories of real human beings struggling with addictions and temptations that are foreign to the daily lives of Episcopal bishops, trying to negotiate a system seemingly designed to meet the needs of those doing the providing, rather than those for whom help was provided.

But was it hard not to be a priest, a bishop, even for a little while--to be the one helped rather than the one helping? 'At some level, we are all homeless,' she said.

A blessing

What did she plan to do with what she was learning? Her eyes brightened. She had plans. She wanted to investigate a microcredit program, like the Five Talents program that Bishop Simon Chiwanga was part of in Africa, something that would provide the homeless of Rhode Island with a way to start earning money for themselves.

There were smart people on the streets, she said, talented people whose lives and abilities were being wasted. You couldn't expect them to pull themselves up by the bootstraps when they didn't even have the boots. Next month she'd go to Honduras, check it out, maybe take a couple of her homeless friends with her.

We shared a little church news: meetings, decisions, the upcoming General Convention. She inked my cell phone number along with the others she'd put on the inside waistband of her heavy wool trousers--just in case.

Then she had to go, to catch a bus to Boston. I asked for a blessing from my bishop. And a homeless woman laid hands on my head and prayed for me in Jesus' name.