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The Cross and the Skate Key

Tuesday, 5 July 2011
I was in my first year of seminary when I first met Kip Tiernan.

I had been invited to hear the founder of "Rosie's Place" preach at the Jesuit Center in Boston. I had been told that she was "feisty" and "prophetic".

Yeah, she was all that - and more.

She preached for less than five minutes, her raspy voice and heavy Boston accent sounding a bit discordant if not slightly irreverent in that hallowed space. She first thanked the Jesuits for their works of corporal mercy in their financial support and other contribution, including their volunteer efforts at Rosie's Place.

She was, however, more concerned with justice. God's justice. The justice of God as embodied and made incarnate in the life of Jesus Christ.

Here's the line I'll never forget. She said, "Justice is not 'three hots and a cot'. Justice," she said, "is having your own key to your own home."

"When you're willing to work for justice," she said, "call me." And then, she walked out of the chapel and back to work at Rose's Place.

See what I mean?

73,000 nutritious meals served annually
Rosie's Place is the nation’s first shelter for homeless women which Kip established in 1974. Here's how their own web site describes their work:
Rosie’s Place, a sanctuary for poor and homeless women, offers emergency and long-term assistance to women who have nowhere else to turn. Rosie’s Place welcomes each guest with respect and unconditional love. Rosie’s Place accepts no government funds, and relies instead on committed volunteers and private supporters to accomplish its effective and innovative work.
Emergency and long-term assistance.

Respect and unconditional love.

No government funds.

Committed volunteers and private supporters.

Effective and innovative work.

Sounds like the embodied and incarnate gospel of Jesus Christ to me.

I first got involved with Rosie's Place when the wife of a seminarian who volunteered there invited me to join her as she worked one of her shifts. Mostly, we just talked with some of the women there who were just happy to have 'three hots and a cot' in a place that offered safety and shelter for them and their children.

It wasn't home and they didn't have their own key but it was "almost heaven" when compared with the alternative "shelters" available at that time.

No men in altered states of consciousness, reeking of cheap wine, who leered salaciously at them and their children.

That was the night I met Viola. She was sitting off in a corner of the room, quietly watching her three children play with some toys. When she saw me walk over to her, she rolled her eyes.

Just another White girl trying to make a difference.

Yup, that would be me.

The first five minutes of our "conversation" was decidedly one-sided. She allowed a few "Uh-huh's" and nods of her head in response to my banter about the children, the weather, the food . . .

At one point, the shawl she had over her arms slipped down as she shifted her body in the chair. That's when I saw the bruises on her arms. She immediately saw me looking at them and closed her eyes tightly as she replaced the shawl over her arms,  silently hoping that, if she couldn't see me, I couldn't see her.

I allowed silence to fill the space between us for a few moments, then took a deep breath and said, "Some of mine were worse."

No response but a raised eyebrow.

I forged ahead and said, "You know, one of the most difficult lessons I learned from my own days of abuse were about courage. I thought I was being brave by staying in my marriage "for the sake of the children". I thought it took courage to stay true to my marriage vows, even if it meant that, every couple of weeks, I had to get into a cage and tangle with a drunken lion."

"I learned that that's not courage," I said quietly, as she watched her children play. "I learned that the three most courageous words I ever said were, 'I need help'. That takes real courage."

"You'll find that courage here," I continued. "Just give yourself a chance. Give the staff a chance to help you. If you can't do it for yourself, do it 'for the sake of the children'."

At that point, one of the little ones came running to his mother with a book, asking her to read. She said, "Mommy is too sad to read right now."

"I'll read it to you, son," I said, as the child jumped into my arms to settle in.

On the third page of the book, Viola started to weep. She chocked back the tears, but they would not be denied. "Mommy's going to the lady's room," she said to her children. "You stay here a minute with this nice young lady."

As we watched her walk away, I knew that she had taken the first steps to find the place of courage within her self.

First, you cry.

Tears become the road you walk on to ease the journey over the broken bits and pieces of your hope and allow you a measure of protection from the pointed shards of shattered dreams. Tears cleanse the path so you can see more clearly who you are and what you want from your life.

Creating permanent solutions
I kept touch with Viola over the next three years I was in seminary. Rosie's Place assisted her in completing her GED and watched her children while she enrolled in a certificate training program to become a nurse's aid.

She went on from there to become an LPN. When I left Cambridge, she was working at a nursing home while attending a Community College to become an RN.

Rosie's Place was with her every step of the way.

I lost touch with her after that, but I had seen enough to know that Viola was but one example of Kip's prophecy. Yes, yes, give people 'three hots and a cot' when they need it. That's the charitable thing to do.

Charity is just the beginning. It's a nice start, but it won't get you anywhere except feeling good about yourself. Which is 'nice' and all, but as Kip would say, 'nice' is not the goal of the work of the ministry of Jesus Christ.

Justice is the goal of the Gospel. And, sometimes the work of justice isn't about 'nice'. You can't get to the justice that is vision of the Realm of God without changing the system that brings women like Viola to Rosie's Place in the first place.

Kip Tiernan died of cancer last Saturday in her South End apartment. She was 85.

Usually clad in a canvas hat and work pants, a cross and a skate key dangling from a leather strap around her neck, Kip described herself as "an angry daughter of Christ".

"Speaking out is empowerment. A closed mouth won't get fed!"
Along with Fran Froehlich, her partner in advocacy for more than 35 years, Ms. Tiernan founded, helped found, or was a founding member of a number of agencies and panels, including Boston Health Care for the Homeless, Boston Food Bank, Community Works, Aid to Incarcerated Mothers, Finex House, Food for Free, John Leary House, My Sister’s Place, Transition House, the Greater Boston Union of the Homeless, and Boston’s Emergency Shelter Commission.

The range of suffering was such that “sometimes you think there aren’t any tears left,’’ Kip told the Globe in 1988, “and you find yourself sobbing.’’

Froehlich said that Kip combined compassion with “a pragmatic approach to solving issues, like: Hungry? Food. Homeless? Housing. And she challenged people with that clarity.’

On behalf of housing, health care, and an array of social justice issues, Kip lobbied, fasted, marched in protest, and was arrested during sit-ins at government offices. In November 1990, she began a fast in Arlington Street Church and explained why in an op-ed essay for the Globe.
“We should atone for what we have allowed to happen to all poor people in this state, in the name of fiscal austerity or plain mean-spiritedness. . . . We have, as citizens, much to repent for, for what we have and have not done, to ease the suffering of our sisters and brothers who have no lobby to protect them.’’
Kip was an orphan by the time she was eleven years old. She also was expelled from a Catholic boarding school, telling the Boston Globe she had failed math and asked too many difficult moral questions.

Tour Rosie's Place
A recovering alcoholic by the time she was 19, she was also an accomplished advertizing copier who knew how to fly a plane and play jazz piano. Her "long time companion of decades" was Edith Nicholson, who died in the 1990s.

Kip helped raise Nicholson’s three children and leaves one of those children, Peg Wright of Saugerties, N.Y.; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. For the past 15 years, Ms. Tiernan and Donna Pomponio have been a couple. They married in 2004.

About that cross and skate key around her neck: Kip wore the cross as a symbol of a radical condemnation of an unjust world. "You have to stay with the one crucified," she said, "or stand with the crucifiers".

The skate key was a symbol, for her, of the liberation promised of Christ. When you stand with the Crucified One you don't just stand. You glide, feeling the winds of liberation in your hair. Once you have experienced that liberation, you want it for everyone.

In her obituary in the Boston Globe, Mayor Thomas M. Menino is quoted as saying,
"Every day of her life she lived for social justice, and the lives she saved were untold. She always said that someday we will stamp out homelessness, but until that day we have to make sure everyone understands that a homeless person could be one of us. She was a very special person, and there’s a big hole in our lives today because Kip’s not here. This nation is going to miss Kip Tiernan because of her fight for social justice."
When a Giant of Justice like Kip leaves this earthly plane, I suspect there's a big hole in the veil that separates heaven and earth.

My hope, my prayer, is that, through that hole more angels will descend - perhaps even a few of them who are 'angry daughters of Christ' - who will, one day, become themselves Giants of Justice.

We'll know them by their works - and the cross and the skate key they wear around their necks.

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