Leaders from several faith traditions gathered together on Dec. 21, at the Lutheran Church of the Cross in Laguna Woods for a memorial service that honored homeless men, women and children who died in Orange County last year.
Attended by family and friends of those who had died, as well as people who work with those experiencing homelessness, the service was held on the longest night of the year as a way to remember the difficult conditions that homeless people experience.
The event was first held seven years ago as a coordinated effort of Our Father’s Table (an Orange County nonprofit that helps homeless), the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange and the Diocese of Orange.
“Everyone should have the honor of being remembered,” said Gina Seriel, executive director of Our Father’s Table, who sees the memorial as a moral obligation.
“It’s a disgrace that we as a society turn away when we see those who are living on the street. It’s the very core of what we do, to treat everyone with dignity and respect.”
This sentiment was echoed by the memorial service speakers.
“Each human being has holiness,” said Rabbi Joe Mendelsohn from the Reform Temple of Laguna Woods.
Other speakers represented Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Zoroastrian, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Islam and Lutheran traditions and were unified in the common theme of recognizing homeless people as individuals.
“Concern for the poor and vulnerable is something that unites nearly all faith communities,” said Fr. Ed Becker, episcopal vicar of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the Diocese of Orange. “Through our network’s Homeless Persons’ Interreligious Memorial Service, we are united in that we all want to remember the least fortunate among us. We want to do our part in acknowledging their lives.”
The service has deep resonance among Catholics.
“For Christians, especially at this time of year, we remember that the very one who unites the divine and human, the uncreated and created, is the same Jesus. Christ, Son of the Living God, who told us we would find him and be judged by Him in the way that we treated those considered the least of our brothers and sisters,” said Greg Walgenbach, director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for the Diocese of Orange.
The names of the deceased were read aloud by Sister Sue Dunning and Sister Theresa La Matterey, CSJ of Orange as a quiet bell sounded and a lighted candle was placed for each person at the foot of the altar. In 2022 in Orange County 492 homeless people died, a number based on Orange County coroner’s office data and other reports, and which is nearly 100 more than last year.
“It’s so powerful just to hear everybody’s names prayerfully acknowledged,” said Sr. Sue. “The first time we did this there were about 200 names. This year there were more than 490. I hope [the memorial] gives witness to the fact we have a lot of brothers and sisters not cared for enough who are dying on the streets. It opens our consciousness to the need around us. It connects us to all these people who are part of our human family. It’s an awakening to that connection and to our need to reach out.”
According to “Everyone Counts” 2022 survey, there were 5,718 homeless people in Orange County as of
last February. They suffer from physical disabilities, mental health issues and substance abuse as well as the effects of being chronically homeless.
“Many people from outside Orange County have a vision of it as being very wealthy,” said Fr. Becker.
“But in truth, we also struggle with the difficulties of accommodating the unhoused and poorest among us. We really are no different than other metropolitan areas of the United States. Orange County is intertwined in this national crisis.”
Many people live at the edge of homelessness, noted Michelle O’Donoghue, who works with Fr. Becker.
“In Orange County many people are two paychecks away from being on the streets,” she said. “Prices are so high, and they can’t throw down $4,000 a month to rent an apartment. It just takes one bad mistake, or you lose a job, or your other half loses a job.”
O’Donoghue recalled a woman who came to the memorial a few years ago to light a candle to honor
her boyfriend who died homeless. The woman had lived with him on the streets too but after his death she
had found housing as well as a job.
“When you hear the names, and you hear religious leaders speaking from the heart, it’s emotional and it
raises awareness,” O’Donoghue said. “It’s a real reminder about another part of our world, about all our people, so I don’t forget them—because God doesn’t forget them,” said Sr. Christine Hilliard, CSJ of Orange.