Editorial: Out in The Cold

A Pastor in Lyme Bears Witness

Generally speaking, we don’t favor stunts as a way of calling attention to social issues — as when, for example, politicians strive to do a week’s grocery shopping on food stamps to demonstrate, well, that it’s hard to do. So we were a bit skeptical to learn that the interim pastor of Lyme Congregational Church was spending his nights outdoors in a tent during this week’s bitter cold weather to dramatize the plight of the homeless and the hungry, a skepticism that was perhaps shared by his congregation, which reportedly greeted the news of his intentions with dead silence when he disclosed them during Sunday worship.

On further review, though, we conclude that the Rev. Stephen Gehlert, rather than trivializing the problem, has borne important witness to it.

For one thing, Gehlert, 64, who came to Lyme last summer from Ohio, is suitably modest about his undertaking. As he pointed out to Valley News correspondent Katie Jickling, he’s an experienced outdoorsman who has the luxury of warm winter gear during the night and the opportunity to return to the parsonage in the morning for a hot shower and breakfast — far from a given with those who are actually homeless.

Secondly, Gehlert has a concrete and worthy goal in mind: to strengthen the church’s ties with The Haven in White River Junction, which runs two shelters as well as a food pantry, among other programs.

Third, context matters here. Lyme is an affluent and highly educated community, with median household income of $92,143 and 63.7 percent of adults having attained a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to Census data. About 1.8 percent of families live below the poverty line. This is only to say that in trying to raise awareness, Gehlert is hardly hauling coals to Newcastle. Homelessness is not likely something that confronts his congregation on a daily basis, as it might on the streets of a big city.

As we read Jickling’s account, we couldn’t help but recall the death last month of Matthew Harriman, the 49-year-old homeless man who, by all appearances, froze to death, just yards from the tent in Claremont where he had been living for much of the previous two years.

As a subsequent profile by staff writer Jordan Cuddemi made clear, Harriman’s homelessness was not of the kind that results when a family suddenly but temporarily falls off the edge of a secure life through loss of a job or a major illness. Rather, his life in a tent resulted from a complex amalgam of problems and preferences including unemployment, hard drinking, a love of the outdoors and an inability to fit in by following society’s rules. That he is far from alone in this may be inferred from the fact that, according to the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness, while the overall homeless population in the state has decreased slightly over the past three years, the number of unsheltered homeless has increased markedly.

So while shelters do immense good work in providing a safe haven for people trying to get back on their feet, attacking the root problems that cause homelessness — unemployment, mental illness, alcohol and substance abuse, alienation — also provide scope for social and political engagement of the kind anticipated by Gehlert’s inspiring call to action.