Archbishop José H. Gomez called on Angelenos to look at those suffering on the streets with “new eyes” at an interreligious prayer service remembering the city’s homeless dead.

“We need to bear one another’s burdens; we need to lift up our neighbors when they’ve fallen, bind their wounds, and find them a place to live.” said Archbishop Gomez in his reflection at the second annual Homeless Persons’ Interreligious Memorial Dec. 21. “When one of us is suffering, we all suffer.”

More than 200 people attended the memorial, symbolically timed to coincide with the date of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. As rain fell outside, the lights inside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels were dimmer than usual as a delegation of local interreligious representatives, led by Archbishop Gomez, began the service processing in to the sound of  “Amazing Grace.”

Set near the cathedral altar were 1,665 battery-charged candles, bearing the names of each of the people identified by the LA County coroner’s office as having died on the streets from December 2022 through Nov. 3 of this year. Each name was also printed in the night’s program, a detail noted by Lutheran Bishop Brenda Bos, who was the first to speak at the event.  

“Every one of those people was a prophet, was a witness, was an angel among us … who had a story, who had a family, who had a life,” said Bos, who leads the Southwest California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. “I’m so glad that we could honor them and we can thank God for their presence in our midst.”

Other interreligious delegates at the service included representatives of Orthodox, Bahá'í, Hindu, Jewish, and Mormon faith traditions. Speakers invoked the importance of recognizing our common humanity as they appealed to the city’s conscience.

Swami Mahayogananda of Hollywood’s Vedanta Center lamented how “we are able to let our own brothers and sisters die on the streets of our city, unloved, uncared for, cold and hungry.”

Death may be a certainty of life, the Hindu monk said, “but surely we all deserve death with dignity.”

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Rabbi Beaumont Shapiro of the Skirball Cultural Center speaks at the second annual Homeless Persons’ Interreligious Memorial Dec. 21. (Victor Alemán)

Rabbi Beaumont Shapiro of the Skirball Cultural Center near Brentwood admitted he’d considered trying something “sacrilegious” that night to get his message across: What would happen, he asked, if he were to take scissors and cut out every verse in the Hebrew Bible that speaks of the moral obligation to help the poor, needy, and powerless?

“The entire section of the prophets would be decimated, the psalms ripped to shreds, and much of Leviticus and Deuteronomy torn to pieces,” said Shapiro.

Not only are the Scriptures filled with the themes of homelessness and wandering, Shapiro said, but they command readers to care for the most vulnerable “more often than any other commandment.”

In his reflection, Archbishop Gomez said the prayer service was a call “to reach across the boundaries that separate us from our neighbors, to recognize in each person the spark of the divine, to see everyone as a child of God.”

“Jesus asks us tonight to see with ‘new eyes,’ ” said Archbishop Gomez after the Gospel passage of the parable of the Good Samaritan was proclaimed. “He asks us to look at the ‘other’ and see a brother or a sister. Whatever the color of their skin, whatever their nationality, their language, or religion. Whatever their condition or their worldly status.”

According to official statistics, Los Angeles had an estimated homeless population of 41,980 in 2022, making it the city with the largest homeless population in the country that year (that number grew to 46,260 this year). The number of homeless deaths in LA counted for this year’s memorial was over 200 more than the same time period in 2022, a grim sign that the situation isn’t improving. Visitors to the cathedral that night agreed.

“I think it is getting worse,” said Ray Salazar, who came to the cathedral with his 8-year-old daughter Rebecca. His wife, Susana, works for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and was one of the volunteers at the memorial.

“There are a lot of problems with people getting mental illness. I see more drugs in the streets, and everybody knows it, but nobody talks about it.”

Volunteers from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Society and local nonprofit organization SOFESA — which both helped organize the vigil — were on hand to welcome guests and distribute programs and memorial candles. Students from several Catholic high schools showed up to help, too, including Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena and Crespi High School in Encino.

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Students from Crespi, Bishop Alemany, Cathedral, Immaculate Heart, and Incarnation high schools, as well as Mayfield Senior School, were among the volunteers at the 2023 Homeless Memorial. (Victor Alemán)

Before the service’s end, the local religious leaders took turns lighting candles in honor of the homeless dead. Afterward, visitors were encouraged to take the small, battery-charged candles home and pray for the men and women named on them. They were also shown a QR code linking to an Amazon Wish List, where blankets, sleeping bags, and socks could be purchased as donations.

Several community donation drives were held around the archdiocese leading up to the memorial, like “Hearts & Hats,” organized by the Los Angeles Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women. Before the service started, council member Karen Akana came with her husband, Jim, to drop off boxes of hats and scarves collected during the drive.

“It’s just remarkable that we have that many people on the streets who have passed away,” said Akana, a parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Northridge. “It’s hard to believe that even tonight somebody is probably dying because it’s so cold outside. So we came down to pray for them.”

During the service, Akana said her mind turned to the big picture of the city’s “worsening” homelessness crisis, one whose solution has evaded leaders so far.

“I was praying in there, saying: ‘What do we do?’ ” said Akana. “We have to have an answer to this.”