a hopelessly great country

This article was published in the July issue of “The Winged Ox,” our church newsletter at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Los Gatos, CA.

Not everything is relative, even in our polarized national climate.  A few things remain absolute.  You do not tear children away from their parents and put them in cages.  No matter what.  There must be a “zero tolerance policy” for such actions.  Because the minute we start trying to justify such wickedness, we will spiral into a moral relativity that will soon condone much worse.  The fact that our government backed off from this policy offers two lessons: we must shout, cry foul, and expose such acts when they are committed, because that’s all that stopped this from continuing; and, we are now capable of such behavior in this country.

Duh.  Now?  How naïve can I be?  What about slavery?  Genocide of indigenous cultures?  Lynchings? Covert participation in government overthrows in Latin America?  All the deportations under previous presidents?  The hucksterism and exploitation upon which our country was built over 300 years?  When did I fall for the myth of America as a great nation, a beacon of freedom for the world?  And in what time period was that, exactly?  Our golden age as a country was … when, again?

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I don’t think I ever fell for it, actually.  Yet, like some grinning rubber ducky bobbing back to the surface of turbid bathtub waters, the myth persists in my soul, it refuses to stay down.  My friends, my spiritual charges, my Trump supporters and haters, this is a great country.  Supremely imperfect, maybe not the best ever or even the best now.  But those refugees from terrorizing nations trying to sneak across our borders would whisper the secret we often forget: We still represent hope.  Ridiculous, impossible hope.  And if they still believe in us, surely we can muster up some belief in ourselves.

We still get to protest our government, to marry whom we love, to make decisions about our body and health … for the most part, for now.  It is our patriotic duty to uphold these freedoms and to fight when someone threatens to take them away.  I can’t pretend to understand what motivates young men and women to join the armed forces, but I know I could never do it, and I’d like to think they aren’t potentially putting their lives on the line just so that people like me can live timid and self-involved lives.  Our part in this compact is to keep caring about each other for as long as we can, with compassion and kindness as our best face, while fiercely defending our best guess at goodness in this age of relative morality, and protecting the most vulnerable among us.  “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

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I was moved this week …

  • by the offer from the Tampa Bay Muslim Community to house all 2,300 migrant children until they could be returned to their parents;
  • by the tremble in an 85-year-old black man’s voice on a podcast I’m listening to, describing the return to his beloved Georgia after 46 years of living in Buffalo, NY;
  • by the flight attendant who refused to work his shift on an airplane where ICE agents were transporting crying children;
  • by the memory of Republican parishioners in Long Beach who brought carloads of clothing to our homeless shower program each month, my amulets against demonizing others;
  • by the photos of my clergy colleagues in the Diocese of L.A. being arrested during protests against immigration policies;

because they gave me hope. Ridiculous, impossible hope.

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While discerning my call to the priesthood in 2005, I wrote this about my struggle with faith: “I feel like the more my skepticism grows, the stronger my yearning for God becomes. It’s as if someone is trying to take something valuable away from me; and the harder they tug, the tighter I grip.” That’s how I felt this week thinking about the American flag, what it represents, the evil and the good.  Conflicted at holding onto it, yet don’t you dare take it away from me or say it only means one thing.  It’s my flag, too, and my voice joins the diverse chorus that sings out its myth, cries out its despair, trills out its joy.

We can’t let everyone into our country, as heartbreaking or heartening as that sounds to you and your politics.  Will we ever resolve the tragedy at our southern border?  Or will it continue to bleed, unhealed, and join the pile of open wounds that are this nation’s past tragedies?  It’s not enough to believe the myth of greatness; we have to keep working towards goodness. Maybe someday, maybe not, we will make America great for once, for all.

With you,

Ricardo+

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Image credits: 1) Michael Morgenstern/The Economist 11.1.14; 2) Spencer Platt/Getty Images NYC Rally 6.30.18; 3) Mario Tama/Getty Images The Rev. Francisco Garcia L.A. 6.30.18; 4) Sign from San Jose Rally 6.30.18.

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Posted in immigrants, Immigration, Independence Day | 1 Comment

mom

For our May 2017 parish newsletter at St. Luke’s, Long Beach, I wrote this hurried paean to my mother, then completely forgot to phone her on Mothers’ Day, and now belatedly share it here.

María de la Luz Ávila Garcia (I probably have that wrong, I always call her “Mom”) was born May 20, 1932, in the city and state of Durango, Mexico.  She was one of six siblings but grew up on “permanent loan” to her Tía Rita, who owned a hotel downtown, my grandparents being too poor to raise all their kids.  So I know her first cousins as tías and tíos (aunts and uncles) too.  Mom didn’t talk much about her early years to me, with a few exceptions.  Now that she can no longer walk, she’s wistfully mentioned how she and her female cousins and friends used to go everywhere on foot in her youth: “We would walk arm in arm along the sidewalks, and everyone turned and wondered who all these girls were.”  I think she was beautiful and imagine the gals turned heads.  But Tía Rita was strict, and the bedroom door my Mom shared with her was nightly blocked by her aunt’s bed.

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My Dad and his father stayed at the hotel in 1956, coming into the city from the countryside to arrange papers to emigrate to the U.S.  Mom had just a few conversations with Dad, sneaking them while she swept the courtyard in the hotel’s center.  He asked if he could write to her, and she said, “yes.”  Just a few letters in, he wrote, “If I were to ask you to marry me, would you agree?”  My mother was at risk of being an old maid, in those days 23 might as well have been 40.  She agreed.  They were wed in Durango and she promptly joined Dad’s family as they moved to Chicago in 1956, leaving behind everyone she had ever known to live with a man she barely knew, and his family.

I cannot imagine!  They had 1st and 2nd-grade educations and were now in a place where they didn’t speak the language, never mind the harsh winters they’d never before experienced.  My father worked at U.S. Steel, a hard-core factory job that somehow allowed them enough funds to raise five kids on the South Side.  By the third kid, Dad was an alcoholic, and the paychecks he picked up on Fridays were sometimes gone by the time he stumbled home on Sunday.  Mom had to squirrel away funds when she could, or borrow from her in-laws and relatives so we could eat.  Not all were nice to her.  I remember being little (I was the youngest) and us kids surrounding her when she broke down in tears.  I cried, “Divorce him! I’ll take care of you!”  But she could not.  Mom eventually figured out a way to get Dad’s paychecks before he did, though that still didn’t stop the drinking.

We drove down to Durango to see her family maybe four times in my childhood, but I’ve only been back once as an adult.  How hard this must have been for my mother, seeing her entire family living their lives without her.  Granted, they were poorer than we were despite our own financial straits, but they had each other.  The sacrifices she made to ensure our happiness were many, and now she’s lived in Wisconsin for 44 years and will one day be buried next to Dad in a Milwaukee cemetery.  She has some mild dementia and can no longer walk, but her sweetness remains intact.  When I phone her, she whispers inaudibly and doesn’t seem to hear me, so I get upset because it feels like she’s no longer there, that we can no longer communicate.

I won’t go into the years of struggle I had with Mom to “untie the apron strings” that kept us unhealthily connected, nor will I recount the layers of guilt I still carry for leaving home or for not being the doting son she seemed to need.  She was great when I came out to her, but then never spoke of it again.  She was ambivalent about my priesthood, confused about how I could be a non-Roman Catholic man of the cloth.  And she couldn’t bring herself to attend when William and I wed, feigning a fall and sudden illness on the eve of her flight.  All of this is somehow faded and mostly forgiven, on both sides.  What remains is this clear, sharp, painful and joyous gratitude I feel in my heart for this woman, the most influential person in my entire life.  She taught me my faith by example and instruction, and she loved me unconditionally.

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I wish I could grant her a happier life, some magic wand or time machine that would allow for do-overs.  I wish we could hang out as friends.  I like to think she’s proud of me.  I love her so much but spent so many years fleeing from home to become who I am that it’s too hard now to change direction and return.  So may this homage she’ll never read or comprehend stand in lieu of the flowers and kisses I’d shower upon her if I were in Wisconsin.  Happy Mothers’ Day, Mom.

Posted in immigrants, Mom, mothers | 5 Comments

songs of faith

Like many a good Catholic boy, I went bad in college. Never went to church the whole nine years I lived in Madison, Wisconsin. But, for whatever reason, when I moved to San Francisco at age 27 (O, City of Sin!), I took up faithful churchgoing once more. I guess I wanted to connect with a community, and the LGBT Catholics at Dignity/SF were a kind bunch. Now that I was an adult, however, I needed to embrace a faith that spoke “to” me and not “at” me. Also, I wanted to own my beliefs and no longer deny my doubts. But I couldn’t find the voice to express these longings.

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Emmylou Harris at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, San Francisco, 2006

Then Wrecking Ball came out in 1995, a beautiful collection of (mostly) cover songs by Emmylou Harris, and it changed my life. Turns out that what I needed was to hear about God, mystery, mercy, salvation, and eternity from someone outside the world of religion. Somehow, that made it authentic in my eyes: pure, agenda-less. And her tremulous voice was a balm to my weary soul. Tired of seeking proof of God’s existence, worn out from constant worrying about love and career, Harris beckoned me to just believe and wonder. On Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand,” she sang,

Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistakes
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break
In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.

What I heard in these lyrics was, “Enough navel gazing with your small problems of love and vocation. Stop trying to be perfect, because you’re only human. Instead, look up at the majesty all around you; see the sacred within the smallest thing. Find God there, and know wonder.” She also covered sorrowful songs by Lucinda Williams (“Sweet Old World”) and Gillian Welch (“Orphan Girl”), singing of life’s beauty and Christ’s accompaniment. Intellectually, I can’t explain it, but these songs revived my faith. God was about relationship and song, not dogma and text.

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Gillian Welch, Rico, David Steinberg, and David Rawlings, at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, San Francisco, 2003.

Emmylou’s CD led me to Gillian Welch’s “Revival” (1996), which was even more religious while still being “cool” and “alternative.” In “By the Mark,” she unabashedly sings,

On Calvary Mountain, where they made him suffer so
All my sin was paid for a long, long time ago
By the mark where the nails have been
By the sign upon his precious skin
I will know my Savior when I come to him
By the mark where the nails have been.

Somehow, when Welch sang it, I believed it deep as a bone shiver. And I was being shown, not told.

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Lucinda Williams at The Warfield, San Francisco, 2001.

I also discovered those wonderful first three albums by Lucinda Williams, including “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” (1998), with the gorgeous story-song, “Lake Charles,” a tune about the life and death of a friend that almost always brings me to tears:

Did you run about as far as you could go?
Down the Louisiana Highway, across Lake Pontchartrain
Now your soul is in Lake Charles
no matter what they say.

Did an angel whisper in your ear
and hold you close, and take away your fear
in those long, last moments?

Williams insisted that the sacred was to be found in bonds of friendship; in places we’ve loved; in good times we’ve shared; and at our deathbed, to whisper us home. I longed for such assurances, as I continued to struggle with a faith that, by now, was so tenacious it wasn’t succumbing to any assaults of doubt.

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Patty Griffin at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, San Francisco, 2005.

Finally, Patty Griffin helped me accept who I was, self-doubt, God-doubt and all, as I began to ponder priesthood. We cannot know for sure; we may never fully heal. These are reasons to continue, not give up. On the stunning “Impossible Dream” (2004), she sings of such things on “Mother of God”:

So, I’m wearing my footsteps into this floor
One day I won’t live here anymore
And someone will wonder who lived here before
and went on their way.
I live too many miles from the ocean
and I’m getting older and odd
I head up in the morning with my cup of coffee
and I talk to the Mother of God

Something as simple as boys and girls
gets tossed all around and then lost in the world
Something as hard as a prayer on your back
You can wait a long time for an answer.

Without these four women — Emmylou, Gillian, Lucinda, and Patty — I don’t know that I’d be a priest today. I fear I haven’t explained this well enough to you, dear reader. So I commend these four CDs to you, unreservedly.

There are deeper truths that only music can convey. Find your songs. Let them change your life.

God bless you,
Ricardo

Posted in Faith Music | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

veni, sancte spiritus

This blog post originally appeared in the webzine, Journey with Jesus, on June 2, 2014. Reading Acts 2:1-21 first may help, but is not necessary.

As my forehead came to rest on the stone floor of Grace Cathedral, having flinched away once from its cold surface, I finally relaxed. Tired, my body sank into the floor while a fleeting thought (it’s now out of my hands) passed by. Up and down the center aisle, the six other transitional deacons also lay prostrate. Everyone chanted Veni, Sancte Spiritus around and above us, their surrounding entreaty blending with the sound of my own breath hitting the stone.

Suddenly, tears fell out of my eyes. Not erupting from any burst of emotion, just falling. My chest remembered to sob only after my eyes were already drying. As I lay there, in those final moments before I was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church, I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Then why do I still wonder whether such a thing exists? Had I been at the Pentecost event, would I have joined the scoffers, snickering, “they are filled with new wine”? I’d like to think not. Violent wind, dancing tongues of fire on crown chakras all around me, and hicks from Galilee speaking international languages – surely that would have impressed even this skeptic. Yes.

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But I wasn’t there. Instead, I – we – must live in the aftermath of that First Pentecost. We are bereft of that pure experience, yet burdened with every interpretation of the Holy Spirit since. So, maybe it’s not the Spirit I doubt. Rather, it’s our feeble attempts to mediate our experiences of the Holy Spirit that are unconvincing.

When clergy friends I know strike out in job searches, people post comments on Facebook like, “Something about that position wasn’t right for you. Trust that the Holy Spirit is at work and will help you find the best fit, one that uses your unique gifts.” Well, maaaybe. But what I want to write in response is, “Or perhaps the Holy Spirit did her part, and the search committee or the rector screwed up and picked the wrong person!” Isn’t that just as plausible? Or, “Maybe the Spirit has more important things to do than finding us the perfect job.”

Why does this make me so cranky? I think it’s because my faith in the Spirit is already so fragile. And to make the Holy Spirit a repository for our hope of rescue, succor, success, or creativity, is to set ourselves up for disappointment and disbelief – unless we keep adjusting our argument so that the Spirit always wins.

And yet … it took me three and a half years before I found the clergy position I now have, as associate rector at St. Luke’s, Long Beach. And, looking back, I realize that no other job for which I applied was as perfect a fit as this one has been. Not only that: I would never have applied for this position, but for a series of coincidences dating back to 2010. Could the Spirit have been guiding me past all those other opportunities, rejection upon rejection, so that I could land here? Who can prove otherwise? So, why be cranky and doubtful when I can be grateful and trusting?

Come, Holy Spirit. And, when you do, guide us between the Scylla of blind faith and the Charybdis of jaded mistrust.

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In 2009, I took part in a four-day seminarians’ mission trip to an Anglican church in Piedras Negras, Mexico. Our visit culminated with attendance at their Sunday Eucharist. We had been warned that their worship style was on the Pentecostal side, but we figured it was Anglican – so how crazy could it get? This crazy: 25 minutes into his sermon, the praise band having crescendoed the crowd into a frenzy of clapping and yelling, Padre Miguel suddenly came down the center aisle of the small church and started smacking people’s foreheads, so that, one by one, they crumbled to the floor, slain in the Spirit. Only seven or eight people volunteered, but I was starting to get nervous. Then, a few of us wide-eyed seminarians saw something: as one woman was slain, she paused in her fall just long enough to adjust her bra strap. That was all we needed. Our eyes narrowed back to their skeptical, know-it-all master’s-program slits. I left unconvinced, though grateful for the trip.

And yet … by the end of our first night there, Padre Miguel had not only discerned I was gay – though I’d had no intention of being “out” while there – but he somehow got me to tell him myself. Then, he took me aside, looked at me with his piercing green eyes, pointed at my chest, and said, “Listen: God has a special task for you. You need to become a priest; and you need to be open about your sexuality; and you need to minister to the Latino community. Because there are gay and lesbian people out there waiting for you to show up in their lives, who will be in your church pews one day, and you have to stand at that altar and be for them an example of God’s unconditional love. Because they need to learn to love themselves through you.”

I was sobbing before he had even finished speaking. And … I now minister among just such a community. Not that I’ve changed any lives yet, unless you count the few people who’ve left our Spanish service because I am gay. Was Padre Miguel a conduit for the Holy Spirit? Or is this all just a coincidence?

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful people, and kindle in them the fire of your love. And, when you do come, help us to get out of our own way, so that you can work through us unimpeded.

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Recently, an Episcopal deacon friend confessed he’d gone to a Pentecostal church in his younger years. He had spoken in tongues on occasion, though it didn’t feel genuine at first. At its best, however, he described the experience as transcendent. “I sensed the presence of the Creator, and my response to that nearness was to spout praise,” he explained. “I didn’t know what I was saying, it was gibberish, but I knew what it meant, and it was all praise and joy.”

I asked, “were the words yanked out from you, or did you initiate them yourself?” He thought a moment, and then replied, “neither. They burst forth from me without my impetus, as if something else inside me was responding to God’s presence.” This echoed my experience of spontaneous tears at ordination, while lying on that cold stone floor.

It could be that the Holy Spirit already resides in us. That when we summon it, its arrival comes not to us but through us. I don’t know. Maybe it’s best to leave it a mystery, unexplained and not interpreted. Our attempts to speak of the Holy Spirit probably sound like gibberish to God. But maybe God listens anyway, and hears it as praise.

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Posted in Bra Strap, Holy Spirit, Ordination, Pentecost, Priesthood, Speaking in Tongues | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

putting the “ass” in compassion

“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” – Hebrews 13:2

In conversation one evening at a recent St. Luke’s potluck, a man with grizzled hair and distracted face suddenly exclaimed, “You have to be nice to everyone you meet! Because you don’t know, they could be angels, so you should entertain them!” Since we had just been discussing the history and traditions of Lent, his non sequitur kind of confused everyone. Then I cried, “Hey, that’s the name of my new blog!” Which threw us all off again. But we eventually returned to discussing purple vestments and cross veiling.

So, welcome. I hope you find at least some of these posts enlightening and/or entertaining, angels.

It’s been a challenge to be nice to everyone I meet, since moving to Long Beach, CA, a few months ago. The hardest angels to entertain have been the homeless, who confront me in ways they never did in the Bay Area. Probably because I now wear my clericals most everywhere; possibly because my priestly interactions with the homeless up north involved specific ministries – Eucharist at a shelter in San Francisco, Eucharist in a park in Hayward – and a service was already being provided; or maybe because our Long Beach church is a geographic and social epicenter for these folks; for whatever reason, I’m feeling targeted.

I get home from work late one Thursday night, and before I can even open my car door, a woman runs up and slurs, “can you spare some money so I can get a bus back home?” Stepping out of the car, I say a terse, “no,” and go to open my garage door (incidentally, automatic garage door openers seem not to have reached Long Beach just yet). I say no because we don’t give out money, us priests, not to strangers. Rather, we channel our time and funds into things like the weekly Saturday Shower Program or the bi-monthly Manna Meals at St. Luke’s. (Both of which I have every intention of visiting in the coming month.) Plus, if word gets out we’re a soft touch, the line’ll be out the church door by morning.  I’m in my clericals, so the woman mutters, “you a pastor?” I pause before lifting up the garage door, sigh, and reply, “yes.” She tilts her head, bird-like, looks at me, and sing-songs, “I don’t think you’re a pastor,” wagging her finger like a metronome in time with her little tune. “Yes I am,” I say sharply, annoyed at my irritation even though I knew this was exactly what she’d say. “No,” she drawls, “you’re no pastor, a pastor helps, you’re no pastor,” finger still wagging, tune like a schoolgirl jumprope chant. “Yes I am!” I shout, suddenly riled up. “I’m no pastor like you’re no drug addict!” I want to add, but I hold back. Off she dances away, down the sidewalk, finger wagging above her head as she goes. I park the car, slam the garage door, get into my apartment, and fume for three hours.

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The very next afternoon, I go to church in my clericals to prepare for Stations of the Cross at 6pm. A woman calls out and runs up to me before I get into the building, saying, “I’ve been refused at three different churches already today and I hope you can help. I saw you have a shower program here, and I need to take a shower.” Still smarting from the night before, I steel myself. “Yes, you’re welcome to come back in the morning, showers begin at 8am.” “But I need a shower now. Why can’t you just let me shower?” There are any number of good answers for this – liability, I don’t know where the showers are, I have a service to prep, let her in and soon everyone will want a shower on demand – but it’s soon clear none are acceptable to her. And so begins a back-and-forth that culminates in, “I can’t believe you are a priest and you refuse to help me.” I lose it. “Don’t tell me how to do my job!” I shout. She takes a step back and says, “I’m not.” “Yes, you are!” I cry. She begins to plead again, I tell her to come back the next day, and she asks if there’s another priest to speak to. “He’s gone for the day,” I spit out. She says slowly, “I bet he would let me take a shower.” I just close my eyes, turn and walk away, thinking, “You don’t know Gary.”

These encounters rile me up because I know I’m being manipulated; yet I let myself get provoked almost every time. Later, I’m sometimes ashamed at my anger – how could I yell at someone who can’t even find a place to shower? I have all the power in that exchange and I get to deny access, yet it’s my voice that’s raised. And the whole “exposed as a phony priest” thing infuriates because a part of me feels they’re right. How can I deny someone assistance, over and over, and call myself a priest? Bing Crosby never did that in “Going My Way.” Yet I know boundaries are essential in this business, and to say “yes” to all comers would result in chaos.

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And maybe that’s the hardest part. Seeing someone with obvious needs, I have to both check my instinct to help and suspend my disbelief in their story … and treat them with a calculated neutrality that robs both of us of our humanity. To say to a homeless person, “I don’t believe what you’re saying,” or “I want to help you,” invites engagement. And I usually like engagement! But what’s called for is disengagement: “We have these programs to help you, and that’s all we can do because there are too many of you to individually assist. It doesn’t matter what your story is: if I help you, fifty more will hear about my assistance and come knocking. So, if you are running up to ask me for something other than prayer or a talk, I have to disappoint you.” The necessary boundary is set; the distance assured. Only a very few have wanted just a prayer or counsel. Most have a concrete need, and I can’t really blame them for sometimes being manipulative. That’s probably what they must do to survive, to get their fix or food or drink or shelter. But it upsets me to have to be this way, and I sometimes lash out at them.

By Saturday morning, the next day, I was looking up at God, shaking my head, and muttering, “what are you doing?” A man had just smiled at me as we passed on the sidewalk, wished me a good day; then, from a few feet behind me, he called out, “say, can I ask you a question?” This time I was in shorts and t-shirt, but I still froze up as I turned around. This, too, ended badly when I didn’t give him money for a hot dog (that somehow involved the VA Center on 7th Street and his family locked up somewhere), so he yelled swear words at me as I continued on my way. I went to the church that afternoon and had to step over a sleeping man in the doorway. After he refused to leave, I barked out, “then I’m calling the police so they can arrest you,” as I pulled out my iPhone. “What?” he said, gazing up at me in surprise. “I don’t have time to argue with you, so either go or get arrested.” He left, brushing aside my belated concern that he take care of himself. As I left the office that evening, I swung open the door on yet another sleeping man, accidentally whacking him in the side. But it was 10pm, this was my fifth confrontation in less than two days, and I had no fight left in me. “Good night,” I said, and left him there.

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So, it’s tough. Not just for me, but also for anyone who’s trying to care for these folks, to practice compassion. The following Saturday night, at a church potluck, a parishioner confessed to feeling helpless and frustrated after her day at the shower program. “You know,” I said bitterly, “Jesus can be a real pain in the ass sometimes.” I think we were both shocked at what I’d said, because we started laughing. “But it’s true!” I added. “Because this is what we’re really supposed to do as Christians, he says it right there in the gospels, Jesus calls us to do this work. But it’s no cakewalk, and he never promised it would make us happy. I guess he only promised accompaniment.”

“Compassion,” from the Latin, “to suffer with.” I will try – and fail, and try again – to be more kind in future interactions, to elicit real conversation while promising nothing. Letting it bother me, even as I try not to take it out on the person with whom I’m talking. Suffer with them, because that’s what I signed up for as a Christian. Time will tell if I can manage it.

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“Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body.” – Hebrews 13:3

Posted in Homeless | 11 Comments