One of the greatest blessings for me during this pandemic was the reopening of the churches. While I agreed with the need to close early on, given how little was known about the coronavirus, the inability to find sanctuary in my spiritual home left a huge void.
I remember having discussions about “sacred places” with a friend years ago. Certainly these are not all church buildings but some of them are. They are sacred because of the holy Sacrifice offered there but also because of the people who have gathered there to pray, to hug, to laugh and talk – to share values and meals and raise funds for the poor.
Much of the time I do not mind being alone so I have fared better than many during these times of social distancing. Yet having my sacred place closed to me was about more than being alone. It was as though someone bolted the door to my heart’s home and said, “You cannot live here anymore”.
Hence, the return to my home has been a joy – even if we are all wearing masks and sitting 6 feet apart, neither touching nor talking to one another with the casual intimacy we once shared. It remains a sacred place because we are in it together – we bear the hardships and inconveniences of the pandemic as a community, not as individuals.
In any event, I was backing out of my driveway today, on my way to celebrate the Eucharist at this holy place, when I saw a pedestrian approaching on the sidewalk. I have learned that I must be watchful when backing out as there is a lot of foot traffic in front of my house.
As the man approached, I saw him peer in my car window from behind his mask. There was a pleading look in his eyes and he made a motion, rubbing his belly. Being less late for church than usual, I pulled up my mask and lowered my window.
His name was José and he was hungry.
Without me asking, he told me that he doesn’t use drugs. He explained that he came to be in this position because the house where he and his wife lived got closed down. They are now living in a tent. I didn’t ask just what happened to his home but felt a deep pang of sorrow for this couple. They had lost their home and, unlike my loss of spiritual home, it wasn’t temporary.
They had joined the ranks of the homeless.
José voiced a hearty “God bless you” when I gave him something. I told him I was on my way to church and would pray for him. It was the only way I knew to help him feel that he is not alone, that he is part of our community. He thanked me.
If you have been reading my recent posts, you will understand when I say that it seems that I have been given a mission. The money or meal that I provide is truly a drop in a bucket so huge that it might seem hopeless that there will ever have enough to fill it.
But the mission is not about the money, as important as that is. It is about the encounter – the encounter that says I care about who you are and the troubles you are having.
In a small but vital way it communicates that, indeed, I am in this with you. I cannot see you homeless and hungry and be indifferent to who you are or what suffering has led you to beg from total strangers.
I cannot imagine how hard it must be to approach another and admit that you have nowhere to go and no food to eat.
On different note, some of you may remember a post of mine from more than 5 years ago, “Letter to a lost soul” (https://apricelessthing.com/2015/02/01/letter-to-a-lost-soul/). This post has had more views than any other I have written and it continues to have a steady readership.
For those who aren’t familiar, I wrote this missive to the anonymous person who had burglarized my house in what turned out to be the first of three consecutive break-ins within a four week span.
Though I did not write of it, it eventually became fairly obvious who had perpetrated the crimes. Months before, I had given work to a young man who, freshly out of prison, came to my door seeking odd jobs. I knew it was a risk but he seemed earnest and I knew that someone had to give him a chance if he was to meet his goal of staying out of trouble.
He was an excellent worker, completing jobs quickly and thoroughly. We sometimes talked about his life and I continued to find more tasks that he could help me with. We had what seemed to be an amiable relationship but, before long, red flags began to pop up.
It soon became obvious that he needed too much money. I suspected drugs but he denied it. I offered him referrals for employment or substance abuse assistance and he did not accept them. He continued to do good work but a tension built as he kept needing more and more.
When the first break-in occurred, he was ready to rush over and help me clean up but, strangely, did not want to make an appearance until the police had left. When I found another task he could do, he would call me and ask me if I was home so he could come over and do it. I learned to be vague about where I was and when.
I never felt threatened by him but it was clear that something had to change. I simply did not have that much work to give him and his need to earn money was getting increasingly desperate.
Then one evening I got a tearful phone call from his girlfriend, informing me that he was in jail. He was facing three felony charges, none of them related to me. He had eventually told me that his girlfriend was the one with the drug problem. I wanted to believe him but I suspected it was both of them.
After crying for a bit, she asked me for money, even though we had never met. (You will be pleased to know that I am capable of saying “no”.)
It took me some time but eventually I decided to talk to the police, to let them know of my dealings with him. I was still concerned about him but did not want to remain silent about the possibility that he was responsible for the break-ins. A few things seemed too coincidental.
I learned that they had hard evidence in the charges against him and that he had, indeed, been addicted to heroin. The police did a heroic job in retrieving one of the items that had been taken from my house. Its whereabouts pointed to him but there was no proof. For his three other cases, he was sentenced to five years in prison.
Since then, I have prayed for him – every day. I wondered if I would ever see him again – and wasn’t sure that I wanted to. Would I confront him? Would he admit it? Would any of that matter?
Yesterday, my doorbell rang, accompanied by enthusiastic knocking. I wasn’t expecting anyone – no one has come to my door uninvited since the pandemic took over our lives.
I opened the door – and there he was.
He said he was driving by and, seeing the leaves piled up in my yard, wanted to stop by and see how I was doing. (He offered to rake them for me but accepted it when I said I’d hired someone else.) He asked me if I was okay and told me that he had been released eight months ago.
He told me about his job and showed me a picture of his wife, noting that his old girlfriend had been bad news. He nodded at his truck in my driveway that I had not even noticed. We chatted a bit, my locked storm door between us, and then he went on his way.
I told him I was glad he was doing better. And I am.
My instincts, however, tell me that he is not entirely out of the woods yet so I don’t plan to stop praying anytime soon.
For all his problems and mistakes, he is still beloved of God.
I pray that God never gives up on me, poor sinner that I am. Hence, I must never give up on another who remains afflicted. Our stories may differ – and I will not hire him again – but we are both beset by the same disease.
May God have mercy on us all.