The alarm went off, and I drifted, reliving my dreams. Startling awake, I checked the time. I still had an hour to make it to church. Until I looked closely. The secondhand was stuck on the 4, click, click, clicking. After I hurriedly dressed, I ran downstairs where real clocks exist. I had 8 minutes to make it to St. Mary’s.
I was only a bit late, as were others. This service fills up as the liturgy unfolds. By the time Dean Andy asked me to come down front and assist with the chalice, the space was bursting with worshipers.
He calls me over. Wants to know if I work out. “‘Cause you sure got a nice shape.”
The breakfast St. Mary’s offers for those currently homeless is almost finished. He’s mopping up his grits. His friend on the other side of the table is interested in my answer to his question. The friend cranes his neck, surveying my shape to form his own opinion.
“I have metal hips,” I tell the questioner.
That sets him back.
“Uh hunh,” I say, doubling down. “Two metal hips.”
“Well, you sure don’t look like it,” he concedes and returns to his grits.
“You look younger today,” she says. She’s been talking the entire Door of Hope Writing Group session, this woman who heretofore I’ve only heard say five words in a row. Now she’s turned her streaming attention on me.
“I don’t know you that well, but I’ve seen you. And you look younger. You look younger today. It’s your jeans,” she adds, indicating the tattered jeans I’m so proud of having boro patched with my own two hands.
“Well, I thank you for that,” I say as her friend chimes in.
“My aunt does that,” he says. “She’s in her fifties and wears urban clothes. They look good on her. Better than on some people our age.”
I decide to wear these jeans forever.
Sometimes I see him at Wednesday morning church service. Sometimes at Caritas Village. Sometimes on Sundays at the main 11:00 church service. We see each other often enough, I know his name. He knows mine.
Today I see him at a funeral when I’m dressed in my best black suit. I wave. Call him by name. Finally, his face lights up.
“Hey, Ellen.” He gives me a hug, smiling big. “I didn’t recognize you. I’ve never seen you looking so good before.”
I take this as a compliment.
She’s studying my hair, a young girl at the shelter. I can’t remember if I washed it today. Maybe I did, but let it dry naturally? As I recall, the last time I looked in the mirror, I noted it might need some attention. A wayward tendril creeps into my eye.
“Your hair looks . . .”
“Like you belong at the beach,” she finishes, her face beaming.
“You remind me of the girl on that show.”
We talk for a bit about what girl on what show that might be.
“She’s a redhead too,” he says.
Hmmmm. We soon exhaust my list of redheaded actresses.
“She’s a cartoon,” he corrects me. A girl cartoon. With red hair. And a dragon.
A week or so later, he returns with the answer: Jane and the Dragon. I look up the cartoon show. She’s 12 years old. She found her life as a lady-in-waiting boring and, after a series of adventures, was allowed to train to be a knight instead. She’s funny. The dragon is her best friend. She’s known for her spunk. Did I mention she’s 12 years old?
“Yeah, yeah,” he says, and offers to loan me his taped collection of the show.
“You’d like her,” he says. “She’s cool too. Like you.”
It’s funny when people gush over my “working with the homeless.” Selfless, they say. Or such a good person. Or something else totally wrong.
I might’ve begun volunteering with those who live on the street because the durn Spirit told me to. Fair enough. But I keep at it not because I’m obedient or nice or selfless or a do-gooder or even because I feel this is what Jesus spent his life telling us to do. I volunteer for a very, very selfish reason.
I work with the homeless because those who are going through a period which for most of them is the most difficult time of their lives still find a way to cheer me up.
Think of that the next time you’re knee-deep in seventh-rung-of-hell cocktail party chatter. Go home. Look up your local homeless shelter. Go volunteer. Bet you’ll keep at it too.
This morning at the church service attended mainly by those living on the streets, one of the guys told me about two recent incidents when he’d been told he was an inspiration. He began the story by saying, “I’m not telling you this to to be bragging.”
I’ve known him for about a year and a half. He wasn’t telling me to be bragging. He was sharing this development because such amazing moments require acknowledgement and respect.
To be minding your own business, going about doing what you feel you’re supposed to be doing, and to have someone tell you your action—or the very example of your life—helped them make a life-changing decision: how wonderful is that? Not only did you have an impact, but the person cared enough to take the time to tell you. In the sharing of such moments I can’t help but detect a certain amount of awe: can you believe I was lucky enough to impact another person in a good way?
Yes, if you’re a first grade teacher or a parent. For the rest of us, it’s a little surprising.
I know the feeling because in the last week, when three members of writing group had the chance to name someone whom they admire or who had a positive impact on their lives, they named me.
I am not someone who hears compliments well. I shrug them off, if they even penetrate my brain. Sometimes I think: well, they probably felt sorry for me and thought I needed a pick-me-up (don’t analyze my psychological (ill) health—it’s shooting fish in a barrel.)
The point is: the third time someone from writing group took the time to claim my influence on them, I heard it. I heard them say I was loyal and nonjudgmental and quietly assertive (how Southern is that?) and a follower of God and (hallelujah!) funny.
I share this with you with the same awe I saw in my friend’s eyes this morning. Damn, he seemed to be saying, isn’t this the coolest thing?
Today as I was leaving the 8:00 church service, which is mostly attended by folks living on the streets, a man stopped me. I was in my car; he was on foot. He stood in the exit to the parking lot, flagging me down. He’d already stood before me in the hall where breakfast is served, asking me to go find the pastor. He didn’t remember that.
When I rolled the window, he tugged his shirt tail from his britches.
“I’ve been sliced down the middle,” he said. On his bare abdomen, a wound ran from belly button to sternum.
I gave him two dollars. He wanted one, until I said two. Then he wanted four. I stuck with two. He began to sob. I told him two is what I wanted to do. He released my hand; the crying stopped. He went on his way.
The wound was yellow, not yet healed. I’d never seen anything like it.
At noon today, I sat with a friend who once lived on the streets. She had quesadillas; I had soup. We talked about her dad coming to live with her. She’d just finished an hour-long presentation to a group of college art students, sharing with them about her life. She told them twenty women were in her group on the street; only three still lived.
In the course of her talk, she pushed up the sleeve of her blouse. “I have scars all over my body,” she said, brushing the skin on her arm.
“God,” she said, when one of the students came up afterwards to interview her and asked how she got off drugs. “You can’t get out of something like that by yourself.”
At 5:00 today, I pulled into my garage and paused, returning a phone call.
The phone had rung earlier in the afternoon when I was involved in a talk with Rhodes College students. We were talking about a new art project for the 8:00 church service that had begun my day. Of course, I silenced the phone. It wasn’t until the drive home that I learned a friend was in the hospital. He’d been stabbed. The knife pierced his lung. He then had a heart attack.
I told the caller, to whom I was so thankful for letting me know of these upsetting developments, that I’d certainly go see him tomorrow.
“Is there anything I can take him?” I asked.
“Flowers,” she said.
Then we talked about how I’d lost weight. “You’ve always been small,” she said. “But I thought you seemed smaller.”
I told her it was the near-constant pain in my hips; I can’t get interested in eating. I asked how she was.
“I can’t complain,” she said.
She’s dying of lung cancer.
I’m trying to be rational here without losing my temper, but this idea of “forming relationships with those pushed to the margins” sounds lovely in theory, but all it means in reality is that your heart will be broken, over and over again. Did I understand this when I began this journey? I did not. Would I go back and change my choices? I would not. If I did, I would lose my friends.
But make no mistake about it: it’s not in your best interest. You’d be much better off never knowing, living in your protected cocoon, la-de-da’ing it through life, enjoying the barrier that money and privilege and ADVANTAGES give you.
I’ve hit the gold standard. I’m not “doing charity,” merely handing out sandwiches. I’m not “merely” writing checks (don’t get me started on this particular condescension: how is anyone supposed to do good without someone writing checks?). I’ve formed relationships. I have come to care deeply about people to whom life has been a true bitch. And my reward? Scars permanently etched on my heart.
I cannot be at the Wednesday morning church service this week where “art” is defined as crosses made from chip bags thrown into the streets of the neighborhood, but I’m there nonetheless.
I stab my thumb with my needle, and I’m remembering the suggestions for images to include on our new banner: an eagle, World Love, a Harley belt buckle.
I snip a patch from my old dress—I loved this dress, I really looked good in it, I grieved when I literally wore holes in it—and I don’t worry about the uneven edges. We who attend the Wednesday morning service know uneven edges. That’s why the background of our banner will be a patchwork. That, and a patchwork is what I can do.
I peruse the large green canvass I’ve selected as the form for the patchwork of our banner, and I realize how much I’ve taken on. That’s the way life works for me. I glance up during our fancy Sunday morning service, and my eyes land on the banner at the front of the church. Hunh, I think. Our Wednesday morning service doesn’t have a banner. Why don’t we have a banner? I know—we can make a banner!
Banners, by definition, are big. Patches, by definition, are small. Banners are mighty and waving and proclamative. Patches are utilitarian, subversive, and deceptive in their strength. Did I mention that most of the congregants at the Wednesday morning service walk in from the street mission down the road?
We are going to take these small patches and sew them together and create a big-ass banner. People will look at it and say, a Harley belt buckle? And we’ll say, if you don’t like it, make your own banner. Well, we probably won’t say that. We’ll say, what would you like to see on the banner? Then we’ll work that in too. Because if there’s one thing we are at Wednesday morning service it’s inclusive. Even when it comes to our very own banner.
At 8:00, I go to church. The priest sometimes stops the liturgy to urge us to look overhead and watch the light show: dust motes floating in the sunbeams from the stained glass windows. Today, because it’s Fourth of July week, the guitarist during communion plays “This Land is Your Land.” The lyrics include this verse:
In the squares of the city – In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office – I see my people
And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’
If this land’s still made for you and me.
As the congregants move from the chapel to breakfast in the fellowship hall, they pass the table where I sit in the hallway, making art. Except today we are sharpening pencils, because the church has a bucket of colored pencils and not a one of them has a point that will write. I think it’s not much of a morning of art but then after I de-camp to the fellowship hall, a guy I’ve met who moved to Memphis from New Orleans sits with me and makes a cross. As he works, we talk about the shootings on Bourbon Street. He says, “These days, someone my age . . . and race, that’s what there is for you. That’s why I left. I can do other things. I have other talents.” He folds the chip bag in such a way that a rising sun graces the top of the cross.
I don’t understand people who praise me as creative. I don’t understand our hierarchy of judgment. I don’t see how you can come to any conclusion but that those of us who reside inside “privileged society” live in a world that is pure illusion.
I groan and complain because it’s early in the morning and as my husband says, “You’ve never been a morning person.” I’ve decided, in fact, this is not my ministry. Opportunities to give back abound; it’s my choice how to respond. I’ll go one more time and then I’ll ease out. Let someone more suited take over. Life is a series of choices, and I have mine to make.
He sits next to me, one eye injured, the other gently making a connection. He calls me by name because I’m wearing a name tag—this has happened the entire morning and I keep forgetting the name tag and wondering, how do you know me? He tells me he hasn’t seen me around these parts before. I explain my disjointed living schedule, and I throw in that I’ve cut my hair; I suspect most folks won’t recognize me with such a radically different look. “It looks good,” he says. When I demure, he adds, “I’m serious. It lets the beauty of your face shine through.”
“Ellen!” he yells. He told me he wanted to read me his story before I left and, distracted, I’m walking out the door. I sit on the couch. He reads, giving it inflection where needed, demonstrating the surprise he felt at the time of which he writes. The narrative flows easily. Toward the end, he arrives at a pause in the telling where beautiful imagery rises with his words, and time begins to stand still. Slowly, he closes the story, and I must reach out and give him a hug. The story is amazing.
They’ve been together for ten years. His face glows as he tells the story of their recent trip to marry. They wear matching wedding bands. His spouse’s sleeve threatens to drape through the breakfast grits. He rolls the sleeve for his spouse, removing it from danger. He allows me to write a prayer of thanksgiving for their newly committed love.
I’m supposed to be giving. I’m supposed to be doing. I’m supposed to be volunteering. I’m supposed to be bringing. I am folding paper and cutting out hearts and crosses. I am doing nothing. I am the recipient. If I return, it’s not because I have a ministry to fulfill. It’s because I’ve left that much more indebted.