I heard the voice of God last night. It came not from my church a few blocks up the road, the historic St. Augustine where Holy Thursday’s Mass of the Last Supper was taking place, but from around the corner. It came from a man sitting on a bench in Tuba Fats Square in the Tremé, the first African American neighborhood in the United States. It came in the form of a cry from Mr. Salvador, a homeless man sleeping on the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m thirsty. Does anyone have any water for me? I’m thirsty,” he yelled into a void, the empty streets. Streets that were filled with people congregating and jazz music of the old Tremé before post-Katrina gentrification drastically changed the cultural fabric of the neighborhood. Streets that are now barren due to COVID-19.

I was building a little public altar with a box of items collected from my home in front of the Candlelight Lounge for Ms. Chine, a legal client of mine who went home to God earlier that day after a battle with COVID-19. A preserver of New Orleans culture, food, and music, she opened the barroom in the early 80s. It was one of the last live music venues in the historic neighborhood where jazz was born. I prayed over the altar, sprinkled it with holy water and laid out some colorful cloths, candles, incense, pictures of Ms. Chine, a crucifix, a rosary, a box of tissues for mourners, a journal in which people could write letters to her, a copy of a book we wrote together and a vase of flowers.

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In USA Today’s “Coronavirus Chronicles,” Sister Alison is interviewed for her efforts to honor New Orleans culture icon Leona “Chine” Grandison who recently died from COVID-19. Photo contributed by Sister Alison McCrary.

I heard Mr. Salvador’s cry just after I poured water into the vase for the flowers on the altar. As he cried out in thirst, I had no more water to give him.

Mr. Salvador’s words were some of the last words that Jesus spoke on the cross before his death. Jesus’ words “I thirst” make us acknowledge the fullness of his humanity while also being fully divine. Mr. Salvador’s words called me to acknowledge the fullness of the divine and the fullness of humanity in him.

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Sister Alison McCrary in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans. Photo by Brent Godfrey

While feeling some guilt for not attending the service live streamed from St. Augustine (I was to be there, following social distancing guidelines, as a lector), I knew God was ever so present with us on the bench in Tuba Fats Square. I remembered how Jesus healed on the sabbath even though it was against the rules. I also remembered how Jesus’ care for the suffering challenged the religious authorities who were more interested in social standing and personal protection than alleviating the suffering present in their midst.

I gave Mr. Salvador the money I had in the console of my car, some alcohol wipes, and a granola bar, and I shared information about social services available to him. Later that night, as I thought about missing the Mass of the Last Supper, I realized that wherever bread is broken (even if it’s in the form of a granola bar), Jesus will always be found.

Mr. Salvador’s thirst was a metaphor for much more suffering, pain, and hunger. It was a manifestation of the cries of the world, the cries of the many ways we are crucifying Christ in our midst with over-consumption of goods, exploitation of the earth’s resources and an ever-expanding gap of wealth inequality caused by capitalism.

I will never again hear Jesus’ words read during the “passion” of Christ on Good Friday without hearing Mr. Salvador cry “I thirst” –without feeling inadequate for failing to satisfy his need.

I can also hear the need for my heart to be transformed during this time of universal suffering.

As we listen to the invitations of this time and discern how we are called to be present, may the One who is the source of “Living Water” be the source of hope and love for you.

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

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Alison McCrary, SFCC, is a social justice movement lawyer, restorative justice practitioner and a tribal citizen of the United Cherokee AniYunWiYa Nation. She ministers as a national criminal justice reform strategist supporting nearly 50 nonprofit organizations led by persons formerly incarcerated, a spiritual advisor on Louisiana’s death row and founding director of the Louisiana Re-Entry Mediation Program. She formerly served as the statewide campaign manager for the Unanimous Jury Coalition (which abolished a 138-year-old Jim Crow law in Louisiana), the executive director of the National Police Accountability Project, president of the Louisiana Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild and founding director of the New Orleans Community-Police Mediation. She has been joyfully stirring up holy mischief with Sister Julia across the miles since 2011.

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