Months ago, while my mind and heart were whirling after moving from rural Wisconsin to Chicago, I attempted to run a simple and quick errand: buy some shampoo. Another sister went with me, and we carried along a short list of things we needed for our new household. At the store, we found little of what we were looking for, even though the store bore a familiar name and allowed the expectation. I scanned the shelves for the kind of shampoo I like, but all the bottles were unfamiliar and unaffordable. Disoriented and overwhelmed, my body tensed with frustration and disgust. This store didn’t have anything I wanted.
In another aisle, I complained to the sister with me. And then, a man approached us, his face looking stressed. He mumbled a request. “Can you help? Can you help me buy some laundry soap? And a few other things for my family?” I barely understood him. I thought, “Why don’t people just name what they need? Why don’t people speak clearly?” I asked him… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
You are dreading another meal of ramen noodles and canned vegetables, but you know that’s all that’s left in the cupboard, that it’s the best you can offer your son tonight.
You’re thinking about this as you enter the dimly lit child care center to pick him up, with hunger pulling on your stomach, only to see him sitting on a grimy, stained rug. He gazes upward, engrossed in a cartoon, his face stone-still like an icy zombie. You remember that you once asked if the TV was safe — it still looks as if the smallest bump to the cart could make the heavy machine plummet down and crush a child — but the one time you tried to ask about it, you felt like a nuisance, so you never brought it up again.
Before you gather your son into your arms, you notice a child care worker with thinning hair scolding a girl; the girl stares at the dusty floor as tears roll down her cheeks. The scene tightens your throat with discomfort, awkwardness; you ignore this and scoop your son into your loving arms instead.
You don’t like this place; you have a feeling that…
He is lying in the middle of the street, wrapped in a blanket, semiconscious. Earlier, someone was concerned enough to call the paramedics. The paramedics picked him up by the arms, dragged him to the sidewalk, determined he did not need medical transport, and left.
When the paramedics find him, nobody is with him. No one comes to check on him. He has no water and is lying wrapped in a blanket on a sidewalk. In Phoenix, the pavement can be so hot it will burn skin.
That was three hours ago. Someone just noticed that he has not moved in awhile. He has died, but we don’t know when he passed because no one checked on him before now.
The paramedics come by again, determine the man dead, but leave quickly with nothing to do. The police arrive and sit in their car, waiting for the medical examiners. They’ll likely be waiting a long time. In The Zone — the part of the city near the Catholic Worker House, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters — it often takes forever for the medical examiners to show up.
Today I’m running late. I missed morning services and get here just as he is found dead. I’m greeted by Paul, who is sitting on the curb.
“I always wait.” he says.
Now, Paul is by far my favorite guest at the Catholic Worker House. He is a man of much wisdom and endless joy.
“If we do not love them in death, how will people know they are loved in life?” Paul asks.
I sit on the curb next to the body with Paul and wait for the medical examiners for several hours. Meanwhile, people all around us continue with their lives.
Steve (who is sober today) likes to sweep the street when he is not using. He keeps sweeping and never looks at the dead man on the sidewalk.
A lady comes by and asks me for a pair of pants. I run downstairs to grab some for her, wondering if she notices the dead man on the sidewalk.
A man needs help making a phone call. He is stranded in Phoenix, trying to go back to his family in South Carolina, and does not understand the automated phone system of the bus company. Preoccupied with his own worries, he doesn’t seem to notice the man dead on the sidewalk either.
A couple enjoys each other’s company. He gives her a piggyback ride and runs down the street.
A lady rides by on her bike and stops to talk to a friend. The conversation ends and she quickly moves on.
Lunch services continue. Showers are offered. People go to the office to make phone calls.
I know life continues after death, but how is it that life goes on with no recognition of the dead man lying on the sidewalk?
As Paul and I sit on the curb, holding our own little vigil, we answer people’s questions, directing them to resources, and try to figure out the name of the man who died. Just a few people seem to notice him.
“Who is the stiff today?” a passerby asks.
“Do you know there is another one at the gas station 10 blocks away? He was stabbed,” someone else says.
Paul and I sit together on the curb for three hours waiting for the medical examiner to show up to take pictures and move the body. (I learn later that another volunteer found out what had happened and called a friend on the county board of supervisors to investigate the wait time for the medical examiner. The examiner showed up 30 minutes after that phone call.)
At first, I am disturbed by the lack of indignation. Even more so, though, I’m disturbed by the lack of response at all.
I’ve been volunteering In The Zone for over nine years and little makes me uncomfortable. Yet, the lack of discomfort makes me uncomfortable. So I ask: How do I continue to maintain a heart of discomfort? How do we not fall into despair? How do I joyfully serve while continuing to question why so many people lack access to shelter? How do I continue to joyfully serve while continuing to question, challenge, and overturn the systems that continue to hold people down? How do I maintain this discomfort when my own everyday life is full of comfort?
Now, months have gone by since the unknown man died alone on the street. I still do not know his name. Many more — whose names are also unknown — have died alone on the same street.
Meanwhile, my life continues. Again and again I show up, say friendly hellos to those I encounter, and do as Paul says, help “make sure people know they are loved.”
Originally from Madison, Wisconsin, Elizabeth Odhner is an emergency room nursein Phoenix, Arizona. She spends her free time with her new husband working for immigrant rights and volunteering at a free clinic and a homeless outreach center. She lives in a community providing radical hospitality to immigrants and refugees. She and Sister Julia have been friends ever since Elizabeth studied at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois, the city in which they were both members of the same cooking club. For fun, Elizabeth enjoys making pottery and taking day trips outside the city.
My husband and I recently made the difficult decision to open our guestroom to a family experiencing homelessness in our community.
We heard about a mother, father and their infant who were living on the streets and in dire need of help. A member of my husband’s congregation posted on Facebook that the family, whom she had known for quite a while, were looking for a place to stay. Though she herself would have loved to take them in, she had family visiting and no extra space in her house, so could someone please help?
I couldn’t ignore her desperate plea for somebody with a spare room to step up and get the family off the streets.
You see, we have a wonderful guestroom in our house and it just so happened to be unoccupied at the moment. Our guestroom is the “master bedroom” of the home, a converted garage with plenty of space and an en suite bathroom.
When we bought our house nearly five years ago, my husband and I envisioned this space to be our “Jesus Room.” In the spirit of one of our heroes, Dorothy Day, we wanted a dedicated hospitality room into which we could welcome Jesus in the form of “the least of these.” But the refugee resettlement organization I contacted regarding transitional shelter needs never followed through on their home inspection process … and our family and friends kept visiting … and our lives were busy.
Eventually, the sense of urgency we’d felt to utilize the space for God’s poor subsided.
When I heard about the family living on the street, I knew this was our chance to finally make our guestroom a true Jesus Room. Here was an opportunity to practice the radical hospitality that we believe is fundamental to Christianity.
But, here’s the thing: I really didn’t want to.
As I scrolled through the Facebook post, hoping to no avail that somebody else would volunteer, I became increasingly apprehensive. I came up with an unholy litany of reasons to say no: Our house isn’t big enough for seven people; our schedule isn’t very flexible so we won’t be able to help them get to their appointments; I don’t want strangers sleeping in the same house as my two young daughters.
It’s reasonable, I think, to be hesitant to bring strangers into a home with young children. But, as I previously reflected, I don’t want to use my daughters as an excuse to abide complacently in my comfort zone. In my heart, I did not believe that allowing this family to stay in our guestroom would put my daughters in danger.
What, then, was my excuse? That it made me uncomfortable? Unfortunately, I concluded long ago that following Jesus is supposed to be uncomfortable.
So, my husband and I put the word out that this family could move into our guestroom. Since they did not have a working cell phone, we had to trust that their network of friends in the community would get the message to them.
Meanwhile, we frantically cleaned the house; we bought baby food, diapers and extra sandwich fixings; we came up with a plan for establishing appropriate boundaries with the family. On an impulse, I hid our iPad, and hated myself a little bit for doing so.
And then we waited.
For most of a week we wondered when and, eventually, if the family would arrive. Finally, they showed up at a community supper and we learned they’d found some other friends to stay with.
They would not be needing our Jesus Room after all.
I was both immensely relieved and acutely disappointed. On the one hand, our daily routine would not be disrupted. On the other, we hadn’t gotten to practice the Christian hospitality we so revere (at least in theory).
Since then, I’ve been reflecting on what it truly means to “practice hospitality.”
It’s not something I’m naturally good at (as demonstrated by my knee-jerk reaction of finding reasons to say no), but this experience has helped me to practice hospitality—to practice preparing my home for a stranger, to practice making the decision to step out of my comfort zone, to practice being welcoming in a Christ-like way.
And, as with anything, the more we practice the better we become.
Not only do I feel a renewed sense of urgency to make a Jesus Room out of our guestroom, I feel confident that when I’m faced with another opportunity to “welcome the stranger,” I will be less hesitant to say yes. Perhaps, one day, I’ll even be able to say yes with a fully cheerful heart as Paul instructs us, in 2 Corinthians 9:7, to do.
Until then, I take comfort in the knowledge that—while I am a far cry from a perfect Christian—I am at least a practicing one.
I only took my eyes off of her for a few seconds …
It’s so cliché, but so damn true.
This summer was an unusually sweltering one in the Pacific Northwest, and our local splash park offered a welcome reprieve from the relentless heat. Facing yet another 90+ degree day in mid-August, I brought my girls there to fill the post-nap/pre-dinner block of time. They were happily rotating among the splash park, playground and sandpit.
My younger daughter, still beaming from her weeklong reign as the Birthday Girl (“I two! I two!”), was thirsty, so I told my older daughter that I was going to fill up our water bottle. The water fountain is perhaps twenty feet from the splash park. It took me less than a minute to walk to the fountain, position my two-year-old’s fingers so that she could “help” fill the bottle, and look back up to where I had left my almost four-year-old.
… and she was gone.
I scanned the whole of the splash area, noting the rambunctious “big kids” manning the frog squirter, the joyful birthday party at a nearby picnic table, the toddler crying in his mother’s arms. This was by no means the first time I’d ever lost sight of my daughter, so I was confident she would emerge from behind another child or a big water toy. But she didn’t. I stopped filling the bottle and scooped up my youngest. It occurred to me that perhaps her sister had decided to run back to the sandbox, and as I made my way there, I considered potential punishments for running off without my permission.
But she wasn’t in the sandbox … or at the swings … or in the bathroom.
I had now looked everywhere I could imagine her going by herself. Several minutes had passed, and panic was creeping in.
I ran up to the birthday party and asked if any of them had seen a little girl matching my daughter’s description. Though they hadn’t seen her, they recognized the fear in my eyes and sprang into action, each heading to a different part of the park.
I stayed close to one of the moms, clutching my two-year-old and sputtering useless details about my oldest daughter’s swimsuit, as if the tiny cupcake design on the front of it would be the deciding factor in locating her. I was starting to go in circles, looking in the same places over and over again; afraid to stray too far from where I’d last seen her in case she was looking for me too.
I glanced at my watch; I had been searching for too long. At what point do I call the police, if the first hour is so key? Do I dial 911, or is there some kind of hotline?
My thoughts were scrambled. My capacity for rational thought was unable to overcome the horrific “what-ifs” emerging from the periphery of my mind where I, like all parents, try to banish them. This community park is large and uncontained, encompassing not only the splash park and playground, but sports fields, a walking trail, and several open fields adjacent to parking lots. It would be impossible to lock it down.
This is also the park where many of the people experiencing homelessness in our community spend their days. To my utter shame these “least among us,” for whom I claim to have such great compassion, were featured prominently in the horror reel of “what-ifs” flashing through my mind. I could feel myself starting to lose it.
And then we found her.
A woman from our makeshift search party directed my attention to an anonymous dad waving in a distant field. Beyond him … my sweet girl; running happily with her arms wide open and her ponytail flying behind her. We were separated by 200 yards and—much further—by the ability to be turned completely upside down by an incapacitating fear of the worst-case scenario.
She had been missing for a total of 10 minutes.
I have no idea who (or even how many) helped me search for my daughter that day. By the time I reached her, I could barely choke out “thank you” to the people in front of me, never mind the others who had spread across the park. They are nameless, faceless heroes of mine.
I had been right, as it turns out, to relegate those insidious and terrifying “what-ifs” to the fringes of my consciousness. My daughter went missing, but there was no “stranger danger.” The only strangers with whom I interacted were doggedly working to help me find her. This story has no villains: no stalkers, no kidnappers, no opportunistic perverts.
By all accounts, my faith in humanity should be renewed. I should be a more optimistic mother.
Except I’m not.
Ever since that day, I have found myself keeping a tighter grip on my daughters as we walk through crowded areas. I have been looking more suspiciously at almost-certainly decent, help-you-find-your-daughter sorts of people in the park. I have been questioning the presence and motives of anyone who doesn’t fit my image of someone who belongs at kids’ events: young, involved, “vanilla” sorts of people … people like me.
In those ten minutes, the horrific “what-ifs” of parenthood became real to me in a way they had never been before. I began seeing enemies where they didn’t exist. It makes me wonder: What kind of person would I be if they really did?
The expression “there but for the grace of God go I” has really been resonating with me in the wake of those excruciating 10 minutes. If even I—with my privileged life and my happy ending—if even I have become more mistrustful and judgmental of others as a result of 10 minutes of unrealized “what-ifs,” then where but for the grace of God would I be?
If I had spent my life as an undocumented immigrant, or an unwelcome refugee, or an impoverished person of color, would I see the people around me as my brothers and sisters in Christ … or would I see them only as potential threats to myself and my children?
I majored in peace studies, so I can wax philosophical about “unmasking the other” and ubuntu and restorative justice until my lips turn blue. But I have never had to do so in the face of pervasive violence, instability, or oppression. Thanks be to God, I do not have to do so in the face of every parent’s worst nightmare.
But if that weren’t the case? If my worst-case scenarios dwelled not in the fringes of my mind but in my lived experience, would I be capable of the sort of compassion, hospitality, and goodwill that Jesus demands of his followers?
I seriously doubt it.
And so I do the only thing I can: I turn once more to Jesus, and say a prayer of gratitude for His grace, which has truly saved a wretch like me.
Nicole Steele Wooldridge lives in the Seattle area with her husband and two daughters. She hopes that her daughters do as she says, and not as she does … and that her emotional aversion to the local splash park has waned by the time next summer comes around.
It is 7 p.m. and there are two things on my mind: I am hungry and I need to use the bathroom.
Dinner service ended a half hour ago but one person has yet to leave. I wait at the back door, ready to finish my job, which involves making sure everyone has left and locking the door.
I spent two years volunteering full time at André House and now volunteer part time there. André House, a soup kitchen in downtown Phoenix, Ariz., provides basic-need services including a nightly soup line that averages 630 plates per night.
This gentleman is taking his time to finish his meal, pack his bags and move on. I have not seen him before and I try not to hurry people who are not causing a problem. The only thing in a hurry that evening was my own patience.
I tend to move fast and focus on to-do lists. He is taking his time and slowly appreciating each moment. I have no significant reason to rush him so I try to accept his pace.
He finishes his meal and slowly takes his tray up to the dishwasher. Returning to his seat he carefully packs his belongings, putting each item in its own place in his backpack. Then, carefully unrolling his bedroll and blanket, he proceeds to reroll them. Securing the bed roll to his backpack he stands up to stretch.
In my head I continue to tell myself to be patient and constantly repeat my to-do list: lock up building, turn off lights, eat dinner, study, clean, go through emails and write a paper. And this list goes on. Yet right now, all I can do is wait.
Then he walks over to the prayer table, taking a few moments to look over the books, pamphlets, rosaries and prayer box on it. He examines each item; reading the materials, rearranging them and observing the flowers and statues.
I remind myself that I have no vital reason to rush right now, but I am not good at waiting. Yet somehow, in the next moment, I begin to wonder: “How often do I check my email or Facebook page on my phone when I could just be still? How often do I fill time with business when I could stop and slow down, appreciate and look more closely at the things around me?”
The man picks up his bag and a book from the prayer table. Walking over to me, he asks if he could have the bible he found. “Of course,” I say, and tell him to have a safe evening. But still he does not leave. He tells me how lucky he is to have a bible. This bible is perfect for him: large print so he can see it under the street lamp at night. It has a soft cover so it is bends in his backpack and will not poke him.
Then he goes on to tell me about his blanket–a Mexican, woven blanket of many colors. It is light weight and easy to carry. He admires its multiple colors. It is tightly woven to keep him warm and also protect him from the ground. He talks slowly as he explains all the things he likes about his new-found bible and his over-used blanket.
Then he looks me straight in the eye and says, “What do I pray for if I am over-blessed?”
Here I am, impatiently waiting for him to leave so I can go home to my safe apartment, a hot dinner and my warm bed.
And here he is, over-blessed, going out to spend another night on the streets with nothing but a bible and a warm blanket.
Today, I invite you to do three simple and important things to honor St. Francis and his legacy that continues to inspire people, like me, to follow Jesus in messy, authentic ways. The three actions I propose are totally Franciscan things to do.
Join my Franciscan family and me in celebrating the goodness of God and praising him for the gift of our founder!
Help us try to build the kingdom of God through our actions, ministry, simple lifestyle and prayer.
1.) Help the Poor. There are a lot of ways you can help those less fortunate. I really, really would like you to help me with one cause that is near and dear to my heart and causing me to have a hard week. The people who I know at Tubman House in California are in desperate need for help right now. Unless they get enough donations quickly they’ll have to close this weekend or at the end of the month. If Tubman closes, some amazing parents and their children will go back to being homeless and the organization will be forced to stop doing all the amazing work they do. Read all about the details and make a donation here. Sign up to become a regular donor here.
2.) Protect the Environment. Just like helping the poor, there are many, many ways you can protect the environment. I’d love it if you checked out all the awesome work that the good people at Catholic Climate Covenant are up to. And, then, I hope you’ll sign The St. Francis Pledge!
3.) Pray and Work for Peace. I had trouble coming up with a suggestion for this one– because there are so many issue specific peace organizations- -but being a nonviolent peacemaker is totally important. Perhaps we can all pause for at least 30 quiet minutes in solitude and silence today to pray for peace in our hearts, our homes, our communities, our country and our world.
The great thing is that if we do these three simple actions we won’t just honor Francis, we’ll honor Jesus too. That’s the great thing about saints!
Thanks for your participation and Happy St. Francis Day!
I was happy to see William pull up next to me on his bike. Last I heard he had been stabbed in a fight and I did not know the extent of his injuries. Surprised at the opportunity, I ask him how he was doing. He seems embarrassed about his injuries and the fact he was fighting; he says he was fine but really blows the question off.
I have known William for three years and I have seen him on and off “the wagon” twice as many times. I know he is an alcoholic. I know he finds himself in a lot of fights. I changed the bandages on his gunshot wound a few years ago. We have a good rapport and I feel comfortable teasing him and challenging him.
So I continue to push a bit. I ask about the fights, work, housing and his alcohol addiction. He is not really in the mood to chat so I continue on my walk to work and he starts to peddle away. But then he stops me.
“What is the beginning of 1st John all about?” he asks.
Confused and surprised, I respond, “What William?”
“I was reading my Bible last night, and I was reading John and it did not make sense. I could not sleep because it did not make sense,” he responded quickly.
“William, are you talking about the Book or the Gospel?” I ask, secretly hoping he is asking about the Gospel.
“The Gospel. What is all this talk about the Word, and God, and light about?”
So I sit down. He sets his bike down and sits with me. I pull my Bible out of my bag. And together on the corner of 12th Ave. and Jefferson we have a Bible study. In the part of town where drug dealers, prostitution, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens exist. In the part of town people try to avoid. Here we are sitting on the corner having an impromptu Bible study.
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.
What came to be through him was life,
and this light was the light of the human race;
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it. –John 1:1-5
We talk through each verse. We take each line and individually look at its meaning. We discuss the passage as a whole.
It’s simple. We do not use the word exegesis or talk about homoiousios vs. homoousios. It’s beautiful. Two people are caught in a moment; two people are finding God; two people are drawn together by grace.
“So really, it’s all about Jesus. Jesus and God. And Jesus saved us. And Jesus is still the Light. That’s it?”
I didn’t get it right. The new mass words have begun this Advent and I have often found myself stumbling and failing at it. I hate that, failing. The irrational part of me flairs up in a puff of anger at myself and others. I want to be “right,” and such simple failure touches a profoundly deeper disappointment at myself and others for a world so wrong.
As I sit in disappointment the seasons change and it has gently become winter. The crisp and refreshing air, the thick sweaters and coats, and the relief of shelter all bring a sense of peace to my struggle. I need the comfort of warm protection and a home to reside amidst the quickening darkness.
My need reminds me it is Advent. “Comfort, give comfort to my people,” says the prophet Isaiah on the second Sunday of Advent. God is here to dwell and longs to dwell deeper admits our darkness. Jesus came to love, grow, and embrace our un-right selves and reality.
But such a coming is not un-situated; Jesus is not a Santa Claus of sorts that dwells outside of what makes the night dark. Amidst the cold systems that crush the many and uplift some, Jesus was born with the forgotten. His life was a constant struggle against the dehumanizing structures of his day and was powerful enough to be killed as a political criminal.
Such thoughts of Advent remind me of the old activist adage, “Be hard on structures, soft on people.” God desires to dwell with us and incarnate in us to affirm our human goodness. God births in us patiently as we love, care, and belong to one another.
This birth comes while we are positioned and contributing to the structures of sin, reminding us not to ignore our responsibility as if they were as natural as the weather or barns burning themselves down. God shoulders the weight of reality in our church, our government, and our economic systems as we struggle in them.
As we look towards Christmas, we remember Joseph and Mary searching for a home to give birth to our savior in. Caught up in a system of mandatory forced migration for a census, they needed personal care and institutional justice. In 2010 there were 30,978 homeless children in the city of Chicago. They not only need care and shelter, but a state that does not cut funding and citizens who ignore it when it happens. This is one issue among many we are invited to start caring about and use reason to truly move structures towards the good.
We are to have the faith that God is at it too, as St. Paul states on the third Sunday of Advent, “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.”