Our parish church, on Burnside Street in Old Town, downtown Portland, Ore., sits on the border of a great divide. On one side corporate executives scurry one by one to tall, marble buildings, but on our side people dressed in drab colors line the sidewalk in front of our building waiting to enter our red doors for coffee or clean underwear. One day I noticed a woman executive who crossed the forbidden line. She stood on our sidewalk pointing her finger at a man, mentally ill and homeless, who was playing with his grey kitten. Dressed in grey flannel and stiletto heels, she screamed at him not to endanger the cat. After her encounter, she stormed into our lobby, where I was sweeping the floor, and yelled at me, “you have to do something about that man who is hurting that cat!” I assured her I would take care of the situation. After she left the lobby I turned to one member of our parish staff and said, “1 wait for the day when someone comes into our lobby and says, ‘We, together, should do something about that young man who suffers from mental illness and is without housing, employment and friends’.”
This encounter teaches me that we all face different forms of poverty. Dozens of times every day in ministry, I realize poverty is not an abstract reality but reveals itself through our own histories, relationships, and education. We carry poverty in our prejudices or our backpacks, in our cultural expectations or in a shopping cart. We express issues of poverty by the labels we attach to one another, no matter which side of the street we live on.
This interaction between two people dressed in grey also shows me the black and white divide between the rich and poor that continues an ancient tradition. This chasm reminds me every day of Lazarus in the doorway who longed to eat the scraps from the rich man’s table. The segregation calls to mind the journey of Jesus to a Samaritan town to reach out to a woman under the noonday sun. It underlines Jesus’s command to welcome ill strangers, people with handicaps, the former prisoner, and the newly widowed to the feast where all people fit around his open table. This ancient way of dividing the poor and rich teaches me that we have yet to understand the basics of gospel life, in which our lifestyles of fear can be replaced by reaching out to those who need the staples of love and understanding.
Our parish staff searched for ways to educate people living beyond our corner. We wracked our brains to develop a method to move believers beyond their black and white interpretations of life. The staff realized that our ministry among the poor on our side of the street could become a vehicle for real catechesis among those who already have jobs, security, and satisfying relationships. We began to realize that the poor themselves would become the teachers, the authentic catechists. The antidote to unhealthy interactions with poor people begins by learning from those who are suffering, lonely, and drug addicted. Building authentic relationships remains the answer to recognizing the dignity of all life. But the people would first have to be willing to cross the street.
And I needed to examine my own life, priorities, and actions to discover which side of the street I really live on. I needed to grapple with my own need and desire for God, my own personal poverty. I needed to authenticate God’s work in me by stepping out of my fear and comfort in order to serve people suffering physical and emotional poverty.
I found the way to bridge the chasm between faith and service right under my nose. Our daily hospitality center has changed my approach to God more than anything in my years of priesthood. When I spend two hours handing out hygiene products or laundry vouchers and listening to people’s stories, our interactions strip away all the pretense of my human ego and priestly identity. I am the one emotionally naked most days as I realize all the masks, education, and power I stand behind. Mingling in our hospitality center strips away any notion I have that people should be different than they are or that I could possibly have answers for their questions of survival or sobriety. So I invited those who live on the opposite side of the street and beyond to enter into this place of self-stripping.
The parish staff developed from our basic daily ministry an opportunity for others to join us in learning more about prayer and service. Every Friday we work a 13-hour day. We now open up this time once a month so others may join us in an unconventional retreat. We call this day of work and reflection “The Personal Poverty Retreat.” People in small groups muster the courage to cross the dividing line and participate in this day of ministry and sharing.
I gain great courage as I hear people reveal insights and stories during the debriefing sessions following morning hospitality. They understand that the trip across the street was worth the effort as they slowly unravel all their misconceptions about people who are poor, addicted, or lonely. Facing the mentally ill rouses palpable fear in people who are used to having all the answers in life, those who spend their days telling others how to live or what to do. Teachers, bankers, and retired executives often sit confused about how the experience challenges them. I watch in silence as I hear a retired grandfather express guilt over his well-earned possessions. I listen with gratitude as a businessman reveals that he must reinterpret his basic notions of a lifetime of cultural norms, his perceived masculine role in society, and the threats he feels to the American dream. Encountering people who live in poverty becomes real catechesis to the rest of us who think relying on our own power, education, and social status will bring us to God.
After we celebrate the Eucharist at noon, we take the call of the dismissal seriously. We let go of the safety of the sanctuary and enter the streets of the neighborhood where we visit Catholic agencies serving the needs of people living on the streets or in single-room occupancy hotels. I try to resist the notion in myself that this is a poverty safari, a tour of gazing at drug dealers selling their stuff or glaring at the mentally ill person who asks for a handout along the way. This walking tour opens up all our senses, especially for those who are used to passing through this same area in the safety of their car. I see a couple having sex in a doorway, a family creating a cardboard hut near a fence, and a man telling jokes to himself. It is on this tour that people experience the issues of our city trying to eliminate housing for the poor, closing agencies that provide services, and avoiding the needs of the mentally ill people. Amidst the piercing sounds of jackhammers, ambulance sirens, and buses rushing by, we always pray in front of each service agency. This is not a tour about how the church serves the poor but an exploration of people’s consciences to find new ways to learn the needs of others and a new dependency on God who calls us out of ourselves.
The foot-tour raises challenges and exposes consequences about people in poverty, but the two-hour reflection session afterward is where the rubber meets the road. Here we try to ask the startling questions raised by shattered notions of who poor people are and about the God who calls us to do something with our lives. I introduce the session by reading aloud about one of my mentors in Scripture. The Canaanite woman perks us all up after the walk outside, challenging us to shake our fists at Jesus to change his mind about the needs of her daughter. She teaches us to advocate not only for those we love but also for those we just met along the way. This holy woman in Matthew’s Gospel reveals that what we must do to change people’s lives is to storm heaven with our prayer to make sure Jesus is paying attention to his lonely and forgotten.
l am profoundly changed by the challenges people face while sharing in this group setting. One by one people share their real poverty. Suddenly people are making the connections that a recent divorce isa path to God or that the powerlessness they experience with a tormented teenager is the way to a new life of compassion and change. I witness the Spirit softening the anger of a middle-class parent realizing that his years of anger and hatred toward his homeless son need to change. He now understands through the course of the day that he cannot fix his son’s addictions and ‘that he simply needs to love him and offer support. I am amazed at how people let go of so much control and regret, old patterns of life, church, and family. The people on retreat realize that their answers to questions of family, society, and church do not always work for every person, no matter how hard they try to convince people of their correctness. This kind of catechesis does not come from a religious education manual or a tidy parish program but is found in real and honest relationships with those who find themselves on the margins of society and church.
Our evening ends by sharing a meal with other volunteers and then working in our soup line, The Brother Andre Cafe. In our church lobby we encounter people from the neighborhood coming to us not only for food but for an affirmation that their lives count. They come because this is about community, even as broken and tenuous as it is. I try to make the connection with our folks on retreat that this line is an extension of the sanctuary where people feel cared for and welcomed. It is the human and complicated table where people learn that profound hunger brings honest community. This safety of community sometimes is shattered by a man who acts out his mental illness violently or by people just wanting to stir up a fist fight.
I am deeply inspired when people realize Christians are not U do-gooders. People begin to learn that serving under our own power only gets us to burnout and anger. They make the connection that discipleship comes from realizing that we are all loved by God and then we are called into loving others. We do for others what only God can first do for us – that is simply to love. This is the real grace I witness when people come to the conclusion that they do not possess all the answers in life, that finally they need God to do the work only God can accomplish.
I learn from people encountering the needs of the poor that admitting suffering is the road to true community. This admission and conversion is a struggle in every parish community. This is the key to building bridges between people on both sides of the street. This model of retreat convinces me that parishes only need to look to those who are suffering in their midst to begin to understand that people need to be loved as they are and not made over according to our prejudice or ambivalence. Once we admit our own poverty, our own need and desire for God, we can learn to walk together, no matter which side of the street we may live on.
I look forward to the day when we all stand on the same side of the street believing in something more than our fear. We can work together to change these initial instincts into actions of acceptance and service. Participants on our retreat show me that attitudes change when we cross the barriers that separate us from other people’s suffering. Barriers fall through the simple encounters of people as they strip away their black and white differences and share a cup of coffee and a warm bagel.