Every month a large brown cardboard box arrives in the mail in our parish office. Every member of our parish staff recognizes the return address immediately. The container is postmarked from Boston, Massachusetts and travels the miles across the country to Portland, Oregon. The box is shipped from Holy Cross Family Ministries, an apostolate owned by my religious community, the Congregation of Holy Cross.
Without opening the box, we all know that the delivery contains three hundred plastic rosaries, each one enclosed in a small plastic bag with paper fold-out instructions on how to pray the rosary. The rosaries come in white, as well as pastel colors of pink, blue, and green.
Even though we are a small parish of only a hundred or so people, the large number of rosaries is a welcome sight. Every weekday morning over a hundred people come through our doors searching for the basics of life. Unfortunately, we simply do not have the resources to meet every person’s needs. Some people come enraged that they stood in line for hours only to be turned down for a bus pass to travel out of town or money for medication or resources to find shelter for their children.
Often when people are most frustrated, some of them may still select a pastel rosary from a small wicker basket placed at the office window and something happens inside them. They begin to feel connected to us anyway, even though we were not able to provide them with the item or assistance for which they stood in line.
I find in these small plastic bags many connected moments of miracles. These encounters with strangers become pastel breakthroughs that awaken my heart to the real needs of people. Not many of our guests will ever actually sit down, take out the instructions, read the small print, and learn how to pray the traditional prayers. Some of our guests are lucky to find a relatively safe place to sleep or to be able to find a quiet moment at all in the neighborhood single-room occupancy hotels. It is the message of the rosary itself that counts. Every day I learn that the Paschal Mystery comes in shades of anger, hopelessness, discouragement, frustration and uncertainty. I rely on the plastic beads to be more than mere objects, to be genuine moments of faith and hope somehow strung together.
As I ponder the Gospels for March and April, I notice a string of awakenings, breakthroughs that unlock our search for God. Jesus tells us a story of a simple fig tree, one that people have ignored because of its lack of fruit. Jesus is patient, cultivating the soil, fertilizing, waiting and believing in the natural process of growing fruit. The Lenten Gospels tell us that God is not finished with us. We cannot give up on people in poverty whom we judge, ignore or insist that they are not living up to our standards. This acceptance of other people in these Lenten days shows us that Christ’s dying and rising still produces much fruit in our human hearts.
A woman weeping in our chapel told me she just wanted a blessing for her children. I sat with her, listened to her abusive story and prayed with her for our Father’s care. I handed her a packet with the pastel beads and she pondered them as if heaven had opened. I could not help but see in her tears the woman standing in the sand accused of adultery. Her friends had given up on her, people turned their backs on her actions and others could not take responsibility for their own decisions. Her tears still teach me that women remain ravaged by rumors, finger pointing and accusations in our society and church. Jesus, bending down to write an unknown message in the sand sets her free with words that breakthrough the lies.
Our staff realizes that not everything goes according to plan. When we first received the rosaries some years ago, one staff member noticed that the rosaries themselves were being left in the lobby. However, the plastic bags were always taken. It dawned on us that some people were discarding the rosaries and using the plastic bags for drugs. Not every moment comes out perfectly as the father realized with two lost sons. In the least-predicted places and times, we can all wake up to our sin and misfortunes. We can find our true inheritance by finding our way home to God’s love. Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them and even today among people in every parish community. Even when the drug users took the rosaries for their purposes, I must believe in these unexpected moments that the faithfulness of God rests upon them as well.
Jesus threatened many people and was sentenced to death because he disturbed people’s comfort in order to welcome outcasts, sinners and strangers. I think of Jesus’ reputation when I see for myself rosaries hanging from the necks of people living in poverty in our neighborhood. I notice them at bus stops and street corners, in coffee shops and while riding the streetcar. The rosaries reassure me that we had some contact with people who need the basic message that God cares for the people living in poverty on the streets of Portland.
Some people may be disturbed that many of these rosaries are not being prayed as they were intended. However, I see them as glimpses of faith, real breakthroughs of love that unite us with people suffering homelessness, incredible addictions and various degrees of mental illnesses. Perhaps their example of wearing faith on their bodies for everyone to see is really an extension of the prophet not being accepted in his own native place, or street corner, or homeless shelter.
I remember when Bonnie camped at our doorway for two months. Because of her kleptomania I estimated that she took nearly four hundred rosaries during her stay. I am convinced that Bonnie poked her head into Jesus’ empty tomb and wanted for herself the warmth of the white garment left in the corner of the grave. She became a sign for so many people in our community that Christ is still near, that death still gives way to the breakthrough of compassion and hope for people. I wait for the day when we will all find ourselves wearing our baptismal garments witnessing to Christ breaking bonds of apathy, injustice and insincerity.
I saw a commercial on television for a local CBS affiliate that asks people on the street about the needs of Portland. One gentleman wearing layers of clothing responded by saying that Portland needs more public restroom facilities. If you notice very closely under all the layers of clothing you will see the pastel rosary beads around his neck. “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Jesus revealed his resurrection among fisherman along the shore. He told Peter to remain in love and to act justly toward all people who remain lost and forgotten. When I see people wearing the rosaries all over town, I discover deep within my own heart the true presence of Christ. The rosaries and the people remind me to open my heart further, to follow more closely and believe in the pastel Easter presence of Christ our Savior.