Urgent Care

Originally published by Ministry & Liturgy Magazine, April 2011
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Every morning our parish welcomes lost street pilgrims into dry shelter. Our staff and dozens of volunteers strip away our preconceived notions about stinky people and jobless wanderers. We hear the frightening outbursts from homeless sufferers of undiagnosed mental illness and we welcome all people to rest awhile.Our acceptance of these forgotten people barely holds back the waves of citywide discussions of the undesirable homeless teens, the filthy street urchins playing guitars while sitting on public sidewalks. Our open-door hospitality barely sways public opinion about the lazy, crazy and filthy people who do nothing for society. We welcome people because stomachs are empty, bodies are tired and naked, feet are dirty, wives are abused, jobs are lost and friends are still imprisoned. This is the urgent, daily work of hospitality in our parish community.

Living the gospel call to true, authentic hospitality challenges our parish community daily. Our morning hospitality remains scrutinized by the judgmental opinions of so many jobholders walking by our building. Some people in long-term recovery accuse us of being in denial and label us as “enabling.” Welcoming the lost and forgotten, without bias, judgment or superiority tests our faith to the core. This core of authentic welcome lies within the persons of God, the relationships among the Trinity.

I rest in this message of the Holy Trinity. I believe with my whole heart that the hidden relationships among God the Father, Christ our Savior and the communion of the Holy Spirit offer all Christians a definitive model of hospitality. As I reflect on the liturgical gospel for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, I feel this urgency of hospitality. I capture a glimpse of eternal life when tired folks rest with a cup of hot coffee, enter into an honest conversation and receive some clean clothing.

Every Christian community must take the risk of living the mystery of the Holy Trinity. The Sign of Cross is not just a mark on our mortal bodies, but radical welcome for all people to live within the love of God. The Trinity is not an obscure concept celebrated in our sanctuaries, but an invitation for all people to risk love, kindness, compassion and true hospitality. Radical acceptance among strangers enables people to experience a glimpse of eternity. Living the mystery of the Holy Trinity suggests that all people must be welcomed no matter their place in life.

Every morning we circle our volunteers around a table to reflect on the upcoming Sunday gospel. College students, retirees, parishioners and other volunteers from all walks of life hear the sacred text proclaimed in our hospitality center. The formation from these gospels propels even non-believers to connect the foundations of the Christian faith to service among God’s beloved. In these morning sessions, we all experience this urgency of hospitality because we understand we may only have one opportunity to welcome a stranger.

Our parish is just a few blocks from the train station and bus terminal. People step off the train and hear by word of mouth that our parish is the place to go for basic needs. A young unwed mother hops off the bus and is told that we can help with diapers for her infant. An elderly man needs a blanket for the night and a runaway teen is looking for someone to listen to his story. The Trinity manifests love in the simplest of places, among outcasts searching for basic belongings.

I also feel this urgency because so many young people do not experience the Church as a meaningful place for their lives. Our staff connects with over fourteen colleges, universities, seminaries and schools of nursing over the course of a year. Hundreds of high school students participate in formation sessions that invite students into the depths of people’s suffering. Hospitality is not wasted among the young, the lost and those who question everything.

The celebration of the Holy Trinity in every parish must open us all to the overwhelming compassion and mercy of God. We must not allow our fearful judgments and familiar prejudices to put boundaries on God’s relationship with people, or to suggest that some people are more deserving of love than others. The liturgical celebration reminds me to calm down among situations I cannot control, fix or heal. I must remember that God longs to be in union with God’s beloved.

I enter more deeply into the mystery of the Holy Trinity and experience an insistent need to welcome people who think they live far out of the bounds of God’s love. Every Christian becomes a messenger for the hidden life of the Trinity, an expression of deep love, commitment and belonging. I discover every day that the true mission of the Church is to live in the tight circle of the Trinity, accepting everyone into the life of God’s redeeming love.

Foot Crossing

Originally published by Ministry & Liturgy Magazine, March 2011
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Every weekday morning, more than 100 pairs of tired feet cross the threshold of our parish building. A newly homeless couple trying to find resources for survival stands on their weary, calloused feet, waiting to enter our hospitality center. A man drenched from the morning rain and reeking from alcohol limps into the familiar lobby, hoping to get a dry pair of socks and a jacket. A heavy Vietnam War veteran wearing an unbuttoned shirt and feathers tied to his long hair waits for a new pair of shoes to fit his swollen, infected feet.

People’s feet tell the stories of homelessness and disease. Some of our guests carry within them deep secrets of how they landed on hard times. Others may be silent about their past physical traumas or how they have abused drugs. They may even try to hide their need for food, companionship, or a new pair of underwear. Our volunteers and staff understand that people often do not want to admit their vulnerability. However, people cannot hide their homelessness, illnesses, and defenselessness when our nurses and volunteers deal with people’s sore, filthy feet.

Foot care ministry
Every Wednesday in our hospitality center at the Downtown Chapel Roman Catholic Parish in Portland, Oregon, the staff and volunteers provide foot care. This once-a-week offering affords people an opportunity to make sure their feet are given proper medical treatment. This ministry began not with the notion of medical assessment and management but with the ancient tradition of foot washing and welcome.

Roy contacted us nearly a decade ago from a suburban parish. He inquired about offering sessions on centering prayer for people surviving poverty. Roy told our staff that he had already facilitated groups in local jails and also various groups of people living with HIV/ AIDS. He wanted to pass on what he himself had discovered in his own life: the deep and abundant love of God. Roy quietly spoke his own story to our staff of his years of wretched anger and hatred toward family members. He told us that his hardened, heated life had been transformed with prayer. Roy assured us that God was still healing his relationships with his wife and children. He was also the foster father of more than a dozen at-risk children. So the members of the staff agreed to his request for offering a time of contemplative prayer among people who live outside and who suffer the many issues of poverty.

After several months of facilitating group prayer, Roy came back to our parish staff with another request. He and his wife longed to discover why Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. Roy said to our staff, “1 know that Jesus ate with his disciples everyday, but on the night before he died, he ate with them one more time and then washed his friends’ feet.” He said with an intense desire, “1 have to find out what that means.”

Thus Roy and his wife began our foot ministry. They welcomed people into a small room with gentle conversation and intentional hospitality. The couple was shy and intimidated at first as they provided soothing salts to soak putrid feet. They trimmed long, yellow toenails and provided clean white socks that they had purchased themselves. While they stooped before people with aching feet, they internally prayed for each person. Our foot ministry was born of a man who admitted to both his selfishness and to his life’s being completely transformed by personal prayer.

After several months of washing rank and sore feet, the couple came back to speak to our staff. The holy couple explained that they glimpsed a reason why Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. Roy quietly said to us, “I believe Jesus washed the feet of his beloved so to see their faces at a different angle, in a new light, in the intimacy of genuine humility.” Roy and his wife continued their service in their own lives by receiving two more foster children into their home. When the couple left our foot ministry, our parish nurse continued it. Today, Sharon and other volunteer nurses, student nurses, and other volunteers receive people on Wednesday mornings. Now the focus is not only to bathe people’s feet but also to provide more medical assistance.

Sharon provides soothing Epsom salts, healing lotions, and creams. The nurses look for deep infections and open wounds that will not heal. They know when to send our guests to a doctor or an emergency room. The volunteers fill plastic bins with hot water and sudsy healing salts. They invite people to soak their feet, and the volunteers enter into people’s lives through the stories of their feet. Sharon and others listen to the words people share and become attuned to their hope that someday homelessness, poverty, and addictions may also be soothed and cured. They wipe each toe with bleached towels, and each foot is examined and dried. They teach our guests how to care for their feet when disease and infection are present because of diabetes. They cut curly long nails and wipe scaly skin with care and concern. The nurses deliberately dress each foot with new white sweat socks.

We provide our foot ministry as an extension of our morning hospitality center because feet are the main source of transportation for many people living outside. Most of our guests cannot afford appropriate health care, and in most cases health care is not accessible to people living on the streets. We also provide this basic foot care because people live in the reality of Portland’s rain and cool weather all year long. Every day, people’s feet are not just damp but squishy wet. People come to us with prune~likeskin and yellow, tough nails. The rank smell of feet permeates our entire bUilding and lingers long into the day. People expose their secrets by crossing our parish threshold and offering theideet to be cared for by our volunteers.

Our volunteers and nurses enter into the mystery of Holy Thursday’s Mandatum every Wednesday morning. This ministry extends the mission of Jesus from the ancient liturgy of the Triduum. The Gospel of John reminds us that our foot ministry is not just a reenactment of the past but a vital ministry in our generation. The ritual gesture is neither fake nor meaningless in our community. Our foot ministry puts into daily action the call of Jesus to become people of hospitality, to enter into the mystery of people’s stories. Our foot care volunteers show us that intimacy happens when we see people’s faces from the perspective of love and service. People’s feet tell us stories, especially when we listen to them from the angle of looking up into their weathered, beautiful faces.

Holy Thursday foot washing
The liturgy of Holy Thursday invites people in every parish into the role of hospitality. The act of washing feet is still a sacred form of worship. Some parishes are quick to replace the foot washing on Holy Thursday with hand washing or shoe shining. These replacements seldom work; they do not bear the weight of the intimate act of exposing dirty feet to the community. Those other acts do not reveal vulnerability or suggest that people actually need God or the community for survival in daily life. Naked feet expose the Body of Christ in real need on Holy Thursday.

Entering into the mystery of the Mandatum on Holy Thursday evening invites every person into the earthy, human need for Christ’s redeeming love. Our parish sets up chairs in our three aisles before the liturgy begins. After the Gospel and homily, the people designated for “foot washing go to their preassigned chairs and remove their shoes and socks. Every person who attends this Mass should see naked feet. People should be able to enter into the action of this rite. The presider and servers process around the chapel to hold, wash, and wipe the human foot. The feet of our people are seldom beautiful, and their nails rarely (if ever) receive a pedicure. The smell of sour feet needs to be part of the rite – not perfumed, perfect feet.

The Mandatuin tells the story of every worshiping community and reveals how each one listens to the Gospel during the entire year. The stories of vulnerability told in naked feet connect to the ways the parish serves people. The foot washing is linked to a young mother wiping the bottom of her infant after a bout of diarrhea. Foot washing connects to the middle-aged man who washes the aging body of his father after he has suffered a stroke. A mother holds the forehead of a grade-school-age daughter vomiting in the toilet. A wife washes the blood off her husband after surgery. A husband cleans up food from his wife’s body after feeding her stomach through a tube. The Mandatum on Holy Thursday connects the human vulnerability we all face in caring for those we love with the public ritual of the church.

Foot washing on Holy Thursday reminds every parish community that we begin each ministry from Jesus’s call to prayer and service. Many parish communities resist entering into such filthy concerns, but we are all called to enter local hospitals with prayer and willingness to be changed by the suffering of our friends and neighbors. We are challenged dUring the Triduum to get our own feet wet from sweat by building a home or painting a garage. We must walk the extra mile to support fundraising efforts for breast cancer or AIDS. On Holy Thursday, we are reminded that we do all of those things because of the intimate love of Jesus, who offered his life for each person.

I recently asked Gwen, one of our regular foot washing volunteers,to articulate how this ministry has changed her. I wish everyone could see her in action, using few words as she carries tubs of sloshing water in our basement to prepare for our guests. She washes and bleachestowels, wipes up floors, and invites people to experience foot washing. These actions go well beyond her words. She said to me, “I appreciate the trust our guests develop in our abilities as well as limitations to provide for what they need.” She also added, “The community helps me to maintain an attitude of grateful living, to not take things for granted, and to do what I am able.” Gwen does so much without the notice of so many. Gwen can also be seen on Holy Thursday serving the Eucharist or reading the Scriptures.

Gwen’s daily actions guide our Triduum. Her actions, along with those of all of our volunteers, speak the reality of John’s Gospel. She and the many nurses and volunteers live the Mandatum every week. The connection of prayer and service is lived on Wednesday mornings in our parish basement. I do not have to look very far to preach the Gospel on Holy Thursday. The feet that cross our threshold each day are signs of the crucified Savior. Their smell reminds me always to walk with people who suffer.

Door Man: St. André Bessette

Originally published by U.S. Catholic, December 2010
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Brother André Bessette didn’t need fancy degrees to know how to welcome the sick who came to the Holy Cross community. Now, he’s the order of educators’ first saint.

My path to the priesthood, as with all priests in the United States, involved many years of higher education. I earned two degrees from the University of Notre Dame before being ordained a priest in the Congregation of Holy Cross in 1983. Later I received yet another master’s degree from Notre Dame. I learned all the appropriate professional skills. I studied the correct rubrics from scholars of liturgical history. The vision of the Second Vatican Council prepared me for what I thought my work would entail.

The education that truly formed me, however, has been learning to pray through my own suffering and the inconsolable pain of others. I am now a student of an uneducated orphan and sickly man, Brother André (Alfred) Bessette, C.S.C., born 30 miles from Montreal in 1845. Ironically, the frail, illiterate brother is our first saint in the Congregation of Holy Cross, a religious order that is best known for our achievements in education.

Brother André dedicated his life to St. Joseph and to people suffering from spiritual and physical illness. He convinced the Holy Cross community in Montreal in the early 1900s to build St. Joseph’s Oratory. Today, the oratory houses the many crutches, canes, and wheelchairs left behind by healed pilgrims who prayed to St. Joseph upon Brother André’s request.

Because of his ill health, members of Holy Cross did not initially want Brother André as a member of the Congregation. His novice master begged the community to allow him to stay because of his intense prayer. He professed vows and was assigned as porter at Notre Dame College in Montreal, the only formal ministry he held his entire life. He began to welcome the sick and the fragile, the ill and the outcast. His door became his entry into people’s deep suffering and isolation. André’s formally educated confreres quickly became displeased with so many sick people congregating around the schoolyard.

Brother André persevered in his devotions. He told people who were ill to pray to St. Joseph, to rub oil on their wounds, to believe in the miracles of Christ Jesus. He experienced God’s healing of thousands of people. He became known as the “miracle worker of Mount Royal.”

Now that I have come to the doors of the Downtown Chapel in Portland, Oregon, I have learned to pray and serve from Brother André’s example. These red steel doors open every day to hundreds of people who cry for help dealing with mental illness or who are consumed with unending loneliness.

Our parish staff and volunteers welcome to our daily hospitality center people struggling to get off drugs, the recently unemployed, and those who have spent their entire adult lives living outside. We welcome people who lash out at others because they cannot heal from their own sexual abuse. We welcome people with gangrene and people who have just been released from jail. Every day we are confronted with our insufficient answers to unsolvable problems.

I arrived here at the red doors of the Downtown Chapel more than eight years ago disillusioned with many aspects of the church. I arrived here in great need of spiritual healing. I turned to Brother André to welcome me, just as he welcomed others in need of healing and consolation in Montreal. Now I experience what André encountered, the inconsolable pain of people. People living in poverty are now my teachers.

Because he could not read, André memorized the Beatitudes and other passages of scripture that offer hope to people in pain. He believed that faith alone was the answer to real human suffering. Confronted with hundreds of people each day waiting to speak with him, André often lost his patience. He was often rude and curt with people who did not want to pray. His curmudgeonly style did not deter people from wanting to be physically touched and emotionally affirmed by God.

I lose my patience as well when I realize in recent years the church has moved away from its healing mission, relinquishing many hospitals, nursing homes, and orphanages. The personal touch of healing has been replaced by large corporations and impersonal technology. At our parish doors, I realize that faith alone can motivate people to give of themselves when other people hurt in so many ways.

Brother André died on January 6, 1937. More than a million pilgrims streamed to Montreal for his funeral. In those days before jet planes, the Internet, and cell phones, the real communication of faith and gratitude spread rapidly among believers.

The Catholic Church canonized Brother André Bessette in Rome on Sunday, October 17, 2010. On that day, I unlocked our red doors in Portland and praised God for André’s example.

A Foot in the Door: A Community Modeled after Brother Andre Bessette, CSC

Originally published by Ministry & Liturgy Magazine, October 2010
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The only outside doors to our parish building symbolize welcome and hospitality to our neighborhood in downtown Portland, Oregon. Members of our pastoral staff and volunteers tell stories of homeless people recommending the “red doors” to other people living on the streets. Many among the urban poor people in our neighborhood do not realize we are a Roman Catholic parish, but the bright red doors are known by everyone as the place to receive many of the essentials of life.

People queue up to receive clothing once a month or a laundry voucher once a week from our daily hospitality center. Some residents of the single-room occupancy hotels enter our doors to seek money for non-narcotic prescription medications, or stand in line for a flu shot clinic. Others wait at our entrance for coffee and donated food, excess from local restaurants and grocery stores. Some homeless women may sleep at our red doors during the night. Some drug dealers may urinate on our doors during any hour of the day. One local newspaper even shared a picture of someone who had vomited on a competitor’s newspaper at the entrance to our building. Our doors were then named the “Best Place to Puke” in Old Town, Portland, Oregon.

These sacred doors also lead to the chapel where we celebrate Eucharist every day. When we celebrate Eucharist we all realize the importance of our community so people may find hospitality and healing. Last February we announced to our Sunday assembly that Blessed Brother Andre Bessette, CSC will be canonized in Rome on October 17, 2010. The congregation applauded and cheered. Nearly everyone here knows that our community is a community that Brother Andre helps build.

I was standing at our open doors after that Mass and one of our parishioners came up to our pastor and said, “This is where we find Brother Andre, at these doors, in this community!” Indeed, we rely on the intercession of Blessed Brother Andre, because each day we are faced with undying suffering, with questions no one can solve and with ingrained pain that has not healed for generations.

I remember when I first stepped through our steel and glass threshold. I was overwhelmed by the body odor that had clung to the inside of the building. There is no pine-scented chemical that clears away such an odor. I do not even notice that smell anymore after nearly nine years at the parish. There are so many more important aspects of people’s lives to consider.

Blessed Brother Andre, CSC was a member of my religious community, the Congregation of Holy Cross. He died on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1937. His service to people long ago in need of healing, comfort and consolation continues in our parish as we welcome people living outside or who do not know where to turn because of their mental illness or in their inability to find sufficient health care.

I do not look to Brother Andre for simple solutions to the problems we face at our door. However, his life tells a tale of great faith and dedication. Alfred (Andre) Bessette was born thirty miles from Montreal, Quebec, in Canada on August 9, 1845, the eighth of twelve children. He was always sickly. His mother instilled in him a great love of prayer and dedication to Christ and a special loyalty to Saint Joseph.

Alfred grew up in poverty, especially after his parents died. As an orphan he never finished school. He was illiterate but memorized many passages from Scripture, especially the Passion narratives of Christ. The superiors in the Congregation of Holy Cross did not want to accept Alfred into the community because of his frail health and lack of education. A local pastor, Father Andre Provencal, convinced the Holy Cross superiors to accept Alfred Bessette as a member. He added a note saying, “I am sending you a saint.”

It was through great prayer and the help of friends that Alfred became Brother Andre. He desired a life of poverty, celibacy and obedience. His sole assignment within the community was to serve as the Porter at Notre Dame College in Montreal. His ministry at the door of the college became his path toward love and holiness. He never imagined or dreamed how his life would change or how others would respond to him.

Almost immediately, people were drawn to Brother Andre. He told many who were sick to ask Saint Joseph for help, or to attend Mass. He anointed the sick with special oil found in a lamp near the Saint Joseph statue. He rubbed people’s wounds with a blessed medal of the saint. People were cured of many ailments, diseases and sufferings. Many people began leaving their crutches, canes and prostheses at the college. Brother Andre believed strongly that God’s healing was available for every person surviving poverty.

Some members of the Congregation of Holy Cross criticized Brother Andre because of his ministry of healing and his devotions. Parents at the college feared that sick people would get too close to their children. Brother Andre never saw himself as a healer nor was he concerned in the slightest about his reputation. Andre recognized that healing happened not through him alone, but because people believed in the works of Christ and the intercession of Saint Joseph.

Several years ago a young Jesuit novice entered through our red doors to volunteer in our hospitality center. He noticed Brother Andre’s image hanging on the wall. The novice immediately recognized the image and told us that Brother Andre was his great-great-uncle. He told us a story of a relative going to see Brother Andre. She stood for hours in a long line. Finally she got the opportunity to hold Brother Andre’s hand and tell him that she was a relative from the United States. He told her to move along; his time was for people who really needed him. This story has stayed with their family for years. When relating the story, his relatives told everyone that Brother Andre was a curmudgeon, a cranky old guy who did lots of good things.

Indeed, Andre did not have time for people who were merely curious about him. His single-minded devotion to suffering people was evident well beyond the borders of Canada. He became friends with many people who believed in him and his life was rich with friendships even when he was exhausted from speaking with the thousands of people every week that wanted to see him.

I continue to learn much from the small-framed, pious man who was poor, orphaned and homeless. Our shared religious community, the Congregation of Holy Cross, is best known in the United States for higher education among the privileged. We are priests and brothers, educators in the faith, known for outstanding college football and living comfortable lives. That the frail, illiterate doorkeeper and barber, Brother Andre will become our community’s first official saint, is a great paradox. I pray that we all have the courage to understand his life and celebrate his sainthood.

The poor believed in Andre because he too was poor. He did not see his religious life as an opportunity to escape from poverty or from hard work. Andre’s hospitality was a lived example of Jesus’ desire to run after the one lost sheep even when he was exhausted and afraid. Christ’s command to search diligently for the lost coin is seen in Andre’s acceptance of people. Jesus’ request to ask for what you need, knock on the door with faith and seek always was the total life of Brother Andre.

I am challenged by Andre’s legacy as I stand at our parish doors. I am not economically poor and my faith often wavers from hearing stories of traumas I cannot heal. My greatest poverty comes in my sheer loneliness and deep sadness that I cannot heal the abuse people have suffered as children. I cannot mend their horrific memories. I do not have the power to repair people’s ability to keep a job. I possess no answers when people weep because they do not have love or intimacy in their adult lives. I have only the profound example of Brother Andre as he lived Christ’s invitation to welcome people into community.

People often bend my ear at our parish doors, arguing that if the homeless would just get jobs they would not be a burden on society. I have not read any description of Andre yelling and screaming at passersby, but I often want to shout at people when I hear their judgments. People come to us abused, addicted, and mentally ill and possessing no self-esteem. In this economic recession even the most educated and the most beautiful find employment difficult to attain. We welcome people living in poverty, following Brother Andre’s example, and do not blame people for the struggles and challenges of their lives.

Many church doors are still locked and some of our communities remain inaccessible to certain people within our Church and society. Some doors are barred to children of gay and lesbian parents. Many doors are closed to pregnant teens. Doors are bolted shut to recovering drug addicts who try to heal from multiple abortions. Other doors are closed to the elderly who seek help after being abused. There often seems to be no one on the other side of parish doors to help in times of deep depression, bouts of lashing out from mental illness and landing in jail or even for former clergy seeking help with alcohol addiction.

These are the parish doors that worry me, that keep me awake during the night. Our answers rest in the models of service and hospitality that Brother Andre still shows the Church. I must believe that Christ’s love is the cure for such loneliness and despair among so many people living on the margins of our culture and Church.

Before I open our church doors, I must become vulnerable to God. As I step into the unknown of people’s lives, I remember that only God can reconcile the broken, heal the sick and feed the hungry. There are days when I cannot come to God with anything but fear and a deep knot in my chest. On these days I try to be counted among the disciples who scurried to a dark room, locked the doors and wondered what to do next. Then I search for the words the resurrected Christ offered to them and now offers to everyone, “Peace be with you.” In these words I turn toward Andre’s legacy of living each day in deep prayer and rich satisfaction of the peace and joy offered by God alone.

I admire Brother Andre because he lived his life with passion. He lived an utterly simple life. Other people had to force him to wear a warmer coat and to replace his worn-out shoes. I am deeply changed by this man who simply lived what he believed, that the love of God would be enough for him. God’s love, as it turned out, was more than enough for him.

Every Friday night our parish doors are opened for a meal of soup and sandwiches. People eat seated in chairs stretched along the sidewalk after receiving the meal in our small lobby. We name this soup line “Brother Andre Café.” Simple food becomes the message of hospitality and an extension of the Holy Eucharist. We offer this community event even in the pouring rain or when few volunteers come downtown to help. We welcome people from local low-income housing apartments and people who live under Portland bridges. This is people’s Friday night out, a time to relax on plastic chairs and converse with new volunteers and friends. Brother Andre’s spirit is with us even in the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Through Andre’s dedication, hard work and endless prayer, the Oratory of Saint Joseph in Montreal, Quebec in Canada, stands today as a place of devotion and prayer for many pilgrims from around the world. When Brother Andre died, over a million people fought the frigid weather and deep snow to get a brief moment to view his earthly remains. I truly believe that Brother Andre Bessette, CSC still opens doors for people surviving poverty and living with the consequences of physical pain, mental illness and devastating emotional disease.

Saint Andre of Montreal, pray for us and welcome us home.

Saint Doorkeeper

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, September 2010
– PDF version –

Every morning various groups of people anticipate the unlocking of the front doors to our parish building. People seeking a change of clothing or fresh hygiene products line up beginning at 6:00 a.m. Members of the staff arrive one by one beginning at 7:30, but struggle to approach the only door their key will open because a man is sleeping under a tarp in front of the door. Volunteers line up before 9:00 a.m. greeting one another and meeting the new group of nursing students who will volunteer in our morning hospitality center.

The unlocking of our red steel doors at our urban parish, the Downtown Chapel in Portland, Oregon ritualizes the opening of our two-hour weekday hospitality center. After one of the large doors is propped open, over a hundred people stream single file to our front office. They inquire about emergency travel, money for prescription drugs, or wait to receive a pair of clean white socks. People living in the single-room occupancy hotels gather to socialize or to receive a weekly voucher to a local Laundromat. A staff member then opens the hospitality center leading everyone in prayer so people may voice their pain and needs.

On Friday evenings, our parish community hosts a soup line in our very small lobby. Strangers and friends gather to socialize and to feed on a banquet of homemade soup and peanut butter sandwiches. We serve the anticipated food at our front door because some people suffering mental illness may feel trapped by coming into a public building. At our red doors even runaway teens who fear the church trust the hands that offer them hearty soup and hot chocolate.

Opening our parish doors ritualizes our ministry among God’s people living in poverty because the Congregation of Holy Cross staffs our parish. On October 17, 2010, my religious community will celebrate a man of weakness becoming a saint for everyone in the Church.Blessed Brother Andre Bessette, C.S.C. from Montreal, Quebec, in Canada whose only formal ministry was being a porter, will be the first canonized saint in the Congregation of Holy Cross.

Brother Andre officially welcomed all people at the door of Notre Dame College in Montreal beginning in 1872, the year of his profession of vows as a Holy Cross religious. Andre’s humble presence to strangers and firm devotion to Saint Joseph compelled him to believe in God’s healing power. Saint Joseph is the patron of Holy Cross Brothers as he humbly lived in the presence of Jesus. Brother Andre believed that our lives on earth should reflect this humble posture of living, working and serving always in the presence of Christ Jesus.

Brother Andre (Alfred) was born eighth of twelve children. His parents baptized him immediately after birth since he was so tiny and frail, and wasn’t certain to survive. He grew up with fragile health and became an orphan at twelve years old. The Congregation of Holy Cross even postponed his religious profession because of his ill health. He lived with the sensitivity of illness that turned him to greater reliance on God. He was singled hearted in his life of penance, simplicity and devotion believing that healing was possible for all kinds of pain and illness. By May 9, 1878, the first written testimony of five cures attributed to Brother Andre was published.

The ministry of our many volunteers, staff and parishioners teaches me that faith must be grounded in real suffering. Our work among people living in poverty and brokenness is not pious, fake or self-indulgent. The issues we face in our parish starkly remind us that we carry no real answers to people’s addiction to drugs. We do not have sure-thing answers to people living with severe mental illness as a result of being sexually abused as children. We cannot protect the short-skirted street princess, the stoned dealer roaming ruts in our front sidewalk or the strung-out Iraq veteran shouting obscenities on our corner. I cannot even protect myself from the loneliness I feel living in the midst of my homeless neighbors. However, people’s suffering must lead us all to greater faith and service no matter on which corner of the world we find ourselves.

I cling to the image of Andre welcoming strangers at the door. He stood for hours each day speaking with people for just a moment because he believed in God’s compassion to those who are suffering. This image forms our ministry here at the Downtown Chapel and should form the core of every parish no matter how much we want to hide our individual anguish from one another. The model of ministry of this humble man opens the doors to every worshiping community and crosses the boundaries of race, culture, education and national borders, and any other way we might seek to divide ourselves from one another.

Celebrating sainthood is never easy for the rest of us on earth. We tend to create new images of these people because we are afraid of how they challenge us today. I see this in how we reinterpret Brother Andre in art. He was a sickly, illiterate man, short in stature. In stained glass in our Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, Oregon, Andre sits among other North American saints looking healthy and robust. In the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels in Los Angles, California, an image of Brother Andre processes in the communion of saints woven in tapestry. There the image of Andre is six feet tall, broad-shouldered and looking as if he worked out at Muscle Beach. The image of Brother Andre in our midst must be grounded in the humility and love he personified on earth.

Even in my own religious community in the United States, as members of our American culture, we struggle to be changed by Brother Andre’s work among the poor. We prefer most often the well-educated rather than the illiterate, the prosperous rather than people suffering poverty, and the wholesome student rather than the addict or person suffering mental illness. When we honestly celebrate the saint’s mission in the Church, then we have to change our lives of privilege into greater dependence on God. We have to translate our community’s politics into real mission among the poor. We have to cultivate our vocations of love over our desire for self-promotion.

Brother Andre worked tirelessly to build Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, Quebec. Yet, he really opened the door there for the sick, lonely and poor to find a home in the healing power of Christ Jesus. When he died in 1937 over a million people made a pilgrimage to Montreal for his funeral. Miracles of healing still occur today. I witness these miracles welcoming people suffering poverty, isolation and illness every day as we open once again our red, steel doors of our parish and rely on God alone. Our holy doorkeeper still lives among God’s poor. Saint Andre of Montreal, pray for us.


Originally published by Ministry & Liturgy Magazine, August 2010
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I cringe when I notice the dirt on the door windows leading into the chapel. Our janitor cleans these windows daily and staff members occasionally wipe them spotless during business hours. However, by Sunday morning, handprints, coffee, food, body grease and makeup keep the windows smeared and dull. I often think that these greasy windows reflect on the staff and our ability to keep our chapel clean and appropriate for people to pray.

As I reflect on the Gospel passages beginning on the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time until the 29th Sunday in Ordinary time (September 19-October 17), I see through my own ego. I also see through the smears on the windows and some aspects of faith much more clearly. I see the reasons why the greasy, ugly prints show up in the first place. The grunge on the windows speak loudly about our ministry among those who sleep at our doors, the dozens and dozens of people who come to us needing our attention and the basics of life.

Luke’s Gospel reminds me that to be concerned with my own ego is to serve two masters. When the besmeared windows cast a light on our staff, we serve ourselves rather than the people we are called to befriend in the first place. We must not fritter away our property and not squander our accountability of our stewardship. However, the real property and the authentic stewardship are the people who struggle for clothing, food and a warm place to rest on weekday mornings. To see these people clearly is to become trustworthy in small things. Jesus reminds us that we will become children of light when we see through the opaque nature of our mistrust. When I see through my own foibles, insecurities, failures and moments of self-protection, I serve God and not mammon. I see then more clearly even through the dirty windows to the people who are looking back at me.

Another passage in Luke’s Gospel challenges me to see Lazarus at my door. Jesus’ story is also reflecting back to the fact of my physical safety, emotional comfort and abundant resources. Jesus tells the story of the rich man encountering the poor man at his own door. This story retells itself every day at our urban chapel. Not only Lazarus, but Ethel, Joe, Irene, Bill, Big-Feather, Isaac and Beshawn come waiting at our red steel doors. Some of these people sleep at our doors, leave food, press their greasy foreheads to the windows to peer inside and even urinate on our doors. Pet dogs provide companionship to many homeless people but they also leave their waste near the entrance to the chapel.

The parish doors remain dirty all day because of our hospitality, our welcome to the Lord’s Table. My preoccupation with having clean windows remains a deterrent to my place in the bosom of Abraham. The place in the next world is already being prepared for the staff and the people who wait at our doors. This relationship of those on the inside and those on the outside remains important to the salvation of everyone. This Gospel story reminds me again to listen to the one who has already risen from the dead, the one who will provide a place of welcome for everyone in the next world, Christ Jesus.

The apostles want to know for sure how to increase their faith. They think it will be all up to them to finish the race. Instead, Jesus tells them to put on an apron and get to work. There are more people at the door, more food to prepare, more hospitality to provide, more kindness to offer, more clothing to give away. He asks us to be servants of his Word and stewards again of his real property, the people at the door. The call to serve will always be our obligation, our way into the door of heaven.

Jesus also touches lepers and heals them. He breaks down limits, boundaries and borders to get to people in need. Jesus shows us that getting dirty, touching sores and seeking after the afflicted will provide for us a new way of life. He calls us in the meantime to be grateful. Jesus warns us to be careful whom we consider a leper. It might just be people who remain ego centered, caught in the trappings of cultural expectations, preoccupation with appearance, and people who cannot recognize the value of people.

I peer through the besmeared windows of our doors and see the dignity of dirt, the purpose of our community and the need for my own growth. As I invite people into our chapel, I see the light. In the chapel sanctuary itself there are no windows. I cherish the bright light of my relationship with real people.

Almost White Garments

Originally published by Ministry & Liturgy Magazine, February 2010
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I relish a moment of quiet in the chapel early on Easter morning. Every year at the Downtown Chapel I sneak downstairs, flick the switch of a single altar light and sit on the sanctuary steps. I relax in this sacred space as I have done in various other places in the 27 years of my priesthood. I savor the prayer and excitement, the longing and grieving, and the memories and peace of the Triduum. Every year the Triduum captures the real life of every parish, and I try to soak up the lingering hope of people who believe in the dying and rising of Christ Jesus.

Last Easter morning I tried to recall the names and faces of our friends who courageously extended their feet to be washed on Holy Thursday. I captured again the longing on those faces that ache for Jesus to truly wash them of suffering, poverty and loss. I remembered the fresh smell of the bleached towels. I heard again the gentle music, the soft singing. I felt again the anxiety of some people worried about publicly exposing their imperfect feet. The naked feet reminded me again of the sinners and outcasts who ache to be called among His followers. These memories help me realize one more time that everyone longs to be cared for and acknowledged as followers of the Christ who still washes us clean.

I remembered the folks who processed down the chapel aisle to kiss the cross on Good Friday. Some people from our hospitality center reverenced the cross for the first time. Other people who live on the margins of society hoped that this gesture could spark healing for them and for the Church. Still others sought out the wood because it has been a deeply significant ritual all the way from their childhood. Last year I sensed my own fear of death as I remembered an elderly woman who hobbled up to the cross. She died just a few short weeks later.

I also held up to the Divine my memories of celebrating the Easter Vigil. I smelled the Chrism now mingled among the bright aroma of the white lilies. I pondered the wax from the peoples’ candles now on the carpeting. I remembered the new fire capturing excitement on the faces of the Elect and the Word of God echoing our ancient history in our small chapel. I remembered the joyful faces of people renewing their baptismal commitments. The deep joy of new life echoed back to me on the quiet step.

My reminiscence ended abruptly last Easter morning with a knock on the chapel door. Julie, a volunteer and parishioner, arrived in the rain with a load of clothing donated from her coworkers. As I opened the door she said that a young man she encountered down the block really needed help. We invited him through the lobby doors. He was in his early twenties and told us he was just passing through town. He stood in front of us wearing jeans, a T-shirt and filthy, wet white socks. He explained that while he had slept in a doorway all of his possessions were stolen, even his shoes. He begged us for at least a pair of socks and any kind of shoes.

Julie and I escorted him into our men’s clothing pantry, a small dark space in our basement. I assisted him in sorting out some options for shoes. Julie ran upstairs to acquire a new pair of white sweat socks. His name was Chris, and the smell of booze covered him as he sat down on a bench to try on his new shoes. We chatted as he peeled off the soaking wet, filthy-grey socks from one foot then the other. His face lit up as he slowly put on his new socks and tried on a couple of pairs of shoes to find the right size. The donated canvas shoes fit him perfectly.

Julie and I engaged Chris in conversation as he relaxed on the bench enjoying the warmth of his new socks and shoes. He was alone, seeking a job, lost in alcohol, running from family issues and not sure he would stay in Portland long. He thanked us over and over again, for the new white socks and the shoes that felt even better than the boots he had been wearing.

As we were leaving the men’s pantry, Chris picked up his old white socks and tossed them to the side of the room into a small waste basket. I saw the gesture in slow motion, this young man tossing the white garments off to the side. I slowed down and took a second look at the socks in the trash can. I turned off the lights to the small windowless room, acknowledged his smile, closed the door and gave thanks for the Easter morning memory.

Sidewalk Soup

Originally published by Ministry & Liturgy Magazine, August 2009
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I learn every day from people on our narrow, urban sidewalk. Many of our low-income neighbors line up in the very early morning to enter our hospitality center to receive clothing and hygiene products. From my third-floor bedroom window I overhear a man arguing about his place in line and another homeless man telling stories about being beaten up during the night. The sounds of the sidewalk echo back to me a simple truth – I cannot eliminate the reasons why people are hungry. Nothing that I plan changes joblessness, increases salaries or offers people adequate health care. Providing suitable housing or employment after prison is out of my bounds. Lessening money mismanagement of people suffering depression or alcoholism is beyond my expertise.

Our parish community nonetheless continues to learn from this simple walkway around our building. Since we have no parking lot or parish garden, no school or separate rectory building, the sidewalk becomes our place of hospitality. On Friday evenings, parishioners and volunteers collaborate from our small urban parish in Portland, Oregon to provide a simple soup meal outside our building. For a couple of hours our sidewalk becomes not just a passage to bars and strip clubs, but a place where people can find friendship and real nourishment. Even though we do not provide long term solutions to poverty, we respond from faith to provide a kind ear, a friendly conversation and a hot meal.

This outdoor meal is truly the work of many people. Parishioners and volunteers prepare a hearty homemade soup and dated packages of pastries arrive from a local grocery store. A parishioner from a produce company delivers boxes of fresh fruit and retirees spread peanut butter on donated bread. Volunteers set up our small chapel lobby with pots of hot water for chocolate and strong coffee. In summer the hot soup is paired with refreshing cold lemonade from large plastic containers. A volunteer sets up a couple of long tables and wipes clean the old plastic tablecloths already used dozens of times.

We serve the feast from the tiny confines of our lobby, the smallest public space in our building. Our guests receive their meal and sit in plastic chairs lined up against the green outside wall. Even in the cold winter rains of Portland, people wait in line for the 7:00pm opening of the red steel doors on the corner of 6th Avenue and West Burnside Street.

Amid the food set-up, the volunteers and guests gather cramped into this small lobby space and narrow sidewalk for many reasons. One reason is the name of the soup line. Our evening hospitality is called the Brother Andre Café, after Blessed Andre Bessette. Andre was a Holy Cross Brother in Montreal, Canadawho died in 1937 with over one million people attending his funeral. He was a man of small stature with an overwhelming dedication to Saint Joseph. Assigned by our religious community to be the Porter at Notre Dame School because of his sickly nature, Brother Andre became a healer. People with crippling diseases traveled for miles to stand in line in order to speak with Brother Andre for just a few minutes. Andre was the first member of our Holy Cross community to be named “Blessed” by Pope John Paul II in 1982.

We carry on the ministry of hospitality Brother Andre showed the Church. Members of the parish welcome friends and strangers with food at our front doors. Our guests may not be healed of illness or infirmity, nor are their crutches and canes left at our door, but strangers are welcomed and our friends are fed, named and appreciated.

This street meal is more than merely a handout. I find profound connections at the bottom of the empty bowls, in the evening interactions. When I first came to the Downtown Chapel, drug dealers stood on our corner convincing people that addiction would be their real food. We pushed the dealers aside. On Friday evenings we present people with an alternative beyond broken needles with friendship and a full soup bowl. This dynamic ministry speaks loudly on our corner as we witness also to onlookers, shoppers and corporate executives strolling by on Friday evenings.

Our narrow sidewalk extends well beyond our own neighborhood. Our ministry of hospitality reaches far into wealthy suburbs and many other parishes. Every week members of different parishes take turns preparing their recipes for soup. The visiting parishes provide some of the volunteers to set up and clean up, to host the evening and to welcome our neighbors. Many volunteers also bring blankets, socks, hygiene products and clothing to be handed out during the weekday hospitality center. I understand more profoundly with every passing week that our narrow sidewalk meanders into the consciences of many people in various parts of the city and beyond.

These volunteers appreciate that our sidewalk soup line becomes a place for people to become known. For many suburban people, these sidewalks are a place of fear and anonymity. Our Brother Andre Café remains a place where the poor have names, faces, life stories, real fears and dimly-lit dreams. The middle-aged soccer mom begins to understand the stories of a young former prostitute living in a single-room occupancy hotel in our neighborhood. As her fear diminishes, the mother relaxes about her children coming to volunteer in our parish. Creating relationships becomes a key source of change, hope and healing for everyone involved.

Our Friday evening outreach is also a place where high school and college students encounter a meaningful mission of the Church. Our parish staff connects with a half-dozen colleges throughout the year. Some undergraduate classes serve food on Fridays and some stay for a week-long plunge in the neighborhood. Nursing students wash people’s feet on Wednesdays. Some high school students meet their volunteer requirements by sorting canned foods for our daily pantry. Others volunteer in our daily hospitality center handing out laundry vouchers to a local Laundromat. They all experience interactions with people who suffer greatly and who live on the margins of our society.

However, nearly all the students go back to their families and schools telling stories of the reality of life. I hear later that they talk about foot fungus, the lack of housing for former prisoners, and the inadequate facilities for homeless women. Our students leave here realizing that the mission of the Church is about people. They admit to me the stereotypes about the poor that their parents and classmates have been passing on to them and their growing realization of the injustice of many aspects of our culture.

Our food-stained sidewalk also helps give direction to the future clerical leadership of the Church. Graduate school seminarians are placed here by the seminary of the Archdiocese of Portland for our Friday night ministry. I lead undergraduate seminarians in a thirteen hour immersion into our work once a year. I watch as the soup begins to break down the notion that the Church is for only the well-educated and well-deserving.

By the end of the academic year the seminarians realize the terrifying issues of people locked in poverty, ill health and sustained unemployment. I watch barriers tumble down and I see that these future clergy gain real insight that ministry involves building real relationships with people. They are stripped of thinking their future priesthood will be about living apart from unemployment, adequate health care and alcohol abuse.. As always, food becomes the vehicle to bring all people together on the same level, the sidewalk becomes a place for equality and authenticity.

Our parish is not the only place that serves food on Friday evenings. In fact I tell new volunteers that food is not the real problem in our neighborhood. The true misfortune, perhaps the real hunger or disease, is loneliness. Social isolation among the homeless and especially people living in the single-room occupancy hotels feeds continuing addiction and crime. People who suffer any form of mental illness may also lack the desire or motivation to remain on medication, to take care of their personal hygiene or to make necessary financial decisions. Loneliness spirals people into further depression. Loneliness creates a path of hopelessness about the future. This isolation also destroys trust, keeping people from reaching out when they are most in need.

However, our volunteers often arrive believing they can change people. They want to solve their situations or zealously promote food or blanket drives. Some become visibly angry that we are not doing more to get people medical help and dental care.Miracles become visible to me when our wealthy volunteers realize that our staff know the names of our guests. Volunteers gradually understand people when they get to know their human stories. Poverty is not easily solved. The issues of mental illness and homelessness are a tangled network of real issues not solvable by any good intentions. Our volunteers who share a bowl of soup realize that if poverty is to be changed, relationships are the key ingredient. This recipe for change starts with broth, onions, carrots, chopped meat, and a warm smile.

The source of these relationships on the streets comes from inside our chapel building. The Eucharistic Table, the center of any faith community, provides the risk to take love beyond the sanctuary. Our community is loved into service. Every day as I celebrate Mass, I break the hosts and pray that grace may sustain everyone present. There is grace enough for everyone because of Christ’s relationship with all believers. God also provides grace which compels us into feeding people who hunger for food, love and a sense of belonging. I realize that God’s love is plentiful if only we can give it away. I ask God every day for the courage to put Eucharist into practice, to take love to the streets of the city and into the households of everyone – even unbelievers.

Even though our parish community serves from God’s love, we still do not have the resources to change policies concerning health care for everyone, adequate housing for the mentally ill and decent employment for veterans. However, I believe that if policies are ever going to change in our cities or for the rural poor, we must first be in relationship with people who are poor. And the source of all these relationships is the sanctuary in all of our churches, the place in which we profess our belief in the Resurrection of Christ Jesus.

Leaving our sanctuaries to minister on street corners is never easy for any worshipping assembly. Entering into the unknown is always risky. Leaving the security of ritual and breaking down even the invisible communion rail takes deep and profound faith. The priorities for every faith community must remain in service to people who suffer. The call of Jesus to wash feet, heal the sick, touch the leper, and encourage the sinner is not a false piety. This call is not for warm-hearted liberals or staunch conservatives, but for us who pattern our lives after Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. This mission is Christ’s love made flesh, to build community, engage the suffering, and sustain the orphan and widow.

The sanctuary is the place where service and justice are birthed. The sacred liturgy calls us to live beyond the threshold of our comfort, to open doors beyond our ignorance. Our parish community continues to call us into our streets and neighborhood even beyond serving soup. Our community processes to a murder site when violence strikes our neighborhood. We sing a litany that names forms of evil on the sidewalk where the stabbing or shooting occurred. It is the very same litany we sing when we celebrate the Scrutiny Rite for our catechumens. Members of our staff take people on tours to educate volunteers and strangers about the issues of poverty we learn from being in relationship with people inside our chapel walls. The sanctuary and streets are both places of conversion and hope.

I realize sharing soup and stories on the streets does not solve every aspect of people’s suffering. Our staff did not have the insurance or medical care to keep Jane from dying on our streets from gangrene. Our parish cannot solve Jim’s problems of severe mental illness which keeps him in the same clothes for months without showering. We cannot clean people’s teeth or offer a root canal. We cannot fix the ongoing problem of bedbugs in the single room occupancy hotels.

The sidewalk outside our chapel building is more than a corridor to the neighborhood. The concrete path is an extension of the Eucharist itself. The food we share gives us hope when everything else fails. The soup served from the cold streets unites lonely people on Friday evenings and changes priorities of volunteers. The common walkway leads right back to the sanctuary when we are all exhausted from our efforts and need to be fed again with real sustaining food, the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus.