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.

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.


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.

Wheels of Misfortune

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, July 2010
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I often catch myself defining my life by my possessions. Sometimes I identify my success through labels of priesthood and the privileges that ministry offers me. I can measure my life and work by clerical perks. I can hide from others and myself by never paying taxes and not being responsible for another person or a family. I take my health insurance for granted in the present and my secure retirement in the future. The label of priesthood even offers me the ability to overindulge on food at our common table.

These external possessions do not provide the reasons for priesthood. If I live in this shallow clinging to benefits, then I miss my true self and my relationships with people. Ministering among people living with profound uncertainty changes how I relate to the external securities of my profession. I discover that other people’s struggles define my priesthood much more than my earthly possessions and privileges.

Each weekday people line up at our parish door asking for some basics of life, a toothbrush or underwear, a cup of coffee or a haircut. Recently a man in his early thirties came up to our front office window and asked a staff member for a backpack. She kindly offered him a small bag with wheels. He insisted on a backpack with growing frustration in his voice. The staff member assured him the bag with rollers could accommodate his belongings.

The exhausted man started to cry. He did not want to give into accepting the bag with wheels. He slowly explained that if he took the bag with wheels it would lead next to acquiring a shopping cart. If he possessed a wheeled cart, that would lead to pushing his belongings around the city. If he found himself piling his possessions on a metal cart, then he would have to admit to himself that he was homeless. He just did not want the label, the identity of being a homeless man.

Nearly every person struggles to find the appropriate relationship with what we think we own. The liturgical gospels from the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time until the Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time prioritize our belongings. Jesus invites his disciples into an abundant life. The only scarcity is the number of laborers. He challenges his disciples to focus not on sacks and sandals but on the peace that will change people. He calls them to move around from house to house carrying little on their backs. Jesus assures them that the message of the Kingdom of God will be the real priority to share with everyone who pays attention.

Jesus shows us that we must be attentive to people on this journey. Focusing on too many earthly possessions keeps us from recognizing people in need who are directly in front of us. The wholehearted love that we are to offer God is the priority and it is to be lived out serving the needs of people. As I listened to the man who did not want a wheeled bag, I took my own personal inventory of what I consider my true possessions. I know well that my earthly stuff offers me an identity that often keeps me on the opposite side of the street from people who most need help.

Theses gospels reveal to us that our real possession is Christ himself. Our frustrations and concerns often stem from not being in relationship with Jesus in the first place. Martha and Mary battle for his attention with their activity and their contemplation. As I minister among people struggling for daily bread, I evaluate at sunup my relationship with God who first gives me the gifts to be attentive and active. I understand that if I am to be at the feet of Christ with my brothers and sisters in poverty, then I must change the way I see my life and all my resources.

Jesus warns us in these summer days not become greedy. He touches us with love so that we will believe that our lives are not based on what we own. We do not need bigger storage units and more closets, larger barns or plastic containers; we simply need a new priority to recognize what is enough in our lives. The man who did not want a wheeled cart unfortunately faced dire times and had recently become homeless. He was still learning to prioritize his needs in order to just survive. Jesus calls us again to look beyond the value of our possessions. This message is difficult to hear for many who do not possess the basic essentials of life.

Jesus tells us not be afraid. That request from our Savior is always difficult when we are faced with daily hunger, a lack of medication for depression, threats of nightly assaults and no money. He asks of us again to give away what little we have and to not be afraid of how we will live. The man at our window was so afraid to enter into the phase of his life in which he found himself, being homeless. He did accept the bag with the wheels. He just needed someone to listen to him. He needed someone to catch the meaning of his tears. I still learn lessons from our experience with him, to not be afraid to enter into the real issues of my life, the next phase of grace even when I am most afraid.

We cannot enter the narrow gate with all our possessions in hand, not even if we push them through the gate in a wheeled cart. Jesus continues to show us that the last will be first and the first will be last. If we realize that we do not create our identity from our many possessions, then we will rest humbly in God. We will discover that our real identity comes in knowing God and befriending our real selves.

No matter in which community we worship, God invites us to take a seat among the humble. As I reevaluate my attachment to my possessions, I see in our common prayer that I do not own these possessions anyway. All that we have in life is a gift from God. No matter how we live in the world, no matter how we store our supplies or find our identity in designer labels, God gifts us with all life. As the man left our parish center, our staff member assured him he was always welcome to park a wheeled cart at our door anytime in order to pray with us.

Lifting Up

Originally published by Ministry & Liturgy Magazine, June 2010
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Ministry in our parish introduces me to some threatening forms of power. I see the pecking order for dominance and survival each day even among people our society claims have no power. People who sleep in their cars look down on people who sleep under the bridge. People living under the bridge often ignore people living in the doorways along our street. People who are not addicted to alcohol or drugs put down those who are stoned or drunk standing in line at our church door.

Every day I observe the deep human need for people to look down on other people. This moment of control defines so many human situations. This power struggle is seen in prostitution, child abuse, drug use, gangs, wars and even on a grade school playground. The misuse of power happens in marriages, workplace relationships and among children of wealth as well as children of poverty. These struggles for control and dominance separate the employed and the jobless, the well educated and the illiterate, and the dominance of one race over another. This battle for power happens among siblings and between adult members of religious communities.

As I read the Gospel passages beginning on The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary through the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, I see Luke assessing our use of power. Luke puts very strong words into the mouth of Mary, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.” These prophetic words place opposing people on the same plane, on the same level ground, with the same view of life. To live a life of faith then, we must be able to look other people in the eyes, to recognize their worth, to honor their dignity, to serve people simply because they are human beings.

These Gospel passages help us all, even in the Church, to sort out how we may put other people down by our unkind words, knee-jerk reactions, obsessive thoughts and threatening gossip. Luke reminds us when we think our way is the only way that some who are last will be first and some who are first will be last. Luke’s message is not just that we need to watch out for people living in poverty, but that we need to quit putting down others whom we think are beneath us. He is asking us for a change of attitude, a conversion of heart, a transformation of reaction and a new way of living our faith.

Jesus invites people who have chosen the place of honor at a banquet to sit elsewhere. He unseats the proud and haughty. He offers a new seat of honor to the man who humbled himself. Jesus lifts up those who know their real place in life. These stories remain not just proper etiquette, but invite us to a deeper conversion of how we live our faith in the world. These passages mold our view of how we see the stranger at Mass and the kinds of judgments we place on people who look different from ourselves. These Gospel words form us into true believers when our automatic response is to put others down. This changes our instinct when we think false power makes us look better, or feel more worthy or deem us more acceptable.
Jesus says to us, “Anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple”. These possessions are not only physical, but even include negative thoughts that cloud our judgments of people. These are not just possessions we store in our hope chests, but the dreams of other people that we destroy by prejudice, bigotry, sexism and homophobia. Our possessions include all the ways in which we speak about people, making them less than ourselves.

Jesus runs a mile for a lost sheep, leaving the rest. He expects us to search our homes for the lost coin and to run far and wide to embrace our lost child. This is the real mystery of God, to ponder the unthinkable, to retrieve the cast-off, to reunite the lost and to forgive when forgiveness is unthinkable.

We risk letting go of false power because of Christ’s dying and rising. The Paschal Mystery is not just a way of worship and belief for us, but a radical new way of thinking and treating other people. The power that Jesus broke through was death itself, so there are no other deaths of put-downs, biases, threats, bullying, abuse or neglect that will ever win. Our parish communities must find our balance of power again after scandals, sex crimes and our judgments of people.

Every day I observe people striving to claim their place in life through false power. As followers of Christ we can live beyond our instincts to put people down, to put destructive labels on others to make us righteous. My ministry among people living in poverty shows me these power struggles and teaches me to love.

Behind Illusion

Originally published by Ministry & Liturgy Magazine, May 2010
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I wake up to the reality of my own selfishness every day. People living under bridges or under caves of cardboard reveal to me how I take for granted the easy life I live as a priest. People suffering severe illnesses of the mind model for me a sincere trust in how life unfolds.

I worry about my own survival even when my religious community pays for my health insurance, even when I sleep in a safe, heated room on a clean bed each night. I cling to my internal fretting even though I overeat each and every day. I remain anxious even though I have friends to shelter me from the bitter cold of loneliness and self-pity. Each day I see more clearly beyond my illusions of fear as I look into my own heart, as I ponder the incredible gifts God gives me.

Living and working among people suffering poverty allows me to realize that I cling to my external possessions and fears. I hold on because I believe that these possessions identify me in the world. Without these labels I fear I would lose my place in society, my status in the Church, my image among my friends. I live the labels of priest, preacher, friend, writer, or cook because without these names I fear I would not be known to God or to myself.

I listen to the Gospel of Luke in these four weeks of mid-July through mid-August realizing our possessions do not name us. Luke invites us again to examine our relationship with all that claims us. Our real identity rests in letting things go to discover God behind our illusions.
Jesus tells us to not be afraid any longer even when we are asked to sell all we own and give alms. Jesus promises us that our lasting treasure, our authentic identity and relationships will come in this action. In fact, we will also find our genuine selves, our hearts’ desire and even eternity in Christ.

Many Church leaders live in fear today. It is our natural instinct to want to protect our children after the crisis of the sex crimes of the clergy. We worry over fewer young people attending Mass, and we fret over vocations to the priesthood when we bury our aged clergy. We agonize over the rules of the Church in days when our faith seems watered down as we struggle to find our authentic Catholic identity. We stew over mixed- culture parishes when downsizing and consolidation seem to be the only answers for survival.

Luke invites us not to worry over our struggles, our identities and our futures. He challenges us to view even our faith as a possession. We are called to welcome those who challenge us, love those who hate us, and offer hospitality to those who cannot repay us. Luke shows us that we must rid ourselves of everything that gets in the way of living the passion, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.

If we listen carefully to these passages of Luke’s Gospel, we will learn to rely on the daily bread that is offered us and even in turn offer it to someone who begs at nightfall. He teaches us in these summer weeks not to worry about the externals of the church and not to hide our deep trust in God’s love for us. We may fret and be anxious as Martha was serving the person of Christ. However, we must realize that the true presence of Christ is within us forever.

We must learn from people in poverty who Luke calls us to serve. This knowledge offers survival to our communities of faith. We give alms to realize our trust in God. We do not give alms to make us feel better about our own generosity. We offer people faith and love so we may be converted to even a deeper love. We do not offer the marginalized food, shelter, clothing and communion to show other people how much faith we have or to make us look good to someone else.

If we are to live the model of the sacramental church, then we must be converted when the Bread of Life is broken and shared, when the Cup of Salvation is poured out for the many. This sacramental action will allow us to release our grasp on many of our possessions and allow us to become the people we claim to be, followers of Christ who gave up even his life for our sake. The action of the Eucharist becomes Luke’s message for us to give up our pretense, our security and everything we own to become people of authentic trust and deep love.

People who live on the edge of survival teach me to trust this genuine life God gives me. This process of self-stripping, of letting go of my false identity, gives me courage to live out the gospel message to serve people in poverty and to receive my portion of God’s offering of daily bread.

Someone Else’s Clothing

Originally published by Ministry & Liturgy Magazine, April 2010
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I still hang on to several pairs of jeans in my closet that do not fit me anymore. I should say I have gained too much weight to fit into my old jeans. However, I cling to the illusion that someday I will learn how to take better care of myself. This is the self-talk that keeps those perfectly good jeans hanging out of my sight. I do not want to admit that they need to be given away to people who need them today, to survive the cold springtime of Portland, Oregon.

The longer I minister among people who live outside or who suffer beyond my imagining with diseases of the mind, I realize my sickness of clinging to clothing that does not fit me anymore. I have yet to fully comprehend that it is not only the clothing that does not fit me anymore, but my view of who I am as a person and as a priest that has changed ministering among our society’s fragile, vulnerable and physically naked.

I evaluate the contents of my closet every Saturday evening as I unlock the chapel door on our urban corner in downtown Portland, Oregon. I open the steel doors and Irene is always waiting there to enter. She carries with her in a wire cart the contents of her entire closet. All the clothing she owns from her single-room-occupancy apartment is wadded up in the shopping cart and in several bags she carries on her shoulder. She tells me she brings her belongings to Mass because she fears someone will break into her apartment and steal everything. She lives in great fear that her second-hand clothing will become another hand-me-down to a thief.

I do not know if the thief is coming. However, she provides for me serious reflection about what I carry with me, not only the clothing on my back but the attitudes, values and lived reality of my priesthood. She stands every Saturday as a reminder that I do not own my possessions. I am not what I wear. My true identity comes from my real nakedness, the intentions of my heart and life.

Several years ago after welcoming Irene into the chapel and helping her carry her clothing to her pew, I entered the sacristy to vest for Mass. I opened the closet in the sacristy and reached for my alb that is twenty-eight years old. The familiar beige cloth comforted me and reminded me of these many years of liturgical prayer. I have clothed myself with the same alb to bury strangers and family members. I have worn the alb to witness the commitments of hundreds of couples and to receive the heartfelt confessions of strangers. The dark stains on the sleeves reveal the illnesses of people who have been anointed with holy oil. It smells of sweat and aftershave. I have stood at the altar in dozens of churches amidst varieties of circumstances. Holding the garment next to my body, I realized how I have been changed, not from what I wear, but from the many people who have challenged me, taught me, and shown me how to become a real person beneath the alb of prayer.

I reached for the green chasuble that the parish owns. I stopped, held the garment, and realized for the first time in all my years of priesthood that I was wearing someone else’s clothing. I am also a person of poverty. Not only did I realize I did not possess the garment, but I understood that the garment would never be fully owned by any person. This garment belongs to everyone. This garment has been handed down for centuries, not as a sign of separateness, but as a witness that nothing belongs to us. At that moment, I felt profound joy and relief that I have not physically grown out of the clothes I wear to celebrate the Eucharist.

Now, every time I reach for a colorful chasuble, I am reminded of all who are naked, those who wait in lines and have to ask for the basics of life. I bring to mind the grueling fact that so many people in our country of privilege have to ask someone else for clean underwear. Everyone in church leadership should witness the humble faces of people who have to ask another person for such personal items. These people’s humility and courage would teach us all how to relate to the entire worshipping assembly.

My liturgical vesture calls me to prayer by showing me that so many people own only the clothing on their backs and another person first owned that clothing. These vestments tells me not to claim false power, or find privilege in leading prayer, or get caught in the trap of how some people want to treat me with privilege.
I wear a stole for liturgical prayer that calls me first to stand emotionally and spiritually naked in moments of quiet, personal prayer. I must be ready to acknowledge the source of my life in God before I can lead other people to the mystery of Christ’s dying and rising. I must know firsthand that the piece of cloth around my neck does not provide for me places of honor. I cannot place burdens on people that I would not carry myself. The longer I wear the stole, the more I see it as a means of self-stripping, letting go of so much that separates me from real people. The stole calls me to prayer so I may become more honest in my life as a priest and as leader of the Eucharist.

The stole, a yoke around my neck, speaks to me now in ways it never has before. I live a life of advantage, education and benefit. The yoke that I carry around my neck must be connected to the suffering of people who wait in line, not only for the Eucharist, but also for every daily meal. The heaviness of that simple piece of material around my shoulders must connect me emotionally to people’s suffering. I must join my prayer to people locked in the chains of prison. I must begin to feel the weight of unemployment on the shoulders of a single mother and her little girl. I must hear the story of people and feel their lost dreams of education and a solid future in this downturned economy.

Before I was ordained a priest, my mother hand sewed two chasubles for me. Her gift to me was the joy of dressing me as a priest as she had dressed me as an infant. I remember purchasing the white light-wool material, the thread and the decorative banding. My mother figured the cost of each chasuble was $9.00. I certainly did not realize the true value of those liturgical garments at the time, the handmade vestments for Eucharist sewn by my mother.

I wore both chasubles for years being reminded that ordination is so deeply rooted in the garments of baptism. Every time I put on one of the vestments over my head and on to my body, I am reminded of how my parents clothed me for many years. The vestment shows me again that I will never really out grow my baptismal garments that have called me into a life of service.
I draped one of the chasubles over my mother’s casket when I celebrated her funeral. The funeral director tucked it into her coffin before burying her. I had to let it go. In some ways I had to grow out of the garment and into another phase of life. I needed to leave it with her as a reminder of her years of love and care for me. I knew it really did not belong to me, but to her support and encouragement for my ministry.

I connect my Eucharistic vesture to many moments of ministry and to many ways our bodies are covered with gowns of suffering. I see my vesture calling me into service when I encounter an elderly man wearing a hospital gown just coming out of surgery. Finding our bodies in someone else’s clothing no matter how new or clean is always difficult. Wearing such garments is difficult for patients when the material does not completely cover the naked body. These strange gowns are always associated with body pain, loss and bland hospital food. When I see someone in a hospital gown, I pray for them when I cover my own body in the garment of love and sacrifice at the altar.

I pray for newborns in diapers, the garments that create fathers out of ordinary husbands. I connect my prayer with the clean white handkerchief I give to the young woman on the streetcar because her nose is bleeding and she has enough trouble navigating her mental illness. I associate my vestments of service with the white bandages the medics use to stop the bleeding of a man too drunk to stand up near our chapel door. In all these moments I see in my heart the white cloth that was tossed aside in the empty tomb on that morning when the disciples could not find the dead body of Jesus. The living Christ, the Spirit of God, connects me to that garment first worn by someone else.

I recently noticed a runaway teen and his girlfriend sleeping on bench near the river in downtown Portland. As I walked by I noticed the young man wearing a T-shirt that read, “The University of Notre Dame.” By seeing his tattered, baggy pants, and large over-sized shirt I realized that his clothes were obviously first worn by someone else. They both looked as if they had been living on the streets for years. I wondered if my religious community, the Congregation of Holy Cross, knows where the clothing from Notre Dame goes after the football games have ended and the students have gone home. I would have ignored this youth before realizing that I also wear clothing that once belonged to someone else.

I was ordained at the University of Notre Dame but I have deepened my formation into the Gospel by entering the mystery of people’s suffering. The T-shirt was just a T-shirt to the lad on the bench. It covered his body. The shirt looked stained with vomit from over drinking alcohol. He did not wear the shirt to prove an affiliation as a football fan or an alumnus of the school, but for sheer survival. I saw the shirt and immediately connected it with the vestments that call me into working for justice and to care for people like the youth on the park bench.

I risk being spiritually naked in front of people at the altar every day. The ancient vestments protect me from the holy fire that stirs on the altar, the Real Presence of God. This fire creates community from suffering, pain and longing. At the altar of God there are no distinctions of rich and poor, we are human beings longing to experience our real identities in Christ Jesus. The vesture is a sign of our common lives clothing us in the dying and rising of Christ. The liturgical clothing becomes our baptismal dying to human power and rising to the real presence within us of God’s healing and saving life.

Even after all these years of priesthood, I am still growing into the clothing that has been passed down to me for centuries. These hand-me-downs teach me not to get stuck in my human ego and false concerns. My vestments clothe me in overwhelming humility. Vesture is not a liturgical carapace, but a connection to our lives of human poverty. The vesture hanging in the sacristy shows me the connection I have daily to people living in poverty and who have no choice as to always wear someone else’s clothing.

I will be buried in a chasuble. I will wear someone else’s clothing for all eternity. However, my ill fitting jeans may still be hanging in the closest waiting for someone else to benefit from my inability to let them go.

The Spirit’s Note

Originally published by Ministry & Liturgy Magazine, March 2010
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When I lived in Southern California, I walked every week along the promenade between Santa Monica and Venice Beach. The famous beach pathway is not only well-known for its sunshine and beautiful sand, but for all the colorful people who make their living selling unique items. Many people will also offer their small or individual talents in exchange for a money offering. Some people who are homeless ask for a donation of coins or paper money dropped in a bucket or hat or tossed on a blanket.

One Friday morning as I was making the return trip to Santa Monica, I noticed a homeless man blowing on a trumpet with a small, rusty coffee can at his feet. He caught my attention because his trumpet looked as if it had been run over by a truck. The smashed instrument looked unplayable at best. However, my fascination became centered on the fact that he was playing just one musical note. I stopped in my tracks and watched him play for awhile. I could not believe my eyes or ears. After listening to his one note concert for a few minutes, I moved on along the path back to my car.

After walking about a half-mile away from the horn player, I stopped cold. All of a sudden something dawned on me. I said out loud on the path, “Now I get it! It was not that he was playing just one note on his trumpet, the man had the courage to play his note!” I am not sure what the people around me must have thought when they heard me talking to myself. However, the new insight sent me racing back to the one-note gentleman to put some money into his rusty container. Unfortunately, he disappeared before I could make a donation to his flat trumpet.

As I look back to my experience on the beach that day, I hold this man’s courage firmly in my heart. He was so humbled by his communication with his trumpet, yet he was fearless in offering to the world what only he could offer. This note speaks to me now of our upcoming celebration of Pentecost.

On Pentecost Sunday, we will proclaim from 1 Corinthians, “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” This is manifest in my friend’s trumpet playing. The cumbersome note grasped my attention. It was not a note from a wealthy person, or an educated musician, a cleric or a teacher. This sound of belief and even longing came from a homeless man struggling for a dime in the hot sun.

Because I heard this man’s trumpet, I only imagine how many people I have ignored before him. His dire poverty struck me. I catch myself judging people for expressing themselves, or discounting their voice because of their background, their financial status or their lack of formal education. His humble poverty changed me and my belief about how the Holy Spirit changes me.

At Pentecost we must reconsider the people crying out to us who long for our attention, who beg to be heard, understood and accepted. We must welcome the teenager lost in the foster care system, the elderly suburban woman being abused or the manic housewife caught in addiction. If we believe that the Spirit is not dead, then we must be able to hear the Spirit in the lives of people we have ignored, shunned or have turned a deaf ear.

Many parish communities are paralyzed with fear faced with people in poverty. We have built fences around our schools, locked our church doors and protected our parish gatherings from strangers. We are called again this Pentecost to break free of our fear to welcome the lost, the smelly, the ragtag and the neighbor next door. Pentecost is not a past experience; it is an explosive grace capturing the hearts of people today, in our time and generation.

The Spirit still blows the hinges off our doors, still knocks us off our pedestals, still whips the wind out of our preconceptions and heals our hurtful judgments of one another. The celebration of Pentecost must create the Church from the lives of those who are waiting for a new dignity of life, for those who long to be accepted and for those who cannot wait to pray with us.

The golden age of the Spirit does not exist. We must not believe that a certain time in history is more infused with grace than another. We cannot get stuck in our parish communities believing that the Spirit was more present when we had the cute pastor, or when we had stricter rules, or when priests wore cassocks, or when we wore tie-die.

The gift of Pentecost costs us our thinking that we are in charge, that life will be better without the stranger or that our false security will bring us peace. Pentecost reminds us all as individuals and worshipping assemblies that our lives are a mystery and we are made lovingly in each note of the Spirit’s love.

Pastel Breakthroughs

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, March 2010
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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.

Testing the Waters

Originally published by Ministry & Liturgy Magazine, December 2009
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I was shocked at the results of my eighth-grade aptitude test. I thought for sure when I sat through the exam that it would easily reveal my future career. I figured my entire life would be outlined in this simple assessment completed even before high school. Instead, when I received the results, I knew my future was not going to be so easily defined. The test revealed only one area of real strength in the 90th percentile range, everything else was in the 20-30th percentile range. The graph revealed that “agriculture” was my strong point and that my identity would rest on these skills.

I glance way back to the eighth grade because I now have perspective on God’s grace and sense of humor. Life is not as cut and dried as I hoped as a child. I could never have predicted my life’s tests, sacrifices and wrong turns or the beauty of experiences and relationships. The irony of my life now is that I live on a concrete farm in an urban parish in downtown Portland, Oregon. I minister in an environment where there is no grass, no potted flowers, no home-grown spices, and no garden vegetables and not even visible soil. It is also the place where my faith is put to the test and where my life is open for surprise.

This test goes well beyond my eighth-grade exam. Each day brings new demands beyond my abilities. People here are embedded in fear about how to survive the unfortunate circumstances of their lives. They live with the hard lessons of economic pitfalls, horrible addictions and the blame that their homelessness is their entire fault. There is no time here for pretense or false piety. There are no black and white answers to issues of poverty. We have no patience in this setting for power struggles and stodgy clericalism. The soil here for ministry takes many years to plow. Reaping is in God’s hands alone.

The real test for me centers on my ability to let go of my preconceived notions of my strengths, weaknesses and even my ability to trust God. Here, God calls me beyond my imagining, leaving me clinging only to the everyday seeds of trust, fidelity and gratitude. My real life test is to live the life reflected in love of the sacraments and my commitment to the poor.

Working among the poor has tested my faith completely. Several years ago I had the idea of offering a day of retreat for people preparing for initiation from around the Archdiocese. I wanted people who are searching for identity within the Church to discover even for a few hours what I have found here. I wanted people to learn about God’s fidelity among people who have less than themselves. So for the past half-dozen years our parish has hosted this five-hour Lenten retreat at the Downtown Chapel.

The Elect and Candidates, sponsors and team members are offered the opportunity to assemble in our urban setting where ministry puts us all to the test. The purpose of the retreat is to expose everyone’s vulnerability in prayer. This emptiness or loneliness in God allows us to serve those who are physically poor. Our neighborhood in return then shows everyone on the retreat that we are all the same; we all need God no matter how much money, power or possessions we own.

Many of the Elect from other parishes are not exposed to how the Church responds to people on the margins of society. They have not yet experienced the social Gospel and have not been taught the lived history of social justice within the Archdiocese. I discover that people want to test out whether or not the Church is practicing what it preaches.

I begin the retreat asking people about their experiences of prayer. Many faces go blank because they fear they will give a “wrong” answer. I ask them not to test them, but to find some bedrock of truth to explore our relationship with God. After a few minutes of surface answers and polite conversations we get down to the real issues of life. A sponsor finally opens up about how difficult prayer can be when guilt suffocates her. A young candidate from the suburbs whispers that surrender is most difficult because of her addictive and controlling behaviors. A mother reveals that her prayer is still about the grief she carries because of her miscarriage. One man acknowledges his experience in prayer as, “Fits and starts.” A young woman struggles in her prayer to listen. An elderly woman admits her “Restlessness.” And an admitted addict speaks of prayer as “Only love.”

I struggle to authentically articulate how the poor teach me to pray. If I am honest about my own life, I know how I push God away and then complain that I do not belong within the boundaries of God’s fidelity. I hear every day from people who have next to nothing in life. However, they reach out to touch even the hem of Christ’s garment because that is so often their last possession.

To demonstrate this I ask someone in the group to “play” God. I usually ask a woman to stand up and I introduce her to the group as God. God who is all love, not just “sort of like love”, but all love stands with open arms. I walk to the other side of the room, face against the wall and yell out how we all live in our own power leading to addictive behaviors, isolation, and false authority. “God” calls my name and I slowly turn into the direction of love, finally being reconciled into the loving embrace of God who accepts me and brings me home.

I learn this honesty in new ways from people who suffer mental illness, severe loneliness and even from people who suffer unimaginable abuse. I speak as openly as I can about my own inability to be honest in my quiet moments with Jesus. My challenge in silence is to pray the truth of my life and not try to reach God from the emotional masks and even sin I hide behind.

I try to get across to our visitors that if we are going to serve authentically, we must pray with genuine hearts. We cannot serve thinking we have solutions to other people’s problems. We cannot be convincing if we have not first found ourselves in the embrace of God. Otherwise we become just a church of, “Do-gooders” instead of people who are compelled by God to serve others in the world.

My colleague from another parish, Deacon Brett Edmonson, fashions the vulnerability that has been raised in conversation into a model of prayer. He takes these seeds of honesty and opens people’s lives in the model of prayer called, “Lectio Divina.” This process of slowly reading the Scriptures offers people an opportunity to sink soul-deep into the consolation of the Holy Spirit within the Scriptures. The loneliness and fear that rises up from the discussions rests in the Holy texts, not to resolve the fear, but to allow God to receive it.

These contemplative frameworks for prayer suggest to people that our complications and worries are lived and supported in the mystery of God’s love for us. I watch people’s attentive facial expressions as they realize their prayer comes from their vulnerability. They seem to relax into God’s care when they confront these tender life issues. They rest in a new silence that seems full of insight when people make the connections to their own poverty.

These genuine discussions and silent moments seem to relieve the anxiety people had initially about coming to this urban area in the first place. Their eyes light up when their own questions of life are acknowledged and their fears are spoken openly. This creates a new place in the hearts of all the participants now to leave the confines of the parish building and go into the streets to tour our neighborhood.

Members of our staff lead the participants in small groups from our parish lobby into the streets to discuss the issues of our neighbors. Since our parish does not have any free-standing homes in our boundaries, we speak about the struggles people face within the single room occupancy hotels. We tell stories of people dealing with exploding numbers of bedbugs, over-priced rooms, lack of insurance, minimal health care and drug-induced violence. I tell stories of engineers, contractors and workers cutting corners in their work because the building they were building was to house the poor. People are introduced to the nightclub adjacent to the parish that plays music until 6:00am on weekends and are told of how the sound reverberates in my bedroom.

We walk with a new awareness of what the poor face every day and the issues so many people want to ignore. We stop in front of several non-profit organizations, similar to praying a public Stations of the Cross. We pause, tell stories and pray for the care the agencies provide. Slowly our friends on retreat realize the complexity of life for people who are homeless, addicted and mentally ill. Our participants speak of how they have been so blind to people around them and how their families still cultivate fear about poor people.

I explain on our pilgrimage that even one issue would be enough to speak about for our retreat. If we just focused on homeless women, the stories would be vast about the lack of shelters and care for women. We could spend days speaking about the horrific issues of domestic violence and how the women roam the neighborhood at night so not to be raped. We could spend the rest of the day speaking about the women who sit at night around the perimeter of our chapel building hoping to be safe.

When the groups end the pilgrimage they walk back into our building to debrief their new experiences in the chapel. There is a new silence, a hush of observations and insights that fill the space. Some bear the weight of the test with tears, with a new desire to volunteer, and a new realization that suffering must be surfaced in every parish community. One woman shared that her grandmother was homeless and that the walk around the neighborhood was extremely exhausting and painful. All along the way, reminders of her relative’s struggles pierced her conscience and pulled at her heart. She felt so much guilt because she could never fix her grandmother’s pain.

We close our day with ritual prayer. I speak to them about showing up with every emotion, tension, sin, heartbreak and joy to the Easter Vigil. I invite them to “show up” to the feast of the Sacraments, not only physically, but with every aspect of their lives. Then the Holy Spirit will heal what needs healing and open for them a new path of fidelity and love. They will be tested beyond their abilities, loved further than they can imagine, and called to serve in ways they least expect. We end our day with the Elect and Candidates standing around the altar and the sponsors and team surrounding them. We chant this litany of blessing for all people who will be initiated into the Easter Sacraments.

Response: Bless us, O Lord
In our waiting for love,
In our longing for integrity,
In our searching for hope,
In our striving to belong,
In our wanting to serve,
In our bridging the rich and poor,
In our working for peace,
In our serving the outcast and forgotten,
In our befriending the destitute,
In our speaking words of healing,
In our embracing the sick and marginalized,
In our walking with the tired and lonely,
In our committing our lives to others,
In our standing in truth and fidelity,
In our hearing the cries of the oppressed,
In our asking for forgiveness,
In our hungering for the Eucharist,
In our believing in the Word,
In our claiming your prophetic message,
In our calling to live Gospel justice,
In our daring to speak the truth,
In our living in community,
In our reconciling with our enemies,
In our renewing our Baptismal promises,
In our hoping to be saved,
In our calling to die and rise in Christ,
In our following the guidance of the Holy Spirit,
In our relying on God alone,
In our remembering of saints, prophets, martyrs and guides,
In our resting in your loving Kingdom,

Every Lent after the retreat I escort people to the red doors of our chapel to say goodbye. I believe God is continuing to test me through my fear and loneliness by planting seeds of new relationships. I stand in the doorway grateful for new people believing in love and listening to the Baptismal call to serve within the Church in ways we all least expect.