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.


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.

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.

I Just Want to Be Loved

Originally published by CHURCH Magazine, Summer 2009
– PDF version – Online version –

Witnessing the marriages of couples who ground their love in service and community challenges a priest to hear the universal longing for love.

I am still learning how to love. I discover every day the fragility of my own commitment as an ordained priest and vowed member of a religious community. The setting that has begun to open my heart from my self-preoccupation and even self-loathing is living and praying among our culture’s fragile and neglected people. Here, in our urban parish in downtown Portland, Oregon, people show me their raw belief in God. Life in this paradoxical setting strips me of pretense and reveals my obvious fear of relationships. Ministry here teaches me to live the love that is locked up behind my own breakable heart.

Every day I hear people screaming out to be accepted despite their tortuous history of mental illness or their latest relapse into using drugs. Some people cry out in pain because no one has ever stopped to listen to their history of being sexually abused. Others cry out because they were thrown out of their homes as teens for using heroin. The daily battle on the streets has scared many of them from intimacy and distanced most of them from society’s care or concern. However, underneath all the external hardness of sleeping outside or the effects of alcohol or methamphetamines, there is a common ache, a screeching cry from people to be heard, forgiven, and loved.

I literally heard a stranger crying out one cold, rainy morning as I walked across one of the bridges downtown. I spotted a man carrying an umbrella and briefcase and wearing a gray trench coat. I followed him across the river, blinded by the sharp rain. Out of the darkness, a young man straddling the railing of the bridge yelled out to the hurried businessman, “I’m going to jump!” The preoccupied gentleman ignored him. As I walked closer to the unknown voice, the young man shouted out even louder to me, “I’m going to jump!”

His voice pierced the new day, sharp and penetrating. With raw instinct I bent over the drenched youth, grabbed his arm and pulled him off the railing. He pretended to struggle and fight me. He stabilized his body on the earth. His large, dark brown eyes looked right through me and he screamed in my face, “I just want to be loved.”

We walked to safety, and the police told me he had jumped off a bridge a few weeks earlier. He wanted more than just someone’s attention. They also told me he was not sick enough to be admitted to a hospital for more than a couple of days. I left him sitting in a squad car, but his scream still haunts me.

This cry for help resonates deeply within me. I believe that our relationship with God begins with this sacred cry, the ache of the human heart that begs to be nurtured. I hear and absorb this holy scream because society’s poor are more honest about their needs in the world. The hallowed shriek, the deep passion for acceptance, is not an isolated event or one moment of despair. Desiring to be loved and accepted in our culture is a daily occurrence among our sisters and brothers living isolated, fretful, and anguished lives. This cry of the poor does not end among those who fall among the margins of society.

I carry this scream with me in all areas of my ministry, even in contexts where it may seem to some to be unrelated. I remember the cry of the poor especially when a couple approaches me to be married in the church. I am powerless to fix people’s pain and suffering, but I must always educate people about other people who suffer. I begin discussions with those who come seeking marriage in the church with the fact that all people are seeking love. I remind couples of their responsibility to offer their lives not only to each other, but to the world around them. Then I begin to speak about how even the wedding ceremony can speak of their commitment to their families, the disenfranchised, and the turbulent world around them.

I begin with the human desire to be loved because I so often encounter obstacles in the wedding ceremony itself to the real meaning of marriage. Weddings must not be contained in overspending and selfish overindulgence. The authentic ritual is often lost behind the silk foliage and the ideas of a perfect wedding day. Even family relationships are often stretched to their limits and feelings are hurt when customs and expectations get in the way of the tradition of authentic love.

I realize some weddings in many of our parishes are short-circuited by decreasing numbers of clergy, the rules of the local tribunal, and even local parish requirements for hall rentals and floral arrangements. So often the wedding planner replaces the preacher; the etiquette guides speak louder than the gospel; and arguments over bridesmaids’ dresses overshadow relationships with family and friends.

Years of ministry, however, have given me multiple opportunities to celebrate weddings that celebrate the connection and dignity of all people. These rituals have given the couples and their families a new window into living the Christian life. These weddings continue to show me that love is not bound to family only, but that weddings become the sacrament of vocation and service in the world.

Our present culture faces critical times. We live our vocations in days of economic hardships and job loss. Together we face loving in times of war, forgiving in moments of blame, and unity in days of global transition. Our world and culture depend on us as Christians even more to put love into real action.

I was deeply touched when a graduate school classmate and his fiancée asked me to preside at their wedding. Joe (all names are changed) lived and worked among the poor and met his future wife in a soup kitchen. Their commitment toward the poor formed their love for each other. They wanted the church filled with people from the streets. Their desire was that the rituals speak loudly about the reality of their commitment of service.

On the day of their June wedding people flocked to the church. People who had lined up for soup and bread now lined up around the inside of the church because of the overflow crowd. They were there to witness the love of Joe and Mary and celebrate with others in the parish hall afterward. Some family members arrived with fresh manicures and silk gowns; other guests had not showered for weeks. Some people radiated designer perfume, others reeked of stale alcohol breath.

After reading Matthew 25: 31-46, I walked down into the assembly to begin the homily. My eyes fell on the shy poor and the excited family members. I paused and then asked everyone present to take off their right shoe. Without hesitation people reached for their stilettos or sneakers, the shoe that matched the dress or the worn boot found in the shelter.

I then asked them to exchange their shoe with person next to them. I led them through a reflection of walking in other people’s shoes because God came among us and walked in our shoes. I reminded them that this wedding was a celebration of God’s covenant with us as we learn how to love others.

As the vibrant couple came forward to profess their marriage vows, they sat down on the altar step and slowly took off their shoes. They lovingly, patiently washed each other’s feet. The silent echoes of this generous gesture echoed throughout the room, in every heart and mind. The rich symbol and unexpected washing reminded us all of the humility and risk of love, to put others first in the command of Jesus.

This ritual gesture inserted into the rite of marriage nearly stopped my heart. The reconciling foot care showed me that the couple was serious about living the gospel far beyond the celebration in that church. They staked their marriage on that liturgical gesture, and indicated that their vows would include loving those on the fringe of our culture. Washing feet was not a cute ceremonial addition to their wedding, but a statement of commitment far into the future. I witnessed at that moment my own selfishness, the limits I put on my own young vocation. Their naked, wet feet exposed my longing to serve the people who were sitting in those pews. Their vulnerability connected human concerns and authentic prayer and social justice. Their fairy-tale wedding exposed dirty feet, gathered hungry people, and challenged us all to serve beyond our comfort.

Joe and Mary have worked all these years speaking out on behalf of the poor and raising their daughters with radical compassion, simplicity of life, and prophetic teachings. Even though I have not yet met their children, I want someday to tell them how much their parents have educated me, challenged my own ministry, and taught me to remain humble in front of dirty feet.

Steve and Lori hesitated to speak with me about their wedding preparations. They grappled with their wedding liturgy because they did not have money to pay for many of the cultural and family expectations. They both were invested in parish activities and also wanted members of the parish present during their commitment. Together we decided to celebrate their wedding during the regularly scheduled Saturday Vigil mass.

After the homily, I stood at the sanctuary step and said, “Let those who will be married please come forward.” I could hear all the whispers of questions floating among the congregation. From the middle section of the pews, a young couple stood up and moved out of the seats and came forward. The congregation gasped with surprise and anticipation. When I saw Steve and Lori’s faces as they approached the sanctuary, I started to cry. I saw in them the raw commitment to the people of God who formed them in gospel service and justice. They professed their marriage vows with delicate voices. However, the sound of their promises radiated throughout the church. The congregation fell completely silent with only the sounds of tears.

Steve and Lori’s ceremony seared my memory with fondness and the real meaning of weddings. The couple caught the entire congregation off guard with the unexpected celebration. There was no long-term planning or external fuss or frenzy. However, that moment has remained with me because they professed their vows with clarity of intent, with deep faith and authentic passion for the people they served every week.

Steve and Lori’s simple wedding stands out to me amid all the expensive and chaotic weddings I have celebrated. Their understated presence pierced through all the cultural accessories. The action of the ritual revealed their love to me and their willingness to commit themselves to the community. Their unencumbered ceremony still teaches me that love is stronger than money, expectations, and fantasy. Even in our present days of building smaller homes, making every penny count, and caring for more people without health care, sacraments need to be celebrated with more honesty and intentionality.

A young couple married in our small urban chapel asked their guests to bring to their wedding ceremony white socks, different sizes of men’s underwear, and warm blankets. On the day of the wedding the sanctuary was overflowing with large green garbage bags stuffed with everyday needs for our daily hospitality center. This wedding ceremony gives me hope that the cry of love and justice can be heard in the center of the wedding ritual and into the lives of the newlyweds.

In another parish, Dan and Beth were dedicated to serving many in the community. They wanted to make sure people in the parish had a role during the actual wedding ceremony. We based the entrance rite on the rite of welcome from the rite of Christian initiation of adults. The liturgical ministers, attendants, the couple, and I all stood within the threshold of the church. I welcomed them through the main doors and spoke with affection of their love for each other and their special bonds of service within the community. I then turned to the congregation, who faced the church’s entrance, and asked them for their oral support. I asked them if they approved of this bond, if they would support them today and in the future, and if they would pray for them and their desire for children. I also asked the community if they would support them in living out the ministry of the gospel to serve the poor and disenfranchised. The procession music began, we all processed down the long aisle, and the community exploded with applause and shouts of joy.

Dan and Beth’s wedding remains an icon of community participation. The voices of the poor raised the roof with approval and hope. Their ritual opened the possibilities that marriage is also for the Christian community, it can be a source of hope for people who believe they will never find love for themselves. I hear the scream of wanting to be loved every day. I also hear young couples committing their lives to work with the unemployed, the mentally ill, and former prisoners. Marriage is created in community and must speak to the marginalized and neglected.

I recently met a couple volunteering on a Friday evening in our parish soup line. Every week people from other parishes and students from various high schools and colleges gather to make soup and create an evening of hospitality for our low-income neighbors and our homeless friends. The couple told me they were getting married. They shyly whispered that they were to be married in another parish the following day. I immediately spoke up and said I had never met anyone who would volunteer in a soup line the evening before their wedding. They quickly replied, “Well, Father, this is what we want to build our marriage upon. This kind of service and simplicity is the meaning of our marriage.”

The poor teach me to extend my own vocation beyond my pristine prayer, my selfish use of my time, or my limited understanding of community. The former prisoner teaches me to live a generative life beyond the confines of my own doubt. The mentally anguished addict shows me I cannot put off love until the world is perfect. Young couples who connect their love for one another to service among the poor expand my notions that God’s covenant with us is real, vital, and full of hope in this generation.

Every time I sit down with an engaged couple for the first time, I tell the story of my early morning encounter across the bridge. I tell stories of how married love is lived in our community. We plan and prepare, we discuss and reminisce, and we fill out forms and write down schedules. We prepare for the wedding and the marriage; we explore how their married love will grow beyond their own home. On their wedding day, I stabilize my body on the earth witnessing the couple, listening to their sacred vows, and feeling the depths of us all longing to be loved.

A Beautiful Supper

Originally published by Ministry & Liturgy Magazine, April 2009
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All too often, I stuff myself with junk food. The sweet or salty fatty fare tastes so good at the time when I think I want to fill the void of hunger. I am always aware that I am trying to fill up more than my body’s desire for nutrition. I am really hiding my feelings of wanting to be connected, loved, and accepted in the world. Food can often play tricks on me, making me feel I am in charge of my own life. Stuffing my body can also mask my feelings of not belonging in the world.

I understand this feeling of emptiness every day working among the poor. I am engaged with people who believe they do not belong in the church because they fill up the void in their lives with multiple sexual partners or by shooting up drugs or constantly acting out in anger and violence. Beneath the surface of all of our anxiety is a deep, profound craving to belong to God and to the gift of being fully alive.

Priscilla deepened my understanding of the real food God offers to all of us. Priscilla always sat in the front pew during Sunday Mass because of her fading eyesight. Even though her eyes could not go the distance, Priscilla perceived more at the Eucharist than most of us. I noticed her
feisty, fiery, youthful self hidden in her aging body. She always looked forward to her seat in the church because her family lived in another state and her health kept her home most of the week. Priscilla’s vision was anchored on the action of sharing our common story in Scripture and praying the Eucharist.

Every Sunday after Mass, Priscilla would hobble up to me, stare into my eyes, and say with loving confidence, “Thank you, Father, for the beautiful supper!” Her words always adjusted my perspective back on the real meaning of my own hunger.

Priscilla was deeply connected to the Eucharist because of her poverty, illness, and loneliness. Her piety was not nostalgic, rigid, or maudlin. She admitted her hunger and she believed God would feed her. She better understood God’s care for people because she spent years rolling up her sleeves to feed people on our Portland streets. She got her hands sticky spreading peanut butter and jelly on white bread. She stained her soul with involvement by remembering people’s names and welcoming the poor in our soup line.

Priscilla’s words of gratitude teach me about the solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ as we continue to pray in these months of Ordinary Time. We celebrate in all of our parishes the sacrament that feeds our deepest hungers. We name the reality that all of us starve for the life God has for us. However, this solemnity cannot become reduced to a rigid or static notion of the real presence of Christ. Priscilla showed me again that Christ reveals his presence in relationship to people and to honest hunger.

Some parishes may be tempted to celebrate this solemnity by focusing on adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. When this becomes the only focus in our parish celebrations, adoring the eucharistic bread at a distance becomes more important than the action of the celebration of the Liturgy. People may perceive that the Eucharist we kneel in front of is better, holier, and even more present than the Eucharist celebrated every day in parish life.

The lives of the poor show me that the action of the Eucharist calls us all into service and love. The presence of Christ must remain rooted in what Christ actually did on earth. He gathered people who were hungry and multiplied loaves and fish and had full baskets left over. He fed people in ways they could least imagine, not only with bread and fish but by curing diseases, expelling demons, and even raising the dead. On the night of his death he stooped down and washed his friends’ feet at the same meal in which he told his apostles to remember him when they break bread and share the cup.

Priscilla died this past year. Every day as I stand at the altar and hold the Eucharist in my hand, I remember her gratitude to God for real and authentic suppers. I look past her empty seat to other people in the pews starving for love and longing for relationship. I feel a deep, satisfying fullness of tasting God’s presence as we all approach the beautiful supper of the Lamb.