Monday, March 12, 2007

Boylston Street Letter #8

One in an occasional series of reflections on homelessness and my duties as a pastoral intern at St. Francis House, a daytime shelter on 39 Boylston St. in Boston (

The week of March 5-9, 2007

The kingdom of God has been proclaimed, but it has not yet come. Lord, am I aware that it has not yet come! When competition defeats cooperation, when contract nullifies covenant, I know the kingdom has not yet come. When I know sin, I realize that the kingdom has not yet come. When I am sin, definitely I know that the kingdom has yet to come.

But the kingdom has been proclaimed. I’ve heard it! Sometimes I, too, have spoken words that heralded the Word that makes of everything a new creation. It really happens, and the optimist in me believes that it happens with us as often as it happens in spite of us.

Every man, woman, and child who practices social ministry ought to imagine standing between the times: between life as it is and life as they believe it will be. We begin where life is as it is, and we move toward life as it will be, and those in the Church are at the boundary of time present and time future. Or, picture another image for the Church: an isthmus. The Church is the land bridge between two great continents, the present world and the new creation. All of humanity from all time has been on a great migration from the first creation to the final creation, and it is our generation’s turn to cross from one to the other, guided safely over via the isthmus.

What does this have to do with the shelter?

I experienced two moments on the boundary of time, or along the narrow land bridge, on Friday. First, during Bible study, a guest (let me call him Deacon Jones) who joined us for the first time used the hour to offer his own catalog of Augustinian confessions. I knew Deacon Jones nominally before this; I knew only that he was one of the most well-mannered gentlemen I’ve met in the shelter. After hearing Jesus’ teaching about repentance in Luke 13:1-9, he testified both to the wretchedness of his circumstances and the glory of God transfiguring him. It is easier to believe we are simul justus et peccator after hearing Deacon Jones speaking gently but intensely about the misery and mercy of homelessness: the sleeplessness, the hunger, the cold, “snapping” on the streets, being held at knifepoint; yet also praising God for surviving another day on the streets, finding plenty in spite of sinful scarcity, and stepping out on faith to break up lethal fights. His witness shames me into silence. Have I forgotten the meaning of penitence? When a truly impoverished person testifies, you get the impression that none but the poor are genuinely remorseful about failing to pray to God or read the Bible. Trust that impression. His kind of faith sharing does not happen all the time, so you must be ready to listen. It was all I could dare to do. All mortal flesh must keep silence in the presence of Christ and his saints. Deacon Jones was a saint in that hour. Looking back on that morning, I’ve concluded that it is a good thing to study the written Word, but it is a far better thing to study the man or woman who becomes a talking book, a living Word.

Second, the transgender student Mallory fell down, but she rose again. She called me early in the afternoon to apologize for deciding to quit our weekly GED tutorials, offering that her life was complicated, and she needed time to sort it out. However, less than half an hour later, she called back and changed her mind: she wanted to continue, after all. That afternoon was the most productive of all our tutorials. She was getting the hang of reading, comparing, and adding decimals despite no prior experience with anything but whole numbers! So delighted was Mallory by her accomplishment that her melancholy had all but disappeared by the end of the afternoon. I had never seen her so proud of herself! And it made me regret having to tell her I could not attend her graduation from the Moving Ahead Program on March 16 because I will be in Washington. But I know she will be waiting for me when I return: we have to work on reading comprehension and writing skills. She insisted on it.

We’ve come too far to turn back. We must go forward. The kingdom is not yet here, but it is on its way, and it graces every dream Deacon Jones, Mallory, and I have.

Boylston Street Letter #7

Continuing backtracking ... see Boylston Street Letter #4.

The week of Feb. 26-March 2, 2007

The faith sharing and Bible study group meetings have been slimly attended the last few weeks. If not for the pastoral intern from Harvard Divinity School, there would have been no Bible study on the 23rd. This past Friday one guest joined the Harvard intern and me, which was a blessing, but this guest proceeded to monopolize the discussion (unknowingly). He does brilliant exegesis; however, his tendency to read all of the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels through the lens of the book of Revelation, combined with his inability to yield to others in the group, made for a stifling and unspiritual experience on Friday. This is ironic, given this guest’s repeated affirmations of the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life! I cannot speak for the Harvard intern, but I was relieved when our hour together was over: I, for one, no longer felt suffocated.

Strange that I should have wished for this Scripture savant to be quiet, isn’t it? He could speak with authority about the Bible, yet it did not feel like he was sharing with us … it felt more like he was displaying the most precious jewels of his erudition. Impressive? Without a doubt. Inspiring? Not at all, which leads me to wonder whether his is genuine authority. He could communicate conviction, but he could not communicate faith. If I were not already a Christian, I would not have tolerated his holding forth, and I sure would not have been moved toward belief by this guest’s exposition of Scripture.

This reminds me of what another guest, a keen observer of public affairs, told me earlier that morning: for the last 40 years, progressives have been the best recruiters for the far right, because the vehemence with which they promote their generally sensible causes scares away many sympathetic citizens. Progressive politics puts off the people who can and ought to be considered part of the “grass roots” but who are consistently talked down to or chastised or ignored entirely. I must confess that it discouraged me to hear him say that, and I countered him with this question: what about the need to speak a prophetic word for the common good, disturbing as it may be? He did not reply directly to this question, but he stated in words similar to mine that institutions which claim to promote the common good must aim at putting power to work instead of preserving their own power. In other words, if the institutions are not prophetic, the prophetic words of those serving in those institutions will come to naught, especially the words of the zealots.

How I wish to teach as one having authority, and not as the scribes! How difficult it seems some days to know just how to speak radically, lovingly, and constructively! You want God’s word and will to be accepted, but you know the sacred history of the law and the prophets tells you otherwise. The Christ-event assures you God’s word and will cannot fail to be fulfilled, and this I believe. Yet the silence and the violence….

Boylston Street Letter #6

Continuing backtracking ... see Boylston Street Letter #4.

The week of Feb. 19-23, 2007

Some days at the shelter it happens that you have to minister to the masses, leaving no time for one-to-one encounters with those who need your help or those who may be in a position to help you in your hour of need. Lately I have regretted being in a space where it has not been possible to have what I consider to be pastoral conversations. But upon further reflection what I think I mean is that I would like to have some more spiritual encounters and some more spirit-building conversations before this ministry is concluded. May the disciplines of the Lenten season sharpen my senses so that I might attend to my duties at the shelter with renewed awareness of the opportunities for a meeting with the image of Christ in any face, fair or homely. These moments are nearer than we think. On Friday there came two moments like this.

For the first time, none of the guests came to our hour of faith sharing and Bible study. It may have been a fluke that all the regulars (I use that word loosely) were not to be found around the atrium or the day center. Or if they were present on other floors of the building, they could not be bothered to return to the day center. Certainly it was no help that the elevators to the mezzanine were once again out of order, once more because of a fire in the trash room on one of the top floors. Perhaps it is again time to spread the news about this group by word of mouth. Whatever the reasons for guests’ absence, not all was lost. Another pastoral intern from Harvard Divinity School, who has platooned with me at the hospitality desk on Fridays, joined me for the hour of prayer and reflection and discussion. We lifted up in prayer the men and women who have attended our meetings before and hoped that good things were preventing them from attending, such as new employment, educational opportunities, or even new housing. My partner from Harvard is fresh-faced, good-natured, and far more imperturbable than me in the setting in which we minister. He arrived at St. Francis House last year in mid-autumn, and his duties have largely overlapped mine. It may surprise you to hear me confess that, at first, I felt like he was encroaching upon my turf! How territorial! How ridiculous! But since then I have been humbled by his gracious affability, and now I readily seek his presence at the Bible study. By his participation Friday, we were able to keep this chain of weekly gatherings in Christ’s name unbroken. God bless him for that.

God also bless Mallory and me as we struggle together through our Friday afternoon math tutorials. Again she was feeling less than her best, coughing and hacking out a chest cold. She arrived late and in a difficult mood, haggling with several telephone operators and physicians’ secretaries to renew some vital prescription medication in vain. In spite of Mallory’s churlish feelings, we slogged through two hours of word problems and broke through the darkness into some place of light. I can remember the exact moment: we were practicing the fifth in a series of arithmetic word problems, I was half-asleep on my feet, and Mallory in her melancholy was insisting that there was not enough information in the question to make a solution possible. I told her to think again and look carefully. There was a minute of silence, then, in a voice more buoyant than I had yet heard that afternoon, she announced that she had figured out what to do. She was pleased to tell me that it took her a little while longer to work it out, but she discovered what she needed to do. The last fifteen minutes of our tutorial were the happiest and most productive of them all. Whether Mallory continues with this Friday afternoon remediation has yet to be determined because her life is very much touch and go, not least because she is a transgender person. I hope we may keep going forward, if only for the fact that I felt a precious lightness of being at that moment when she understood what the problem was and how to solve it. She felt so proud of herself, and it made me care for her, genuinely care for her, for the first time. She made a breakthrough, but so did I.

Boylston Street Letter #5

Continuing backtracking ... see Boylston Street Letter #4.

The week of Feb. 12-16, 2007

The Moving Ahead Program celebrated the graduation of its 69th class on Friday, and I attended the ceremony at the Boston Center for Adult Education on 5 Commonwealth Ave. I walked there from the shelter with Mallory, the transgender student whom I was supposed to tutor that afternoon. We decided it would be a better use of our time to cheer on the men and women who were stepping out of the shadows of shame, disenfranchisement, and hopelessness into new lives.

As usual, the testimonies from the graduates were moving and steeped in gratitude. Several staff members and current MAP students paid tribute to these persevering graduates, and even Mallory stepped forward to give thanks for their example. A small but sumptuously catered reception followed, the kind of banquet that Jesus saw fit to use as a metaphor for the reign of God in heaven and earth.

Here, at these graduations, you see hope fulfilled. However, I felt strangely detached from the proceedings. Maybe it’s because I work at the periphery of this program and have not been touched by these children of God. Maybe it’s because I was thinking about school, my classes, and my love life. Maybe it’s because I felt sleepy.

Maybe it’s because while these men and women are moving ahead, I’m also moving on.

First of all, I am eager to plan a course of study for a Ph.D. or Th.D. in theology. Second of all, the novelty of ministering to homeless persons passed a while ago; and, in recent days, so has the feeling of guilt for not doing enough to lighten the lives of the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters. The welfare of the homeless and the heartbroken does not depend on me. I have allowed myself to “let go and let God.” However, sanguinity poses its own risks. If anything, I am concerned that the familiarity of the shelter will breed complacency and inattentive behavior. Already there are indications of obliviousness in my morning shift. Sometimes my nose is stuck in a newspaper while guests wait at the hospitality desk for their daily bread; sometimes I linger in the photo room, where we produce guest identification cards, to check e-mail. One more confession: While I was running an errand for the shelter last Monday morning, receiving and delivering a donation of soaps, shampoos, and moisturizers I had secured for the shower room and clothing distribution, I was thinking about how much of a relief it was not to have to staff the hospitality desk during the peak hour of craziness.

“Only, we were to be mindful of the poor, which is the very thing I was eager to do.” When this internship started, I could not think of any better way to use my time on Mondays and Fridays. Now I can think half a dozen things that are good and needful and that have little to do with the poor, at least those of St. Francis House. (I decided to take President’s Day off.) Is it God’s will leading mine, or merely my own will?

Boylston Street Letter #4

While living simply and living well the last five weeks, I have been derelict in my blogging duties. Let me start backtracking, with correspondence from my ministry to the homeless at St. Francis House.

The week of Feb. 5-9, 2007

Whenever the weather takes a sharp turn for the colder, I know I’m about to take ill. Moreover, my immunity always seems to be its lowest at exactly this time of the season: I’ve caught more colds in the second week of February than at any other time of the year. Wednesday evening I came down with a sore throat and general fatigue, and I decided not to risk making my condition worse by working at the shelter Friday.

No surprise there. However, this was the first time I begged off my duties at St. Francis House, and it did surprise me to discover how many people were going to be affected by my absence. There was the day center supervisor, who was now going to be one hand short at the hospitality desk; Mallory, the transgender student in the Moving Ahead Program, whom I had just begun to tutor for the GED exam, plus two others I was about to begin tutoring Friday; the MAP instructor who referred these students to me; Brother Dan, who sets aside time every Friday afternoon for a debriefing; and Professor Knust, who was scheduled to visit the day center at its most active. I placed five separate phone calls on Thursday morning to excuse myself to make sure I left no one in the lurch.

But there’s one group of people I couldn’t telephone: our guests, especially those who attend the Friday faith sharing and Bible study hour. How do you suppose they felt? Or how about those guests who take comfort knowing that on Friday morning they’ll see that familiar furry face ready to hand out razors for their prickly faces? I placed my sick calls out of courtesy and respect for those who rely on me; if only I could have extended the same direct courtesy and respect to the guests. When you’re down and out, you’re out of sight and mind.

That Friday I took time to recuperate and finished reading a textbook on pastoral care and counseling. The author, who likened pastoral caregivers to gardeners cultivating the “ground” of a faith community, emphasized the importance of self-care for caregivers, lest they suffer burnout. I do not take issue with the author on this point, but I note with mild regret that it was disarmingly easy to decide to take the day off. Moreover, I do not trust the feeling of relief that swept over me Thursday morning, which could be worded thus: “Thank God I don’t have deal with the homeless today.” Seriously, I was glad the shelter’s problems were not to be my problems that day.

Is it okay to feel like that? Do you call that good pastoral self-care? I could have reported to the shelter. I’m not burned out. I didn’t feel that bad Friday morning, certainly not much worse than most working-class people who don’t have the luxury of taking sick days. In short, I question the sincerity of my motive and the purity of my intent.

I could end with one of any number of Gospel proof-texts to vindicate my skepticism or chastise my self-loathing, but that won’t do. Better to remember that Monday is another day. The poor will still be there, and they will neither condemn nor praise us. I pray Jesus Christ will still be with us.