Wednesday, February 4, 2009

I Left My Balm In Gilead

Sunday I gave a talk about the Blanket Project at a church in my town. It is a lovely old church, white-washed walls, deep brown pews, stained glass windows with vibrant shades of blue, room for overflowing crowds, which, at the 8:15 am service, weren't exactly elbow-to-elbow, but they still brought in a nice group.

I repeated a line I heard once at my church back in New York about looking for Christ in the face of every homeless person you see. I said that's how the monumental problem of homelessness is broken down into one small piece that you can help.

Now, don't run off. I mentioned the C-word and I have to tell you that I'm not devout or one of those crazy religious types you've been avoiding your whole adult life. I tend to avoid them, too. As in, I feel an immediate impulse to run screaming in the other direction.

Looking for the Christ in the face of a homeless person means look for the mama wondering what's happened to them, look for their brother wondering if they'll come back some day, look at your own situation during these troubling times and count how many fewer steps there are now between you and your own homelessness.

I grew up with a lot of religion -- in a big Irish Catholic family in rural 'Michiana:'

a flat area of cornfields that meanders back and forth over the Michigan and Indiana state lines. Religion was something I was forced to do, though I remember one Saturday night mass when I felt some fervor deep inside about being a nun. I believe it lasted about 12.5 minutes, definitely forgotten by the time the Mary Tyler Moore Show came on.

Religion was otherwise fairly benign for me until it became part of what kept my mom in a bad marriage until when she finally allowed her Catholic heart to divorce my dad, he (a nonCatholic) later got his marriage to my mom annulled by the Catholic church because he had fallen in love again and his second wife was Catholic and would be (it turns out) more successful at getting my dad to be that good Catholic husband that generation of women had faith in.

But the world is full of stories of religion failing its followers. My neck is getting stiff from looking at religion through that slant.

At 47, I'm driving a wide curve in my life back to maybe, possibly, having a little bit of faith. In something. Perhaps, in the end, Santa Claus is my spiritual leader. (He sees all, knows all, motivates me to be a better me. OK, sure, there's a merchandise payoff, but, these dark days, motivation is worth its weight in gold. Plus, this year he gave me the sewing machine I've been asking for.)

It's a pretty predictable turn: having babies knocks a little need for faith into you, having a middle schooler REALLY restores that need, my husband is 8 months post-cancer diagnosis, the world, as we all know, is in a speedy hand basket down a pretty scary path. Sure, I'm looking for faith in something.

So I'm trying to cut down on the running and screaming in the other direction. I'm trying to hang in with something and not cast it out at the first little twinge up the back of my neck.

And I'm starting to really believe that just my little bit of faith is enough.

The best thing my Catholicism gave me is the beat in my blood to be a voice for those too ground down to have one. It took me a while to realize this came from my Catholic upbringing, but there you are.

And my 'church search' as I call it is sometimes just a search for a way to refill my faith in making things on earth right after I'm out there working on it for awhile. My church in New York did this for me, but only after I stopped flinching at the C word. Sometimes they said Jesus, so it was sometimes the J word.

(I still picture Santa Claus when I hear it, or say it. In my belief system, I am not only allowed to do this, but I am most purely encouraged to do so.)

This past Sunday, with a group of folks staying AFTER church to hear what I have to say (holy crap, they stayed longer just for me?), I learned the cost of all my flinching.

This particular church is very giving to the homeless men's shelter in my town: they bring suppers to the shelter, they share lots of their hard-given money. During my talk, not one person mentioned property values, not one person mentioned that the homeless sometimes pee on the grass in front of the library.

But I flinched when I heard mention of the regular 'foot washings' they do for the homeless men. This was way too steeped in the C- and J- words for me. I instantly ran my inner sermon, my Homily of Retreat: what am I doing here, what am I doing here, picture the parking lot, picture my little Honda driving back out of the parking lot, why don't I spend Sunday mornings with the Washington Post and a dozen donuts?

Then the pastor shared the story of how they started foot washings, even though everyone knew it but me, almost as if, ehem, it was a story that my father, Santa Claus, wanted me to hear.


Their story is simple: One of this church's members is an emergency room nurse. She stood up at one of their recent meetings on how to help the homeless in our town and said, 'if you want to help the homeless, wash their feet and put some clean and dry socks on them.'

That's how it started. That's all.

These church women, who look about how we all think church women look, get down on their knees with a pan of warm, soapy water and wash the feet in front of them, no matter what they look like, or smell like, they are on their knees, offering the homeless soul in front of them their only contact with human touch for who knows how long, talking and listening, washing, patting dry.

And if a little C- or J- words are thrown in, what's the harm in that?

In the name of Santa Claus, amen.