It was the first day of the Nativity Lent for many Orthodox Christians and without planning it
intentionally, we had volunteered to serve dinner at a local women’s homeless shelter. My dear
friend had labored to make the main course, delicious Sloppy Joes, seasoned with her own
blend of spices and homemade sauce. A meal ordinary in name but extraordinary in
composition, as she had labored to make this general fare healthy and full of flavor. A meal
skillfully prepared for the guests at the dinner table that evening.
I had talked with her on the phone the day before as she worked out the details of driving
home from Chicago in time to pick us up and make sure the Sloppy Joes were warmed and
ready to eat. Despite a hectic day of traveling for work, she had volunteered to coordinate all
that was needed to bring the meal together. Her work unseen by most, but I had the privilege
of seeing, of helping.
Another friend had made delicious pumpkin bars. I had been at her house the day before,
sharing a cup of coffee, as I watched her scrape the cooked pumpkin from its skin, mashing
the purée in a bowl. She sat down, thumbing through the pages of her recipe book with all of
her tried and tested work—loose pages and cards, assembled, well used. Recipes that told
stories. She was trying to find her favorite pumpkin bar recipe, a dessert she had served
before, acclaimed and praised by others. Her special recipe, perfect for the guests at this table.
Her endearing two-year-old asked questions, needed to use the potty and wanted to paint, all
while we conversed. My friend got up from her seat, her pregnant body moving about the
room, helping her daughter, entertaining her friend, making her dessert. She brought the bars
the next day to the shelter and they were perfect—carefully crafted and prepared, spiced moist
cake with creamy frosting. The work it took to coordinate getting them to the shelter and the
time invested in making them, unseen by most, but I had the privilege of seeing it.
Two of my daughters ventured out with us that night and they were excited to help, to give in
their own way. We had made some simple marbleized chocolate cookie bars for our portion of
the dessert. We used a recipe that had been handed down to us, tested and enjoyed, using as
many wholesome ingredients as are allowed in cookie bars. The girls were full of joy.
The opportunity for them to use their hands and time to help, to smile, to feed. We talked about
the ways that we encounter Christ in those who are suffering, particularly the homeless whom
we were going to see that night. We had used our hands to prepare the food and were
preparing our hearts for the gift of encountering Him in the poor, the Unseen in those who are
seen. Our hearts longing to experience the Divine in this simple, humble way.
We piled in the car, the cold night air calling to our minds those whom we were going to serve,
those who thankfully had shelter from the cold for the night—but what about those who did
We stepped out of the car, looking at the entrancing city skyline and beautiful sacred
architecture of the Catholic cathedral looming above us. The crisp air stung in my lungs—a
harbinger of winter and inevitable cold. Outside of the shelter was an isolated bench with a
sculpture of a homeless person lying down. The light from the sacred structure above fell
perfectly on the bench, illuminating the obscured figure.
Upon closer study, it was the sculpture of the Homeless Jesus, a figure shrouded in a blanket,
identity masked except for the feet, bearing the nails of Christ. The visible expression,
represented in artistic form, of the reality we had been contemplating. This sculpture has been
described as the “visual translation” of Christ’s words, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew
where He says, “Assuredly I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My
brethren, you did it to Me.” At first the girls were startled as the lifeless figure looked so real
from a distance. Then it became clear, the sculpture before us teaching our hearts, preparing
us for our work.
We gathered the food, our combined hands carrying in that which was prepared for our guests,
for Christ. The words of our Lord echoed in my mind, “for I was hungry and you gave Me food,
I was thirsty and you gave Me drink….”
Single women gathered on one floor, women with children on another. Our team assembled
and dispersed, all volunteering to serve in different ways. I chose to serve dessert, the girls
chose to go upstairs and be a youthful presence to the little ones there, serving the meal with
the warmth and innocence children offer.
As we approached dinner hour, the ladies gathered in a line, hungry, anticipating the relief and
warmth the food would offer. Since our priest was away that evening, one of the members of
our church asked if any of the ladies would like to offer thanks for the food. One woman
enthusiastically raised her hand and we all bowed our heads.
She began to say grace, “Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive
from Thy bounty…,” invoking the Holy Trinity at the end of her prayer. I was moved with delight.
The Holy Trinity, named, thanked and recognized in our midst by those who were about to
receive the nourishment we had brought in service to God, Son and Holy Spirit.
Many came back for seconds, their words of thanks and compliments lingering, enduring.
Juice was offered at dinner but many asked for water, explaining that they were trying to watch
their sugar intake, keep hydrated, etc.
Having just read an article published about the amount of disease rampant in our city, I
watched as people talked, coughed, wiped. My mind instantly aware of our humanity and
vulnerability. I worried briefly and then was reminded of the line in the Liturgy, when we are
preparing to partake of Christ in the Eucharist, “In faith and love draw near….” I prayed this,
reminding myself that I was drawing near to Christ, the Uncreated, present in created humanity.
In faith and love draw near.
One woman stayed after to visit with me. She told me stories of her beautiful granddaughter.
She beamed with pride. She showed me pictures of her art and described her poetry. She
spoke with ease and more refined language. My inner prejudice questioned, “How is she here,
she doesn’t sound like she should be here?”
No sooner had the thought entered my mind when she exclaimed, “People in here ask me all
the time why I’m here or how did I end up here. I tell them we’re all here for a reason. God
We talked about art, writing, crafting. She said someday, after securing her own apartment and
some stability, she is going to come back to the shelter to teach the women art. Her creativity
bearing God’s image to me in that moment; specifically, how we reflect our Creator when we
create beauty with our hands, our words and our time.
We made up some plates for those who could not join us and cleaned up the kitchen. As we
walked back to the car, everyone was sharing their stories, smiling, transformed by our
encounters that evening. The girls came to me later with ideas of bags that we could make up
and keep in the car to give to those we encounter regularly as we drive to school and other
places around town. Bags with snacks, hats, gloves, scarves, and handmade soaps from my
soap business for those who need them.
Perhaps these reflections from this seemingly ordinary evening seem mundane, unexceptional,
common. But I assure you there was nothing standard about that evening for we experienced
Christ and our hearts were made more alive, more fully human. We must learn to see the
ordinary as extraordinary for it is through our common work—preparing food, serving the meal,
offering our time, resources and efforts—that Christ is revealed both in us and to us. That night,
to commence our Nativity Fast, a time set aside to draw near to Christ, He was indeed near
and we feasted in His presence.
Together with her husband and six children, Andrea Bailey resides in Milwaukee, WI, where she attends Ss. Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church. Andrea has spent many years working with refugees & international people, teaching English and learning their stories. She has also spent the last six years in the adoptive community, listening, learning and experiencing the complexities, losses and joys of the adoptive journey. Both a keeper and teller of stories, she is striving to give voice to what she has seen and learned, sharing her experiences with others in order that together, we may find a way forward that is honest, transformative and faithful to Christ.
Maybe it was because the choir at church has started singing a new melody for the Cherubic Hymn and I was paying better attention. Maybe it was because the Gospel reading was about Lazarus, who sat at the rich man's gate and begged. Maybe it was because during the Divine Liturgy I'm often thinking about how all of this prepares me for the liturgy after the Liturgy. Maybe it was all three.
After the Great Entrance and related prayers, the choir sings the second part of Cherubic Hymn. All that we have done thus far is to get us ready to receive Christ Himself in the Eucharist. "That we may receive the King of all, who comes invisibly...." Bread and wine, now the Body and Blood of Christ, comes to us visibly, yet much more than we can see, we say in faith.
Minutes later, after having received the invisible King and after the final Amens, we are sent out that we may receive Him again. This time visibly in the Lazaruses at the edge of our awareness; in the ones beaten up by thieves and lying along abandoned roadsides; in the strangers, the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the poorly clothed, and imprisoned ones (let us pay attention to this month's Gospel readings). As John Chrysostom says, "If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice."
Perhaps when we truly find Christ in the chalice, we will notice that He is everywhere present, visibly and invisibly. May we have eyes to see, recognize, and receive Him wherever He shows up. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
"The parish must recover its 'missionary character,' as Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes. “And by this I mean primarily a shift from the selfish self-centeredness of the modern parish to the concept of the parish as servant.” The parish must learn once again to serve God, and both the clergy and the faithful must kill the prevalent attitude that 'each parish must first take care of itself.'”
This quote is from Fr. Theophan Whitfield in the recently released The Servant Parish Project: Strengthening Ministry to the Poor and Suffering research study. Fr. Theophan spoke with Timm on The Second Liturgy podcast about the study and how to begin moving from selfishness to servanthood. Listen to the podcast episode here. Learn more about The Servant Parish here.
With the fear of God and with faith and love, let us draw near.
10/3/2019 0 Comments
"Sickness is a cross, and so is health. If you are healthy, your cross is to take care of those who are sick." - roughly paraphrased from Fr. Hector Firoglani
Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Tom Miller for our “Least of These” podcast series. In our two two recent episodes, we talk about what Jesus said: “I was sick and you visited Me.”
From his experience as an orderly, family doctor, missionary, and hospice/palliative care physician, Tom shares stories and practical ways of visiting those who have serious illnesses.
Listen to part 1 of the interview here and part 2 here.
In our next podcast episode, I talk with missionary Jesse Brandow about poverty and generosity in Guatemala. Interestingly enough, much of the conversation talks about the topic of caring for others when they are sick.
- Timm Wenger
Last December, Thaniel and I shared a podcast about our family's interactions Richard (not his actual name). This is the Richard who prefers living on the street to accepting help to get an apartment; the Richard who would sit on our porch drinking coffee and talking about the people he met in his travels around town and his hopes to travel someday; the Richard who accepted our invitation and came to our Thanksgiving meal. This is the Richard who helped us realize that meeting Christ among the poor is a lot messier than meeting Him at the Chalice. (Listen to the podcast, if you like.)
Soon after we shared the podcast, Richard stopped coming to visit us. We would occasionally see him downtown or as he walked the streets, and he would always greet us with his smile and signature thumbs up. Once, he mentioned an extended stay in the hospital for his skin problems.
Last Saturday, I ran into Richard outside a downtown cafe. He eagerly told me that he was moving back to the city where he lived 13 years ago, a city almost 500 miles way (and a city with frigid winters, I think, as fall and winter approaches). He had gathered up enough money and found someone who went online to purchase a bus ticket for him, he said while patting his pocket. He made arrangements to get six-week treatment at a hospital in that city, he said, because our local hospital wasn't helping him. Would I drive him to the bus station the next day?
At the appointed time on Sunday afternoon, when Kristina and I returned home from Liturgy, Richard was on our porch. Although he did not look well, he was ready to travel, with only a plastic shopping bag in hand. I took a look at his ticket and realized that his bus was scheduled to depart in 20 minutes, from the bus station 45 minutes away. He missed his bus. In true Richard form, he accepted the news without much reaction. I noticed then that there was a second ticket for his connecting bus. We still had time to catch that one, at a city an hour and 45 minutes away, in the opposite direction.
Kristina packed a bagged lunch, and Richard and I hopped in the car. Instead of a quick drive to a nearby familiar bus terminal, he and I were heading to an unknown destination in the downtown of a larger city with more traffic. It's not my idea of a restful Sunday afternoon. Richard wasn't at all concerned. He ate his lunch and we chatted briefly. He mentioned his sisters who live in other parts of the country and who he hasn't seen for decades. He soon drifted off into a deep sleep. I kept vigil, praying for him while the GPS called out directions.
He woke up as we were driving through Chinatown, a few blocks from the bus terminal. We found the station (thanks to GPS), parked the car, and went inside. I helped Richard find the right door and, ready to hurry off (I wasn't sure I was parked legally and didn't want to get towed), we said our goodbyes. He thanked me for the ride and shook my hand assuring me that he wouldn't fall asleep and miss his bus.
On my drive home and for the next couple of days, I worried about Richard. Did he get on his bus? Did the bus company honor the second ticket even though he didn't show up for the first leg of the trip (despite Kristina calling the company to confirm their policy and me double checking at the bus ticket counter)? If he missed his bus, where would he spend the night and find food? Would he make it to the other city? How would he get to the hospital there? Was the hospital even expecting him?
Even more than the logistics of his trip, I was hit with the realization of how easily Richard can fall through the cracks. Does anyone else in our city know that he is no longer here? Richard has no one to check up on him. He is alone in this world and totally dependent on others for his very existence. When he dies someday, will anyone know his name (he doesn't have identification) or how to contact his estranged next-of-kin?
I don't know if I will ever see Richard again in this life, but I am grateful for the connection we have and what I have learned from him. He lives simply, from meal to meal, from park bench to park bench, from city to city, with all his possessions in a plastic shopping bag. Among other lessons, he reminds me that despite my supposed "having it all together," I too am totally dependent and God will provide.
As one of our priests said in reflecting on last Saturday's Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, "Poverty is a cross, but so is abundance. If we have more than we need, our cross is to share what we have with others." Mother Maria of Paris talks about the similarity of taking up a cross and having a sword pierce our hearts. I thank God for bringing Richard into our lives; my heart has been pricked with love. Relating with Richard was sometimes uncomfortable and inconvenient, but never anything close to a cross or sword. May my heart be opened and ready to meet the next "Richard" God brings my way.
Afternote: When I called the hospital a few days later to ask if Richard was a patient, I was told that someone with his name had already been discharged. It seems he made it, but rather than getting six weeks of treatment, he's likely out on the streets again. Please pray for him.