This year I am a full-time volunteer. I work at a soup kitchen in Scranton, Pennsylvania, as part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC), a program that allows recent college graduates to live together in spiritual communities and explore the broken spaces of our society. A woman was sitting outside the soup kitchen once. I knew her; she was a regular client, a drug addict, and chronically homeless. She was also educated, with a searching vocabulary, and — a mark of a certain kind of intelligence — a capacity for sarcasm. This time her eye was cut and bleeding, and she had a bruise over her cheekbone. I said, “Should I call somebody, or can I get you something?”
She looked at me and threw out her arm theatrically, like a maiden in distress, and said, “What? Are you here to save me?”
“I’d like to,” I said without guile, retreating into myself, “But I probably can’t.” There was a lot of guilt, despair, and pessimism on both sides of that short dialogue that should resonate with many who have sunk their hands into the earth of the poor and the marginalized. But that vignette is just exposition, something to set the mood. The rest of this story is about a conversion. It is a description of a movement from cynicism to hope.
Two of my JVC community, Kim and Nancy Sue, work at the Saint Joseph’s Center, a home and outpatient clinic for those with extreme intellectual and developmental disabilities. So when we come to the dinner table to share stories, all three of us can talk about the struggle to feed a hungry person, but at different levels. I work with people experiencing food insecurity — the lack of financial resources to put a nutritious meal on their own table. But Kim and Nancy Sue work with those who could not hold their silverware without another’s help. They share stories brimming with confusion, hope, and tragicomic disaster. I’ve heard more than I’d want to hear about the bowel movements of full grown men, but I’ve also heard about how these men will crawl into your lap to play with your hair and nails, how they will sometimes sit quiet as you read them a story, how they grow used to those who daily assist them, and each learns to care for the other in her or his own way.
So when, in the middle of this year, a blood clot robbed my grandfather of his speech, his motion, and his identity, I had an immediate point of reference. Before my year with Kim and Nancy Sue, I would have said: “We need to make a humane decision, we need to put Grandfather out of this hell. We shouldn’t force him to live when he’s unable to feed, clean, or know himself.”
But snuggling into this opinion, the old rules and dispensations I had long ago sanded and primed, now felt coarse and unfamiliar. In the moment that I drew the comparison between my grandfather and the men, women, and children in whom Kim and Nancy Sue had loved and been loved, something in me stumbled. I felt my soul spasm; my neck pinched together and an emptiness burst open behind my sternum. I began to cry.
Challenging my paradigm
I have a bad habit of testing to see if my time has been well spent, and I judge efficacy by results: did I get stuff done. Sometimes, this year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps has been a challenge to that paradigm. I see my younger friends graduating from college more educated, more accomplished, and more satisfied than they were a year ago, and then I look at my own quixotic adventures, my helpless encounter with the drunks and derelicts, and it’s easy to say, “That’s a whole year I just wasted in a soup kitchen.”
Perhaps, though, it is enough that I have begun to cry when otherwise I may not have. This is a conversion story, I told you, so it is a tale of transformation and miracles, it is a suggestion that we can find something powerful and true in the stories of a God-Man who changes our water to wine and wine to the blood of redemption.
“The end of all our exploring,” T.S. Eliot wrote, “will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.” As for me, I started in a supermarket with my mother. This is one of my earliest, and gentlest, memories. I was in front of the checkout lane, and a boy with Down syndrome walked up to me and in silence he hugged me. Of course I cried. It was like the moment when a confession becomes true, the moment when we feel the first drop of oil on our forehead. Our childhood trust and our grown-up despair converge on the Grace that ever is and in every moment — the moment in the supermarket or the moment with my grandfather — tears become my only adequate prayer.