On Saturday afternoon, I gently rock my four-month-old grandson and together we watch his two-year-old sister build a castle with blocks. Time stands still as I absorb the sweet smell of baby, the downy fluff atop his head, and her precise attention to balancing block upon block. Love flows unbidden. I feel my heart open physically and am moved beyond words. Their start to life is extraordinary. Healthy, and knowing only a stable, safe environment, they are the center of their parents’ universe. There is no limit to their potential as human beings. My valentine to them seems almost unnecessary and yet I send out imagined poems, and songs, and love notes as grandmothers do.
On Sunday night, I am with nearly 100 homeless men. It is a “Freeze Night” in Austin and St. Ignatius Martyr Catholic Church is one of the seven interdenominational faith communities that has volunteered to take in homeless people when there is no room in the shelters. It is 32 degrees. Metro buses pick the clients up at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless and take them to the assigned church depending on the day of the week. St. Ignatius holds Sunday night holy for these men, as do I.
At six, they hurry through the doors of the Family Center, aptly named for these are our brothers in Christ. Some carry sleeping bags or blankets. Some tote suitcases or plastic bags, and some have nothing but the clothes on their back. At the door, we welcome them. Smiles and “thanks” are abundant while most scurry to secure a spot in the gym.
Anthony arrives in a wheelchair with his urinal hooked on the arm. He says bluntly; I can’t always make it to the toilet. Jerry also arrives in a wheelchair and we search the room for a somewhat out of the way spot for him. Both of these wheelchair-bound men are elderly. Pete, much younger yet physically challenged as well, brings his diabetic supplies in an insulated tote and looks for an outlet to run his breathing machine.
Gracious church parishioners prepare a meal: chili dogs, salad, fruit, and cookies. A do it yourself beverage bar with instant coffee and hot chocolate helps ward off the chill. Remarkably there is no pushing, shoving or un-gentlemanly behavior in line. They are grateful for any kindness offered.
After dinner, many of the men are already bedded down, wrapped in a blanket or stretched out on the bare floor. A talented church musician entertains with mandolin, guitar, and recorder until we turn off the lights at nine, what a gift for these men who probably can’t recall a lullaby. As the bulk of the men drift off, I overheard one say, “Lord, let me live another day”. A quiet amen chorus echoes his prayer.
Several times a night, I walk among them, tucking a stray blanket, handing out a cough drop, and smiling at the one or two guests sitting at a table unable to sleep. Random cell phones ring, the bathroom door slams again and again, cries from bad dreams punctuate the silence, and snoring reaches decibels I never imagined.
For many people, including me at times, these men are the un-washed and some would say, “The un-lovely in our world”. They represent all of the other “un’s” we label so heartlessly: the un-promising, the un-cultured, the un-well, the un-connected, the un-cooperative, the un-acceptable.
On Saturday afternoon with my grandbabies, when love flows spontaneously from the sheer sensation of being with them, drinking in their purity and promise, everything seems so simple and of my doing. In my smugness, I forget to pray.
On Sunday night with the homeless men, blessedly the contrast prompts me to say my daily prayer, “Lord, help me reflect your love to all those I meet.” Once uttered, I am amazed at the feeling of love un-leashed. Unfamiliar smells, bothersome sounds, and lives gone awry fade in the background. The homeless men become a valentine like no other I’ve ever sent or received. Prayer clearly opens the heart and I remember, “We love because he first loved us.” 1 John 4:19