These words yesterday, coming from one of our “church without walls” congregants, chilled me to the bone. At great inconvenience and physical hardship for herself, she made her way from a camp site to our food pantry, located about one mile north of the heart of downtown. Her tattoo-mottled body was sweaty and shaking from the effort as she parked her bicycle, precariously laden with as much nonperishable food and bakery items as she could hope to carry.
She wept as she told me, “I’m scared. We’re all scared.” I told her how much I missed our community, now scattered. How heart-broken I feel to not be able to gather. She said that she is afraid that she will lose her beloved partner, who has medical issues, who remains encamped as she is too weak to travel to our food pantry.
When she asked for prayer, I invited her to follow me several feet down the fence for privacy. My heart ached that we weren’t able to embrace, that I wasn’t able to place a hand on her shoulder as we prayed. We connected as best we could with a brick-and-iron fence between us.
The deepening sense of powerlessness and grief can be overwhelming as the divide widens, sending the poor farther and farther to the edge of society, to the edge of existence.
As a priest, I feel like a traitor even as I struggle to reimagine this particular ministry. Some days, prayer is the best I can offer, though that prayer can feel hollow when what we crave is something incarnational, something “real.” A warm cup of coffee. A comforting meal shared among our gathered community. A time to reflect, to give voice to our experiences, to have the cry of our hearts heard by our sisters and brothers.
For sound reason, we cannot gather at this time, and the tools we use to reach those more fortunate – computers and internet – fall woefully short in connecting with those less fortunate, especially when it comes to those who are unhoused. I post prayers and messages, knowing only a handful will be able to access them. It is not a matter of not being tech savvy. The libraries – a vital lifeline of daily life — are closed, cut off by a pandemic.
When this dear one cried to me, “We’re starving,” I flashed on Jesus on the cross, uttering the words “I thirst,” before declaring that “It is finished.” My friend’s suffering – the suffering of this beloved community – is known intimately by Jesus. I know that he hangs with them in this trying time just as he remains with us all. His presence may seem hidden or at times cruelly obscured, but he is with us. I cannot solve my friend’s suffering. I am powerless to fix these urgent days we find ourselves in, powerless to prevent the many life adjustments that are sure to come. I simply pray to find a way to be present with these precious ones, to be present with those in our midst. To find Christ not in some longed-for-yet-out-of-our-grasp future, but in the here and now. For it is in this present time that we must find the One who suffered and died for us. The One who promised never to leave.
The number of our neighbors facing food insecurity is growing rapidly in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. You can read more about that here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-next-threat-hunger-in-america/2020/04/02/cde04dfa-7525-11ea-a9bd-9f8b593300d0_story.html or here: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/02/us-food-banks-coronavirus-demand-unemployment
You can make a gift to St. Mary’s food pantry here: St. Mary’s.