Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Lord hears the cry of the poor...


If God loves anyone best, it is the poor, the least, the littlest and the one forgotten by everyone else.

He could have chosen a great nation to build massive temples to him, but no, he chose an enslaved race whom the Egyptians treated harshly and afflicted.

He could have chosen the oldest, the brightest or the strongest of the sons of Jesse as King of Israel, but he chose the youngest, the shepherd boy David.

As we sing every night, God chooses the poor, the slave, the blind and the oppressed and to them he proclaims the good news, freedom, sight and a year of favor from the Lord.

Indeed, as we sang just a few minutes ago, God hears the cry of the poor, he is close to the broken hearted, and a rescuer to all in distress.

When you get to your first parish as a priest, a piece of advice: befriend the poor.  Don’t just do things for them, anyone can do that!  Love them and make them your friends.  For the guy who sleeps on the street and the gal who can’t stop drinking and the kid who just stole the GPS from your car, really are Christ in disguise.  

One story only, because on this I could go on and on.  I wasn't sure if I told it already in my first Rector’s Conference, but no one seems to remember it, so here goes.

It’s about Selma.

Selma was a Jewish girl from Worcester who suffered a psychotic break after the birth of her first child.  For a while they kept her at home, but then committed her to the State Hospital where she lived for over twenty years.

In the late 1970s, when deinstitutionalization of mental patients was all the rage, Selma was left to regulate her own meds and handle her own meager welfare check.  So she lived mainly on the street and seldom in touch with reality, which is when I met her. 

I’d been ordained a year and a half and was serving at Worcester’s Cathedral.  Selma would scare the living daylights out of you.  She wore white pancake makeup and bright red lipstick, an ill fitting wig, short hot pants over red leggings and a white coat on which was pinned a myriad of religious medals and campaign buttons.

And she was always at the Cathedral, partially because she was treated with kindness and respect there.  She’d show up every day, pass out bulletins to unsuspecting visitors and carry the collection baskets back to the front of the Church after every Mass.  

Selma used to get confused, but she never lacked for certainty.  I remember after my ordination as a priest she came up to me smiling ear to ear and said, “Sir, that was the best bar mitzvah I’ve ever been to!”

But then there was the day the altar cloths disappeared.  Every one of them from the sacristy of the Cathedral.  The big damask ones, the full length Jacobean ones...every one of them.  The rector was beside himself and suspicious of satanic plots. The police were called and no one could figure out what to do.

Until one of the priests asked Selma about it.  At first she was shy, but finally, when he assured her there was nothing to fear, she told him the truth.  

You see, Selma would beg money after every Mass.  No one begrudged her this, and people were pretty generous.

But no one realized what she was using the money for.  You see it gets cold in the alleyways of downtown Worcester in the wintertime, and Selma knew a lot of the drunks and addicts who would sleep behind the dumpsters.  So she, seldom sleeping at night due to her psychotic episodes of mania, would go down to the White Tower Restaurant just before the sun came up and the dew point shifted and bring back hot coffees for all the guys behind the dumpsters so they wouldn’t die of hypothermia.

Until one morning she slept in and forgot the coffee, and one of them did die...in the snow and the cold.

So when they went to ask he about the altar cloths, she wasn't sure what they meant, until they said, you know, the big quilts we put on the altar.  At which Selma sheepishly admitted that she had taken the altar cloths and used them to cover up the guys sleeping behind the dumpsters so they wouldn’t die of the cold.

To this day I am convinced that this schizophrenic orthodox Jewess understood the purpose of those altar cloths and the altar they cover better than I do. 

She knew, somehow, that God loves the poor best of all, and expects us to do the same.