Beloved Beloved Beloved
March 24, 2019
Over the years, some of you might have heard me say that I have little faith of my own—what faith I do have is mostly borrowed—from David Hilfiker and Fred Taylor, from Harold Vines and Mike Hopkins, Stephanie Harding, and from the residents and staff at Joseph’s House for so many years. I also borrow faith from African American writers and activists: Sweet Honey’s Bernice Reagon, a young womanist theologian and anti-racism activist, Christena Cleveland, Reverend William Barber; and I borrow faith from the people I know and have known at L’Arche.
Then, not long ago I came across a reflection by Rabbi Abraham Heschel that got my heart’s attention. Here it is:
Faith is an endless pilgrimage of the heart. Audacious longing, burning songs, daring thoughts, an impulse overwhelming the heart, usurping the mind - these are all a drive towards serving the Divine who rings our hearts like a bell.
My understanding of faith has been too narrow because surely the Divine has rung my heart like a bell! Surely my heart has been overwhelmed again and again, all these years at Joseph’s House.
With confidence I can say that all these years, I have been a pilgrim. I didn’t consciously start out as a pilgrim, but very gradually, I have become conscious that I am a pilgrim. I have been on a path that has broken my heart and given me joy, love beyond anything I could have imagined, stoked my self-doubt, helped me notice where and when I’ve been asleep, made me want to WAKE UP and changed me, changed me, changed me.
A long time nurse and early AIDS activist, now a teacher of deep listening at Joseph’s House, Priscilla Norris invites our new staff and volunteers to notice if they are coming to the House as a Tourist or Prisoner, a Sophisticate or Pilgrim. It matters very much, she tells them how we meet, accompany, serve—how we behold one another. It matters very much.
On this pilgrim journey I regularly meet up with intense self-doubt, and deep longing for something just out of reach. On this path I have been blessed with heartbreaking sorrow and with heartbreaking love. Over time on this pilgrim path at Joseph’s House, my awareness has begun to open to the costs of racism in its countless forms—to all of us, including white people. Definitely, to me. Not long ago, I would not have been aware enough to feel grief at how the structures, the world view, that maintain white supremacy and benefit me in ways I had not noticed—shackle and diminish us all, robbing us all of our humanity, those of us who currently benefit, and those of us who pay the greatest cost.
Thirty years ago or so, as I was just approaching the place where my pilgrim path met up with Joseph’s House, I felt urgently motivated to be in solidarity with people who had AIDS. The world was mean to them and they suffered so much. I wanted to stand with the many, mostly gay men at that time, who had HIV/ AIDS. I became a buddy with Whitman Walker’s program. I sought out Mother Theresa’s Gift of Peace hospice and one of the sisters there asked me to sew shrouds in anticipation of the many people who would die there, so that after death, a person’s body would leave that place in a dignified way. I remember buying a bolt of heavy white cotton from G Street Fabrics and sewing the shrouds at home in the house I shared with Connie Ridgway and others.
They say that sometimes on a pilgrim’s way, a shepherd or shepherdess will come to guide us for a while. They say too, that as we walk that pilgrim way, it’s not uncommon for us to hear what is sometimes called “a beautiful question.” Ron Holmes became my first shepherd at Joseph’s House. The beautiful question he asked me was, “Will you come and meet my family?”
I met Ron, a young African-American man, at Christ House after church one Sunday morning. He invited me to come and have lunch with his family. I accepted. He took me to Joseph’s House, where he lived. At Joseph’s House, at that long table, there was a sense of generous welcome and ease. No shame. No fear. There was a palpable sense of belonging. I returned the next day and the next. I wanted to belong to these people and to this place. I never left.
And there was Hugh, another shepherd. Hugh’s beautiful question for me was, “Patty, why don’t you lie down?”
Hugh taught me perhaps the most precious lesson I have learned as a pilgrim at Joseph’s House: we don’t have to be anyone special, to be of comfort and encouragement to a person in great need. We only need to want to be there, just as we are.
I will always remember Hugh. I was living at Joseph’s House by then, helping Lois Wagner, David’s friend and colleague, to keep the community knitted together, day by day. Lois directed the Community of Hope Clinic and she lived at Joseph’s House. At that time I was working at Intelsat, up north on Connecticut Avenue.
We know this, don’t we—I know it’s also true in this community, in 8th Day—that when even one or two people’s intention is to actively hold and nurture and love the community and every individual in it—every day, in every interaction—the community becomes more buoyant, more vital; more resonant. It can hold more—of everything—sorrow and joy, both. Lois and I took turns staying awake with the men at night in four-hour shifts.
Hugh watched TV all night long. Mostly old Westerns. He was exhausted, but he was afraid to fall asleep lest he not wake up.
One night on my four-hour shift, I brought Hugh and me some ice cream, and I sat beside him on the bed. We watched an old black-and-white Western. Hugh nodded off from time to time and jerked himself awake to stop from falling forward off the bed. I moved closer to him so that he could lean on me for support. Then I got sleepy. Hugh said, “Patty, why don’t you lie down?” I accepted his invitation. I laid down on his narrow twin bed, my back against the wall, my head on his pillow, and slept. When I woke up, Hugh’s bone thin back was snuggled warm against my body, we were spooning. His snoring had awakened me. Hugh had found the courage to lie down and let himself sleep. This is perhaps the most precious lesson I have ever learned at Joseph’s House. That being with someone who is suffering or dying can be very intimate. That we don’t have to be an expert or someone special to make a difference for someone, to help ease their suffering.
Some say that pilgrimage is about a kind of longing—about acknowledging that part of us is perishing and that we are seeking new life. That on the pilgrim path we seek hope, healing, beauty and truth. All of these, I received from Hugh.
David Hilfiker is a shepherd for me. I would not have been able to stay or begin to recognize the abundant gifts of my Joseph’s House path, were it not for him.
Something I am still learning from David is about the gift and the truth of not judging a person—any person—for anything.
Over time, because of David’s way of being in the world, I have learned how even expressing disappointment in a person’s choices or actions such as when they pick up drugs and use and have to leave Joseph’s House—only adds to the pain and confusion that is already present. Over time I have learned to be more clear about what needs to happen now, and less disappointed that it needs to happen – when I ask a person to leave Joseph’s House as a consequence of their drug or alcohol use.
Sister Mary Daniel Turner, our first Executive Director, shepherded me with strong intention. Her beautiful question was, “Can you see how much Ralph loves his fish?”
Mary Daniel would always invite, never insist that a person participate in a group activity—even if participation was an expectation. Ralph was an anxious man, so anxious that he walked on tiptoe—ready to run, ready to spring, at any time. During our community meetings when the rest of us were there in the living room, Ralph hovered outside the room or smoked on the front porch. Mary Daniel invited him to join us, but she respected how impossible it was for him to join the group. Over time Ralph brought a chair close to the threshold of the living room and participated from there, in his way, and she welcomed his efforts. Ralph had such a hard time communicating with people. It was easy for many of us to give up on him and avoid him.
Sister Mary Daniel took me down to Ralph’s room one day, knocked on the door and spoke his name. When he heard her voice, Ralph let us in. Mary Daniel wanted me to see Ralph’s beautiful aquarium which, in fact, he had been sitting in front of, enjoying the fish.
She wanted me to associate something beautiful with Ralph. To see him, open and delighted and engaged by the beauty of the fish. “Can you see how much Ralph loves his fish? Can you see how beautifully he takes care of these fish?” she asked me.
Upstairs with others, Ralph was mostly guarded and often angry. I learned that Mary Daniel went with Ralph to the pet store to buy the tank and accessories and fish, adding to the collection of fish from time to time. I learned something so valuable from her about being a leader.
Mary Daniel looked for and often found what was most alive in a person who was hurting, who was dying, and she nurtured that aliveness, giving of her time and her creativity, not hesitating to spend money on something temporary—beautiful and life giving.
My late husband, Pierre, whom some of you knew, was a steady shepherd for me at Joseph’s House. I wish I had apprenticed myself to his guidance with much deeper attention. Pierre’s beautiful question to me: “Will you marry me?”
As my life and pilgrimage at Joseph’s House continued year after year, I have become more aware of and humbled by the cost of my great love for my community. I felt that I had been doing pretty well without a love in my life—Joseph’s House was my true love and seemed to ask for everything I had to give and I wanted to give it—then Pierre came into the picture. He made things easier for me, better. Everyone liked him. He could fix things. For an old dude he was easy on the eye. Pierre asked me to marry him, and we got married. What happened, even after we were married, was that Joseph’s House always came first for me. Soon Pierre and I lived parallel lives within the community. We were both disappointed and lonely. And we both loved Joseph’s House. The cost to us, of Joseph’s House coming first in my life, was too high. But I didn’t know how to do it differently. I wish I had known how. Even now there is dust in my throat when I remember our marriage. The words from an Ash Wednesday Blessing by Jan Richardson speak for me –
All those days you felt like dust, like dirt, As if all you had to do was turn your face toward the wind And be scattered by the four corners Or swept away by the smallest breath as insubstantial – Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?
I did not know. We did not know.
In their own ways, Scott Sanders, my long-time colleague; finance and development director, and Alan Tsai, our weekly therapist for so long, were powerful shepherds to me at Joseph’s House.
I learned from Scott, to get fierce about who and what I love. Scott came of age in Act Up, the early vehicle for gay men’s militant resistance to the inadequate dedication of resources for research to control and cure AIDS. Scott’s advocacy for our residents and for Joseph’s House’ well-being was fierce. He helped me see how much harder it can be to get well and to live, maybe even harder than dying. He showed me that the distance we can go with someone at Joseph’s House, could be a longer distance than I had imagined. Thanks to Scott, our program grew to include subsidized housing for those of our residents who get well, in Jubilee buildings, with strong Joseph’s House case management and personal support.
Scott and I have different approaches to the same world we are both passionate for. We often misread and misunderstood the other. We got into weekly counseling and it helped us so much that we stayed in counseling until he left last year to work at the National Cathedral. Our leadership team meets every week with Alan Tsai. Meeting with Alan makes a profound difference for us; he helps us stay real and honest, helps us go deep and deeply listen. Someone, somewhere, wrote that pilgrims of old braved the elements, danger and uncertainty because they were intentionally seeking something valuable. At Joseph’s House we are seeking something valuable and Alan continues to shepherd us, help us find our way; stay on the path.
Shepherdesses: The Care Aide Team that had been there from the start. Shepherds: Joseph’s House Board of Directors. San Francisco Zen Hospice Project. Beautiful Question “What do you notice?”
A little more than 10 years after Joseph’s House opened, after Sister Mary Daniel and Lois and David had all moved on and I was the Director, Joseph’s House began to fall apart. An important issue that we couldn’t seem to resolve was that of religious freedom of expression, including freedom from any religious expression. Spirituality and Religion were understood as synonymous by our staff at that time. Some of the aides strongly resented even the saying of the serenity prayer and the Lord’s Prayer. There was a depth of conflict and a way of handling conflict amongst the staff that I had no idea how participate in or resolve. I didn’t know if my expectations were fair, I blamed myself (this hadn’t happened while David was still there) but I did know that I couldn’t go on this way. I didn’t like the atmosphere that men with AIDS were still, at that time, coming to Joseph’s House to die in. I didn’t know what, exactly, to do about it.
Then I came across a notice on the internet for a yearlong training in a contemplative way of Being With Dying at the San Francisco Zen Hospice. It asked for a 4 day weekend of training in San Francisco every month for a year. Two 10-day silent retreats in addition to that. The Board of Directors backed me up and I participated and brought back what I was learning. I had been longing for this.
Taught without dogma by Buddhists who had accompanied hundreds and hundreds of men and women as they died, I learned practices for deep listening, to myself and to others; practices for growing in awareness of oneself—becoming more aware of being attracted or feeling disinterested in a person, so that, aware of myself avoiding someone, and exploring that a little, I can make a choice to open and approach even when I’m not drawn to that person at first. This way, the person who is very ill does not have the added burden of having to make themselves likeable to me in order to get the care they need and deserve. Cultivating skillful compassion in this way means that the person who is very ill does not have to be responsible for the care they receive. We caregivers are responsible. And as we caregivers engage with them, we engage ourselves, and awareness and compassion can actually deepen – for the whole community.
What I learned is: as followers of Jesus, the founders of Joseph’s House were moved to do justice and compassion with homeless men with AIDS. The why of founding Joseph’s House was the radical message of love, of the Gospel. Our way, the how – how we stay in and grow in compassion and grow in awareness as we stay – comes very much from the mindfulness practices I learned in San Francisco, and also from what I was able to learn while I was a live-in assistant at L’Arche Daybreak in Toronto: in the dailiness of life, we can meet God in one another. For many years now, our caregivers; staff and volunteers, self-select to come to Joseph’s House because they know they will be strongly supported, and expected – to grow personally, spiritually, and professionally in our community.
Over the years we have raised money for more than 20 of our staff and volunteers to do this deep Zen Hospice training in mindful caregiving. It has made a felt difference at Joseph’s House. All these people, trained in mindful caregiving practices with our encouragement and support have taken these practices to other institutions and places of care—hospitals, hospices, chaplaincy practices—and in this way they seed the possibility of greater compassion in settings that are increasingly technical. They are a gift from Joseph’s House, to the world.
Shepherdess: Blossom Williams. Beautiful question: “I always knew they would”. On this pilgrim way I was guided by another Shepherdess and another beautiful question.
It was Sunday, July 14th, 2013. At Joseph’s House we were lingering over a second cup of coffee after a wonderful breakfast. The table was still crowded. I was sitting beside my longtime colleague, Blossom Williams, who is originally from Jamaica. I was kind of keeping the conversation going, you know how we do, sometimes?
The night before there had been a news broadcast saying that a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty in the murder of young Travon Martin in Florida. There at the table I put out into the conversation mix,
“I can’t believe they let George Zimmerman off.”
Blossom, who was sitting beside me, wiped tears from her face and whispered, “I always knew they would.”
I was surprised by the difference in our responses to Zimmerman’s acquittal. I was shocked by what Blossom knew that I didn’t know. There and then I had an image of my world view as a tiny umbrella—so tiny that, held above me, it only covered me, it couldn’t reach to also cover Blossom, who was sitting close beside me. I knew immediately that I needed help to enlarge my world view about race. Nothing had ever felt more urgent. I called David Hilfiker—who else would I call? I told him what had happened and I remember telling him that I knew no African Americans who were not dependent on me for a job or for their care. I didn’t know how to meet African-American people as peers, to whom I could really listen, with whom I could actually talk about race. I asked David to help me.
David did help me. With his introduction I was invited to a mission group with African-American people and white people that met weekly to pray, to talk about the effects of race in their lives, and in doing so, get to know one another quite deeply. Even trust one another some.
Since that time I have been privileged and grateful to explore the mostly unconscious racism within myself—and the structural racism in our society and of course, also at Joseph’s House. I have been privileged to be very uncomfortable in many different settings when the conversation is about race—to listen and be humbled, and grow as a human being. Six years later after that morning at the Joseph’s House table beside Blossom, my world view is larger. It is still growing.
Because of this growth, I read James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, and my desire deepened to be with African American and other people of faith who are actively resisting racism. I joined Friends of Jesus Church where conversation on race and faith are held nearly every time we meet. As I accept the challenge to keep expanding my world view, I meet people who change me more such as Reverend William Barber, Co-Leader of the new Poor People’s Campaign. This Christian activism and fellowship speaks to my soul and whenever I can, I seek to be part of it, driving sometimes to North Carolina to a gathering of Poor People’s Campaign activists, joining teachings and demonstrations when the Campaign comes to DC.
On this long pilgrim journey with Joseph’s House, I have become aware of so much within me that is deeply in need of repair.
You know I love the poet and artist, Jan Richardson. She writes that most of the repairs we are called to make in life are small, incremental, and cumulative. When big transformations happen—in a heart, a relationship, a world view, a community, a country, they typically result from these small repairs. Restoration relies on our willingness to engage the slow work of mending over time. It asks us to approach each part of it as a practice, to turn toward what is broken, to imagine what it could become, to discern our role in its healing, and to enter into the rhythms that will support its restoration. The point is not to erase every sign of damage. The point in part, is to show that the damage does not have the final word. What finally emerges from the mending will be both scarred and beautiful. Most of all, it will be more whole.
As pilgrims, another poet, David Whyte, says, we are by definition, someone abroad in a world of impending revelation where something is just about to happen—including, and just around the corner, and as part of our eventual arrival—our own disappearance. I believe he may be speaking of our dying and our death. There is a way in which I am aware of myself dying.
My pilgrim path continues, but not for much longer at Joseph’s House. I will leave this place that has guided me into life more abundant than I had ever dreamed of, where I have had so much help, visible and invisible shepherdesses and shepherds along the way.
This summer I will return to western Canada, to the city of Calgary near the Rocky Mountains, in the province of Alberta where my mother still lives in my childhood home. Now she lives alone. She is 95 years old. Always, my mother set me free. Now she needs my companionship to be able to stay in the home she loves, as long as she wants to and can. I many not have been “blessed” exactly, as I started on my pilgrim journey when at 17, I left home. But that sweet gospel song that goes, “Somebody prayed for me, had me on their mind, took the time to pray for me…” My mother prayed for me. I’m so glad she prayed for me. I want to be there for her. It’s time.
Says the poet David Whyte, and I believe he knows what he is talking about: The way we give ourselves to the pilgrim path as an ultimate invitation into vulnerability and arrival – is a form of faith! Never fully knowing what lies on the other side of the destination, or if we will survive it in any recognizable form. Strangely, he says, our arrival at that last transition along the way is exactly where we will have the perspective to understand who has been travelling all along. May it be so. May it be so.
I did not begin my pilgrim journey knowing myself beloved. I was loved, yes indeed. Even so I did not know myself beloved. I can feel that I’m closer to that knowing today, after so many heartfelt days at Joseph’s House. I wonder if I may end my sharing this morning by reading you a poem for the beginning of Lent by Jan Richardson. This poem moves me. It is about setting out on our pilgrim way, into what feels like and sometimes really is – the wilderness, knowing ourselves beloved as we set forth.
Beloved is Where We Begin
If you would enter into the wilderness,
Do not begin without a blessing.
Do not leave without hearing who you are: Beloved, Named by the One
Who has traveled this path before you.
Do not go without letting it echo
In your ears,
And if you find it is hard to let it into your heart,
Do not despair,
That is what this journey is for.
I cannot promise
This blessing will free you from danger,
From fear, from hunger, or thirst,
From the scorching of sun
Or the fall of the night.
But I can tell you
That on this path
There will be help.
I can tell you
That on this way
There will be rest.
I can tell you
That you will know
The strange graces
That come to our aid,
Only on a road such as this,
That fly to meet us
Bearing comfort and strength,
That come alongside us
For no other cause than to
Lean themselves toward our ear
And with their curious insistence
Whisper our name:
Beloved Beloved Beloved