A week has passed since I returned to Chicago after a three week sojourn in California. The trip impressed me deeply, causing events from earlier this summer to be all but lost in its shadow. I have to be intentional about recalling the first weeks of summer, the activities that felt so momentous at the time.
June began with the Catholics on Call conference, appropriately laying the groundwork for a formative summer with talks on discernment, vocation, prayer and community. A few days after I headed to Arizona where the boundary between the US and Mexico is lost in the Sonoran Desert. I went to participate in a humanitarian aid project, to educate myself about immigration and to be present with some of those who are in the thick of it. The two weeks I was back in Chicago are a blurred flurry of processing the previously mentioned experiences; entertaining out of town visitors; planning for a move away from my apartment and job as a nanny and into the White Rose Catholic Worker in West Rogers Park.
I hadn’t been to LA since I helped my brother Adam move there four years ago. Since then my oldest brother, Aaron, headed west as well with his wife and two children. I’ve been promising a visit for at least two years and this summer I finally made good. My original plan was to stay for ten days; that later extended to three weeks as I decided to take this opportunity to spend some time learning from and working with the Los Angeles Catholic Worker. The LACW has been living out the gospel with intensity and integrity for forty years (they celebrated their anniversary the week before I showed up). Those who comprise the community structure their days around performing works of mercy. These include feeding the poor, clothing the naked and giving shelter to the homeless.
Roughly twenty-five men and women reside at the LACW. Only eight of these are seasoned workers. The rest of the house is comprised of a handful of summer-interns--discerning whether this is a way of life that they can get behind—and “guests.” Some guests have lived in house for as long as or longer than some of the workers. All of them are men and women the workers met through the “Hippie Kitchen.” The heart of the LACW is this soup kitchen that beats out its life giving rhythm in downtown LA’s “skid row.” If you have never been to skid row it is a difficult place to imagine. I’ve lived in and visited major cities across the country—Orlando, Manhattan, Louisville, Nashville, San Francisco—never have I encountered homelessness and hunger like there is in downtown Los Angeles. Driving at night I saw blocks of sidewalks lined with tents, make-shift shanties of boxes and debris, church parking lots with bodies parked in every available space.
One of my favorite things from the five days I spent there was the picnic. Three weeks out of the summer, the LACW rents a bus, fills it with their friends who regularly eat at the Kitchen, and drives to a lovely lakeside park. The community prepares food early and is there to meet the bus load of skid row residents with chips and salsa and fruit. Grills are ignited and before long servers and those served share a meal, play Frisbee, take a stroll or simple rest in the grass beneath a shade tree. Here I had the opportunity to say more than “good morning” while quickly scooping salad onto a plate or sticking a spoon into a bowl of oatmeal. More importantly, I had the opportunity to listen, to hear the stories of my brothers and sisters who so readily welcomed me though I was a stranger.
The person who remains most present in my memory is a man who called himself “Black Jesus.” He took the name as a testament to his faith and a challenge to live an exemplary life. Black Jesus was sinewy and tall. He stood stopped and laughed soft and high like a little child. Thinking of him invariably brings to mind Jesus’ words recorded in the book of Matthew:
Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me. 6 But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. (KJV)
Before the day was over Black Jesus had a “spiritual name” to offer me and a poem to accompany it:
Unto your eyes;
Your spiritual name, is Heaven Hi.
You are a blessing unto this world,
you are a spiritual woman, within a spiritual girl.
May this poem bless you always with Jesus Holy Love,
Heaven Hi, got Jesus Blood.
Heaven Hi, is Jesus, satan is hel-lo;
Jesus is your foundation, unto your mind, body, and soul.
We are children of the living Jesus Christ,
look within, you will see Jesus mercy, grace and glory unto your life.
Black Jesus is one example of the many men and women who fellowship with the LACW on a regular basis and they are only a fraction of the millions of men and women throughout our country who experience homelessness and hardship and who are rejected by the mainstream. These are the least Jesus referred to when he said, “as much as you did to the least of these, you did it to me…and as much as you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Mat. 25:40). These are the face of Christ; thirsty, hungry, naked, homeless, [often] imprisoned. When we avert our eyes, or cross the street, it is Christ we turn from. When we wait for someone else to meet the need we find overwhelming or outside of our responsibility, it is Christ’s need we neglect. As a Catholic woman I am confronted with the responsibility to respond. What is required? Interacting with these men and women, I did not get the sense that their need would be satisfied by having the gospel preached to them. What was required for them, what is required from me, is that the gospel be practiced for them.
I met with many people and situations during my time in Los Angeles and Northern California that challenged my ideas of who I am and who I want to be. I think the greatest challenge though is engaging in the process of continually becoming a woman worthy of the friendships so readily offered to me, to be a woman with the humble audacity to take on the name “Jesus” with the understanding that doing so does not mean I will merely speak of him, but that I will be him; no matter where I am; no matter who I’m with.