Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Debbie



St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church
I had seen her once before. “Debbie” she told me on the corner after mass. That is her name.

The first time I saw Debbie, she wheezed into the pew next to me in the middle of the morning service. 

“Got cash?” she asked as the 90 year old pastor consecrated the gifts.

“I don’t,” I said truthfully. “You hungry?” I whispered, pulling out the banana in my bag.

 “No, I’m behind on some bills.”

She moved up a pew, poking others on the shoulder. A parishioner emitted a chastising “shh!”

Moments later, Debbie sat in the pew fast asleep.

“Good God,” I thought, “someone please help this woman.” She got mostly disgruntled stares, annoyed looks or silence. I sat helplessly in my pew after offering her the only physical relief I carried, a stream of prayers spewing for this homeless woman and anyone else in the world that was suffering. The next day at mass, the women nodded when I asked if she had been helped. That was weeks ago, before I had known her name.

Yesterday, Debbie came in before the mass started and sat in the pew in front of me.

“Oh no,” I immediately thought. “I should have gone to the earlier service.” 

She turned around and looked at me, asking for something. “I have some food,” I said.

“I already ate,” she replied.

When I asked again what she needed, the list ranged from shampoo and lotion to body spray and soap. 

“I can get you one thing,” I said. “What do you need most?”

Her face lit up. “I have class at 9,” she told me. “There’s a dollar store down the street or a CVS.”

“We’ll go to CVS, but I have work at 9 too, so we have to hurry,” I replied.

Then I introduced myself and got her name. She smiled gratefully. 

I felt in those stolen moments that we were best friends. 

“The service starts in two minutes, I can only go with you after, around 8:30,” I whispered. “That’s in half an hour. Can you wait?” She nodded. I put my finger to my lips. “We have to be quiet,” I said as the priest walked in. After all the ruckus she had made last time, I took a deep breath and prayed things would go smoothly.

He has won renown for his wondrous deeds; gracious and merciful is the LORD. He has given food to those who fear him; he will forever be mindful of his covenant,” the reading that day said. I rolled my eyes dramatically just to make sure God could see. “Yes, Lord,” I was saying. “I get it.” 

He takes care of us through one another. 

The Friday before, I had been ready for these types of encounters--the ones where I could be serving someone I knew needed a helping hand. I was with a group handing out sandwiches to the homeless around Dupont after work. But yesterday, I didn’t expect Debbie to come into my personal space when I least expected it—in the quiet and warmth of this little chapel next to St. Anthony’s Catholic School at 8am. As Greg Boyle, S.J. writes about his reaction to a woman in Tattoos on the Heart, “I had mistaken her for an interruption.” 

Debbie may be many things, but she is not an interruption. If anything, she is a reminder of the miracle of my own blessings and life. She is a sister on this earth. She is a beautiful human being. Debbie is humbling. And she is surprising.

Debbie didn’t sleep this time during mass, nor did she prod people and whisper pleas for money. She wept. During the sign of peace, the three elderly nuns in front of her turned around and grasped her hands affectionately. Yesterday, Debbie also received communion.

Neighborhood CVS
After the bizarre and beautiful service, the 20 degree day felt colder than ever. I didn’t keep my promise. I walked into CVS and got Debbie three things as she waited outside: lotion, shampoo and soap.  She wasn’t allowed to go in, she said. 

“Here you go.” I said, handing her the plastic bag filled with standard hygienic products and giving her the last thing I could--a blessing.

“God bless you,” she said, walking off.  

And then we both went to our 9 o'clock engagements.





I don’t know why Debbie is missing teeth, why she is in and out of a house, or if she really needed everything I bought her. I don’t know if she’ll use the coupons I included, if she’s been baptized or why she was weeping. But I do know that I’m learning to help others, even when it’s not on my schedule that day--on God’s time and under God’s circumstances.