Many years ago, for reasons I won’t bother you with, I was afforded the opportunity to perform twenty hours of community service at the charity of my choice. After putting it off until the last minute, I chose the Missionaries of Charity AIDS hospice, then in San Francisco. It was close to my girlfriend’s apartment.
I wasn’t very eager, but the sisters welcomed me. My first responsibility was to drive the sisters to Project Open Hand and pick up food to be distributed to shut-in AIDS sufferers at 6th Street and Tenderloin flophouses. Considering the neighborhoods they were serving, I was also an unofficial bodyguard. I’m six foot two and over 200 pounds and the sisters range at the lower end of five feet. These women didn’t need any bodyguard, though. They’re strong and held their own in any situation.
My twenty hours ran out, but I couldn’t stop coming back. I wanted to see the sisters.
The main reason the sisters do what they do is that they see an image of Christ in all of the people they serve, especially the poorest of the poor.
After my twenty hours were over, my main responsibility was to hang out with the men to talk and smoke, and drive them to the hospital for treatment.
At the entrance to the room where I hung out with the men, the sisters had a poster of Christ. It was a terribly graphic representation of Him after the scourging. He wasn’t the strong and serene “Good Shepherd”, and He wasn’t the glorious risen Christ with five vague symbolic wounds. Chunks of flesh were ripped out of His body by the scourging. Blood was flowing and he was sorrowful. A caption read, “I thirst.” It bothered me whenever I saw it and I thought, sarcastically, “How lovely!”
I certainly saw an image of Christ in the sisters, but getting to know the men, I struggled to find an image of Christ in them. They were a cantankerous bunch.
They complained about the sisters. They complained about their medical treatment. They convinced me to buy them cigarettes and other things with no intention of paying me back. I listened to them whine endlessly, to and from the hospital. I often had to make side-trips on the way back from hospital in order to visit a favorite restaurant or bookstore. They complained about me, and I complained about them.
Some of them had horrible stories. One had abandoned his wife and children and had acquired AIDS picking up young male prostitutes on Polk Street.
I went with the sisters once to visit a man whom I got along with particularly well. He was committed to the psych-ward at S.F. General because he had tried to commit suicide twice. The sisters couldn’t keep him in their residence, but they still wanted to visit him. I brought him a carton of Marlboros.
A young short Hispanic sister told me as we were waiting for the elevator to go to the dreaded fourth floor, very sincerely and in a heavy accent, “You are building a crown for yourself in heaven which can never be taken away no matter what you do.”
I thought to myself, “Whatever, sister! I just drove you here and bought him some cigs.”
I got to know most of the men well and enjoyed their company despite the dementia that had settled into a number of them in the last stages of their disease. There was fulfillment in my work, but not the kind the sisters had. I felt I was fulfilling my duties to Christian charity, but not that I was actually serving images of the scourged Christ.
One day I was asked to come by and take a man to the hospital whom I’d never spoken to before. Some other volunteers carried him down the steps and placed him in the passenger seat of my Chevy Blazer.
I drove him alone to S.F. General and he spent most of the time thanking me and telling me how important prayer had become in his life. By the look of him, that life was about to end and I had no expectation of taking him home from the hospital. I don’t know what his story was or how he arrived in the position he was in. He had a growth the size of a baseball in his groin, he couldn’t walk, he was gaunt and in pain.
I paid little attention and was fearing our arrival at the hospital, because I knew I would have to lift him out of my high SUV seat to put him in his wheelchair.
On arrival, I went to lift him and was surprised at how easy it was; he was all bones. I was also surprised when I felt something wet and then looked at my car-seat as I was pulling him out. He had urinated on my seat!
He groaned a bit in pain as I lifted him down from the car and kept saying “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. Thank you, Thank you.”
I was upset and extremely uncomfortable and then something hit me like a ton of bricks. I plopped him in his wheelchair and spun him around quickly so he wouldn’t see my tears.
This greatly suffering man, soon to die, had long hair, a beard and purple splotches covering his body. I had just held the scourged Christ.
And He was lovely.