by Terry Messman
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]’ve known Paul Boden for many years now, decades actually. He was homeless when he moved to the Bay Area in the early 1980s, and he found his way off the streets to the Hospitality House in San Francisco, first as a place of refuge from the streets, and later as a staff organizer.
Paul worked with other homeless activists to found the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco in 1987. In 1990, they founded the Street Sheet in San Francisco, one of the very first homeless newspapers in the country. After directing the Coalition for 15 years, he formed a new organization called the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), a coalition of several West Coast poverty-rights groups that work for economic justice.
Last week, on May 26, our paths crossed once again, when Paul and his wife Marykate Connor, also a longtime homeless advocate, were seated at my table as one of Street Spirit’s invited guests at the AFSC annual dinner at the First Unitarian Church in San Francisco.
I soon discovered that even after knowing him all those years, I had overlooked something significant that was right in front of my eyes the whole time.
I noticed a turquoise pendant on a chain around his neck, and asked Paul about it. He grew thoughtful and told the story of his pendant in a deeply felt way.
“It was 1983,” Paul said, “and I had just recently come off the street myself. I was volunteering at Hospitality House, and I helped this dude out. Then I ran into him on the street three days later, and he said, ‘Here, I’ve been holding onto this for you.’
“And he gave it to me. I’ve never taken it off since. I love it. There’s just something about it, what it says, and what it means.”
Why was he so moved that he has never taken off a long-ago memento given by a half-remembered homeless man?
“You know when you’re coming off the street, you’re just helping each other out,” Paul said. “You’re not in a service-provider-type thing. It’s not a profession. You’re just helping someone out. Like, there were people who we pooled our food stamps with and shared. So to have somebody say, ‘Thank you for helping me out,’ and give a gift that meant something to him — that really meant a lot to me.”
It was eerie to hear the story of his pendant, because I had heard nearly the same, exact thing from my wife Ellen Danchik a few days earlier.
Ellen works with poor and homeless seniors at St. Mary’s Center in Oakland. She is my hero in life, and I see at first hand her selfless dedication and kindness.
It has long bothered me that society does so little to honor the work of its “social workers” — a colorless phrase that falls so far short of describing the beautifully altruistic acts of love and mercy done by so many unsung heroes in our midst.
When I asked her if the thankless nature of her work ever got to her, she dismissed my question with a smile and said she never thought about that. She said it forcefully, categorically. I know Ellen. When she says she never thinks about the lack of recognition, she means never, ever.
Ellen added, “But when two people I helped gave me Christmas cards, and a homeless man gave me a little ceramic angel, it meant the whole world to me.”
She treasures it in exactly the same way Paul will always value his pendant.
A World Turned Upside Down
Reflecting on their values turns the world upside down.
Our society values fame and awards ceremonies: Oscars, Pulitzers, Nobel Prizes. Prestigious bodies give coveted awards to those who succeed in the race for fame and glory. In the business world, people receive promotions, salary increases, million-dollar bonuses. Yet people who do the most sacred work of all — caring for the poor and disabled and destitute — toil in nearly complete obscurity, for poor pay, and little or no recognition.
That is why a pendant can turn the world upside down. While society teaches us to seek recognition or honors from above, Paul and Ellen value, with all their heart, an inexpensive pendant or a small angel given to them, unceremoniously, by a destitute and unknown resident of the streets.
An intense Jewish prophet from Nazareth said that the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. Another poet, Bob Dylan, channeled the same prophetic teaching when he sang: “The order is rapidly fading, and the first one now will later be last, for the times they are a changin’.”
The prophet from Nazareth consistently turned our entire world-view upside down. God especially loves the lost sheep, he said — the poor and homeless, the outcast and disabled. The very ones who have been discarded and discounted by society have the most privileged place of all.
Contrary to everything our society tells us, the mighty military overlords will not be first. The masters of war will be last, and the meek will inherit the earth.
The Wall Street bankers and the masters of finance that control untold billions of dollars are in a rat race for last place. “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your consolation.” (Luke 6:24) Instead, blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus turned upside down the very idea of award ceremonies for the rich and famous. After warning us not to invite the rich and well-connected, he said, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.” (Luke 14:13) I thought of how those are the very people invited in for meals at St. Mary’s Center every day.
The ultimate example of these upside-down values occurred when the very one who was supposed to be the greatest, the messiah, washed the dusty feet of his disciples — the job of a lowly servant.
I had always found that passage to be spellbinding in its beauty. Who else but a great poet could find a way to demonstrate so eloquently that “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35) What an amazing act of selflessness, so Zen-like in its paradoxical reversal of roles. Only a religious genius could have dreamed that up.
But then I was startled to realize there are people in our own community, right now, today, who are doing exactly that, without any sort of fanfare. They are lovingly washing the feet of homeless people.
They are not doing it in the hope of any kind of recognition, and they are not doing it as some sort of theological statement. They are washing the feet of the poor as an act of simple kindness, because homeless people are on their feet day and night, and their endless march to nowhere takes a tremendous toll on their legs and feet.
The Suitcase Clinic
In Berkeley, more than 100 University of California students volunteer at the Suitcase Clinic. They find the time, in their busy, crowded lives of classes and study and tests, to serve the destitute ones that nearly everyone else ignores and avoids.
Some Suitcase Clinic members help at the free medical, dental and optometry clinics. They prepare meals, run drop-in centers, and help homeless people with housing referrals. Others help defend the civil rights of homeless people. Some students do massage and acupuncture.
And some wash the feet of homeless people, not because it is noble or exalted, but because it is badly needed by people who are on the move all day, with no place to lay their head and rest. No one makes a big deal about this. But it is a very big deal.
It’s a sacred act, even if most of those who serve the poor don’t think they are doing anything special. Yet, they are doing something so extraordinary that some faiths teach that the very fate of humanity depends on these seemingly ordinary acts of love and mercy.
Pick your own religious or political tradition, and call it what you will. In the Catholic faith, it is called the Works of Mercy, as defined by Dorothy Day, a left-wing saint who began the Catholic Worker to shelter and feed the homeless poor.
In Buddhism, we learn of the compassionate bodhisattva who selflessly renounces his or her own self-interest, and acts to save sentient beings from suffering.
In the Jewish faith, we find mystical teachings about the Lamed-Vov, a handful of compassionate people whose acts of mercy make it possible for the very world to continue. The Lamed-Vovniks are so modest and unassuming that no one even realizes their saintly role. Even they themselves don’t realize their importance.
In secular political terms it is called solidarity — an injury to one is an injury to all. The spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood that labor organizer Mother Jones described so powerfully: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”
There is a Fountain
“Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of man.”
The Grateful Dead sang that.
“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.”
The Book of Psalms sang that.
Acts of compassion flow from the inner wellsprings of the Spirit, whether we realize it or not. The Spirit is a hidden fountain, elusive and intangible, yet perennial and ever-flowing.
Once in a while, you may catch a glimpse of the Spirit, perhaps only a glimmer of light reflected off the ordinary-looking pendant worn by a friend.
The Spirit is love. It speaks to us in the still of the night to remind us that we are our brother’s keeper, our sister’s keeper.
It is an unseen impulse that inspires us to help another in need. It is the spirit of thankfulness that moves a poor man to give a pendant to an activist who helped him. It is the gratitude that makes that activist cherish an inexpensive necklace, and wear it in thanksgiving for the rest of his life.
It can leave a permanent imprint on those who give and those who receive. It has now been nearly 30 years since one activist received a small pendant — an emblem of mercy.
One of the beatitudes has always been engraved on my mind: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
Sometimes, to sweeten the deal, they receive a cool turquoise pendant as well.
“Glimpses of the Spirit” is a series of columns exploring the connections between social justice and spirituality. These columns search for glimpses of the spirit that inspire people to seek compassion and justice for all those who suffer from poverty and oppression.