by Judy Joy Jones
Washington, D.C., was undergoing one of its worst blizzards in history, but I was determined to get to Mother Teresa’s house for homeless men and women dying of AIDS.
I asked the bus driver to please let me know when we got to my stop. “I have driven a bus in D.C. for 20 years and never heard of the street your stop is supposed to be on,” the bus driver informed me.
“I know where it is and will let you know when we get there,” someone in the back of the bus shouted out. “Thank you!” I answered.
Living in California hadn’t prepared me for freezing temperatures and snow. The day before, I had gotten lost while trying to get to Mother Teresa’s orphanage for newborn babies, located in the Chevy Chase section of Washington, D.C.
While asking people on the street for directions, one man angrily informed me, “We don’t have orphanages in our neighborhood.” Unfortunately, they do, and I was able to find it, along with five of the most beautiful newborn babies you have ever seen!
The bus driver let me off at my stop. Climbing through waist-deep snow, the white house at the top of the hill loomed like a castle in the distance. Perhaps a senator or congressman once owned it before Mother Teresa made it a home for the destitute and dying of Washington, D.C.
I felt apprehensive standing outside the door, waiting for someone to answer. Having only volunteered before with homeless men suffering from AIDS, I wondered if I was prepared for what I was about to experience.
“Hello, please come in. My name is Sister Mary.”
“Hi, I’m Joy and I would like to volunteer if you need me.”
“Oh yes, we certainly do. Will you be able to arrive early in the morning to assist the elderly women out of bed and help bathe them?”
“Elderly women?” I asked, thinking the shelter was only for men and women suffering from AIDS.
“Yes, we have several elderly women that are homeless and can’t get out of bed by themselves,” answered the young sister.
As Sister Mary escorted me down the stairs to the basement where the women’s beds were, the screams startled me. Walking up to the woman who was yelling, I asked, “May I help you?”
She appeared to be in her nineties, all shriveled, with deep wrinkles lining her face. “Please, please get me out of bed.”
As I started to lift her, she looked into my eyes and in an angelic voice said, “I’m as heavy as a sack of bricks!”
Laughing, I assured her she wasn’t quite that heavy.
“We found her in the snow, nearly frozen to death,” the sister said.
“In the snow?”
“Yes, people call us when they see someone outside all alone — that is, dying.”
Her Suffering Nearly Over
“Oh, I hurt so bad. I can’t take it any longer.” The voice etched with pain was coming from the bed behind me. Turning around, I saw a young woman in her early twenties sitting on the side of her bed. She was homeless and dying of AIDS.
“Would you please put some cream on my legs to help ease the pain?”
Picking up the jar on the dresser beside her bed, I gently rubbed some on her legs.
“It’s so very kind of you to help me,” she said before falling into a fitful sleep.
Rose was a beautiful young woman, dying all alone in a homeless shelter. As I gently covered her legs with a blanket, I began to visualize angels surrounding her bed, radiating spiritual light into her body.
When I turned around, there were two cheerful volunteers smiling at me.
“Hello and welcome. We are from France and go around the world volunteering for those most in need. There is nothing that feels better on earth to us than to offer a helping hand.”
I couldn’t agree more, I thought. At that moment we heard a huge crash coming from the kitchen. All three of us ran to see what had happened.
A woman named Jewel had thrown her plate of food to the ground. No one had heard her calling for help and this was her only way to make certain someone came. I hugged her, got her another plate of food and asked her what else she needed.
“Salt,” she answered. “I just need a little salt and can’t walk to get it myself, or I would have.”
The other volunteers and I walked in and out of the bedrooms, asking if anyone needed anything. As I looked at the young women in their beds, all certain to be dead within the next few months, I could feel Mother Teresa’s presence. Her love and simplicity were everywhere.
Mother Teresa never fought back in worldly ways such as lawsuits. Her only weapon was prayer and her prayers were often answered in remarkable ways. But if they weren’t answered, Mother would say, “It wasn’t God’s will,” and accepted it, totally.
Walking to the bus, the snow nearly blinded me. Hot tears ran down my face, thawing my frozen cheeks. I felt powerless to do anything but totally rely on God at that moment. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to return to the house in the morning.
Inside those doors, the suffering was far too great for me to understand. But remembering Mother Teresa’s compassionate love for the poorest of the poor, which continued to affect me deeply, I would be there in the morning to continue volunteering.
Knocking on the door the next day, I felt a new surge of excitement. I was in Washington, D.C., at Mother Teresa’s house for homeless men and women, and couldn’t wait to be scrubbing floors and holding the hands of those in need. I was receiving so much more than I could ever give. Luxury hotels seemed like a fading dream, yet the beauty of life is that we can experience both!
“Hello Joy! And how are you today?” asked Sister Maria, holding the door open for me to come in.
“I’m doing wonderful Sister, and so enjoying volunteering.”
“Joy, can you paint?” Sister Maria asked me.
“Oh yes Sister, I am a painter.”
“Would you paint some roses on the kitchen counter in the women’s shelter?”
Maybe the angels had seen my tears falling in the snow on the way home yesterday, and knew the way to dry my tears was through painting.
Rose Surrounded by Candles
Walking downstairs and through the halls, intense joy filled the air. Entering Rose’s room, I found her dressed in a white gown with lit candles surrounding her bedside. Her face, so tortured with pain the last time I saw her, was now serene and filled with peace. Rose was home with God. The sisters stood at the foot of her bed, softly singing.
I glanced at her legs, the legs I had rubbed the cream on yesterday. Rose had not only had the pain of a disease that inflicts suffering most of us cannot imagine, but also the pain of being only 23 years old and dying alone and homeless.
A man and woman came into the room at that moment. They looked at Rose and asked, “Did she have any money left from her welfare check?”
I couldn’t believe that would be their only concern. Their sister had just died and they wanted what little money she might have had. And then I knew. I was seeing stark poverty before my eyes. It rips through all known kinds of socially acceptable politeness.
The poor don’t have time for that. The only thing on their mind is survival. Money affords us time to mourn behind closed doors and time to heal until we are able to present a happy face to society.
The poor only have time to think about their next meal, and worry about finding a warm place to sleep. They must focus on how to make it to the morning light without being mugged or worse. For a second, I had forgotten Rose was homeless, and that her brother and sister standing over her body, loved her deeply. I knew she would want them to have any money she had.
Rose had fought a hideous illness that ripped her life from her at the age most are just starting out in the world. Yes, she would have given them everything she had, for the torch they now carried was for three.
Jacob’s Tender Touch
Walking through the freshly fallen snow to the familiar doors of Mother Teresa’s house, I was bursting with happiness. Never had I felt so alive!
“Joy, it’s Jacob!” the man at the front door said excitedly.
“Hi, Jacob! What are you doing here?” I asked him.
We had volunteered together at Mother Teresa’s Gift of Love House in San Francisco. Jacob later moved to Washington, D.C., to help the sisters take care of homeless men with AIDS.
“I was really angry with the Catholic Church,” Jacob told me when I first met him. “I had been very faithful to them for years, but felt they weren’t helping others as they should have been. One day I saw a group of nuns in the park outside of City Hall in San Francisco, feeding the homeless. I found out they were Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity Sisters and I’ve been volunteering with them ever since.
“That was ten years ago. And you know something, Joy? I don’t have time to be angry at the Church anymore. Mother Teresa’s unselfish giving to the poor opened my heart and offered me a way to be of service in my retirement years.”
Jacob made his own transition shortly after our last visit. How many diseased bodies he fed, held and bathed and the number of tears he dried in the early morning hours as he sat patiently by one man after another, will never be known.
Nor will we ever know the number of huge pots of soup Jacob lifted with the sisters into trucks, to take to the starving homeless people in the park. If there is any work to be done in heaven, I know Jacob is there offering his strong arms and huge heart.
Left in the Snow to Die
As I walked downstairs, I saw a young woman in a wheelchair. “Hello! I’m Regina!” she said, offering her hand to me. Regina was 22 years old and had been found dying in the snow by the sisters. She was born with cerebral palsy and had cognitive impairment. To make matters worse, Regina had AIDS.
“I’m going to the hospital in the morning to be operated on,” Regina informed me. “They are going to remove some of my toes that were frostbitten when I was in the snow before the sisters found me.”
“I’ll come visit you if you would like me to,” I told her. I took her huge grin for a resounding “yes.”
Sculpting Her in the Hospital
The following morning, I found Regina in the charity ward of the hospital being prepped for surgery. As soon as I walked in her room her face lit up and she said, “Oh, I’m so happy you came. Would you go get me some cigarettes?”
When I got back to her room she had another visitor. “This is John,” she said. A well-built young man in a hospital gown sat by her bedside.
“I was shot by a gang member,” John explained.
Regina teased him, “Oh John, sure. Come on, you know you were out there pulling a hold-up and some guard shot you.” John adamantly shook his head no. She laughed and winked at him.
“Regina, I brought some clay,” I said. “Could I do a small bust of you while we talk?”
“Sure,” she answered. I sculpted and listened while Regina explained how she ended up in the snow where the sisters had found her.
“I was very sick and went to the emergency room at the hospital. The nurses gave me some pills and sent me on my way. They didn’t know I couldn’t read and wouldn’t know how many I was supposed to take. Also, they weren’t aware that I had no home and was staying in a shelter downtown whose only beds are the floor. I was lucky to have my wheelchair to sleep in.
“So I was wheeling my chair towards the bus stop and started feeling really bad and sleepy. It was snowing so hard I couldn’t move my wheelchair backwards or forwards. I fell asleep and when I woke up, the sisters were standing over me, smiling. They asked if they could help me to their house. ‘We have a bed for you,’ they told me. And that’s how I got to Mother Teresa’s house high up on that hill.”
Giggling she added, “Would you please go get me a Coke and candy bar?”
When I walked back into her room, the doctors were explaining to Regina that they could either remove two or three toes and that it was her decision.
“Oh take them all now,” she said. “My cerebral palsy keeps me in this wheelchair anyway so I don’t need them for walking,” she explained to the doctor.
Regina beamed from an inner light which grew brighter as her outer situation grew dimmer.
When I later returned to Mother Teresa’s house, Regina was in her wheelchair, sitting at the dinner table with the other women. Her feet were bandaged. They were all laughing as Regina told one joke after another, taking their minds off their intense suffering.
Spirit weaves in and out of our lives in beautifully mysterious ways. Washington, D.C., had captured part of my soul’s essence forever!
If I could offer a gift to everyone in the world, it would be to spend a day at any of Mother Teresa’s houses for the homeless who are dying.
If heaven can be felt upon this earth, it is here, in these rooms of Mother Teresa’s where the most despised on earth, the poorest of the poor, have the great grace of dying in the arms of angels.
See the related story by Judy Joy Jones about Mother Teresa’s house in San Francisco in this issue.
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“They Are Mine”
by Judy Jones
they are mine
the poorest of the poor
a home i shall give them
their wounds i will clean
each cry of the poor
i hear in the night
may god give me graces
to make their burdens light
as my teardrops
touch the wounds
of the poorest of the poor
and i dry them with my hair
‘tis god working thru me
so i may share
thy tenderest mercy
for the poorest of the poor
whose blood covers
all of earth’s shores
they are mine
the poorest of the poor
until there are no more
Closed Church Doors
by Judy Jones
as they make their way
into the church doors
all dressed in their finery
ignoring the poor
don’t they realize
‘tis jesus they seek
and he can be found
dying on their streets
it’s him on your cold concrete streets
dying from hunger and neglect
can’t you see him
in the poorest of the poor
dying outside your church doors?
‘tis jesus you seek
and it is he
the poorest of the poor