My homeless community teaches me to pray

Prayer has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. More recently, through my ministry to women and men experiencing homelessness, I have learned more than I could ever imagine.

As a child, my parents taught us to kneel beside our beds to say our nightly prayers. We prayed for safety and we blessed all our loved ones. Likewise, when we met for meals, we marked this privileged moment with prayer.

During the night with my grandmother, we knelt in the evening to pray the rosary. Because I loved being with her so much, I didn’t care how long, and later in life I realized how much her faith had influenced mine.

Attending a Catholic school, we began and ended the day with prayer and often blessed the hour. Of course, the mass and the processions and the Stations of the Cross were part of our religious formation and shaped our spiritual imaginations.

Becoming a Mercy Sister has provided me with wonderful role models and learning opportunities. Formation courses, retreats, theological reflections and spiritual direction have increased my thirst for prayer.

And then I met the homeless community. The quality of their prayer soaked my spirit. More recently, I coordinated a program and was joined by men and women who have experienced so many challenges in life – including poverty, mental illness, addiction, incarceration, homelessness and other issues.

We come together for several hours each day with the intention of forming a welcoming space. The spirit is contagious. Ideas are discussed and opinions are shared. No one is made to feel unimportant. Each person is valued and celebrated. Tears are sometimes shed, music is heard and joy abounds. Individuals set goals, support is provided, and growth is evident.

The end result: Meaningful relationships are born and a caring community is formed. At the suggestion of the members, we begin our discussion time with a prayer. These men and women come before God and before all of us in the circle with sincerity, trust, honesty and, above all, gratitude.

“My God, thank you for waking me up this morning!” At first I thought it was just a rote statement because so many people said it, but I learned that was not the case. And they don’t just say it, they pray it! If I had slept rough the night before, I could pray, “God, why didn’t you take me away during the night?! But now I know that these wonderful people still have so much to teach us about hope.

I think of Bill, who gets up when it’s his turn to pray. Hands clasped in front of him and eyes downcast. “Hello, God. Hello, Sir.” He prays with deep respect. He then asks for God’s blessing on all the people and situations in the world that are important to him, from those living on the streets to the police commissioner to the children of the world. It’s quite a litany.

I cherish my memory of young Jérôme. His small, misshapen body makes it difficult for him to walk, but he drags his feet to the middle of the circle and struggles to kneel on the hard ground with his head down. He spent many nights in subway tunnels. I can barely listen to his words, so overwhelmed and moved to tears am I by the image in front of me. I feel the awe and reverence of everyone present.

I remember Randy. Without fail, he enters the room and immediately begins to write down his thoughts. His prayer is always in the form of a poem. The one he calls “If we look at another family as a family, together we will grow”:

As soon as we see Sister Eileen’s face, we should feel at home.
Forget the sins of the past; opinions of others; no excuse for where our minds seem to wander.
Today is a great day if you have been awakened by God…we have work to do!
If we mentally go out of our own way, eventually we will see you (God)!
When we walk into this room, the joy of unconditional love should manifest
So if we look at another family like us, we will start to grow!

I think back to Chuck. He shared with me part of his life story, which was turned upside down when his partner, John, died of AIDS. His depression kept him isolated for a very long time. He hasn’t yet recovered from alcohol addiction and life on the streets, but he approaches God without any pretense by praying, “Hello Louie, yeah it’s me again.” And then he continues as honestly as if talking to his friend John.

My mind turns to Violet. His speech is difficult to understand due to a brain injury caused by an accident. She invites those of us gathered to “empty all minds and hearts before moving on to prayer”. Yes: realizing that we are in the presence of God. And who can deny that God is present within and among these amazing men and women?

My heart aches thinking of old Miss Shirley. So sweet behind her mask, with multiple ear and nose piercings. One of the tattoos on her face is a rather large cross on her forehead. On the day of a member’s funeral, she calmly told us that she had seen and spoken with the deceased that morning and that he wanted us to know he was at peace. Was this conversation the result of Miss Shirley’s symptoms of schizophrenia? I believe those of us who sat there trusted Miss Shirley’s message with all our hearts.

And our charming 85-year-old blues singer and guitarist, Mr. Joe! He strings up a Spiritual with so much energy that he drives everyone to clap their hands and tap their feet.

Oh, the inspiration and the gifts in front of me! May my own prayer deepen after being in the presence of

Bill’s Inclusive Heart
and the absolute disinterestedness of Jérôme
and Randy’s desire to grow
and the brave honesty of Chuck
and Violet’s conscious mind
and the prophetic testimony of Miss Shirley
and Mr. Joe’s vibrant energy.

Joy, praise and gratitude abound in the presence of these, my teachers of prayer! Amen!

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