While working in Washington, D.C. I learned of a shelter for homeless women. It piqued my interest because it was run by American Carmelite nuns, an Order I had encountered when assigned to our embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. I wondered whether they were the same sisters. When I first met them they were living in a secluded backwater, up a winding crocodile infested river, deep in a dense tropical forest-far from the pleasant highlands of Nairobi. During a safari with friends, I decided to take a side trip to visit the Carmelite mission.
Into The Heart of an Africa That Once Knew Me
Accustomed to being hunted for their hides, the canny crocodiles pretty much stayed clear of our boat. But we had lost several Peace Corps volunteers in that same river because they’d persisted in swimming in it. I was not so gutsy and kept my body parts out of the water. The boatman at the helm of our small motorized craft sprang from the pages of a Joseph Conrad novel. He had a musical voice, a shiny ebony face and a smile that showcased pointy white teeth, which he regularly sharpened with his razor-edged black-handled warrior knife. Every few minutes he’d trumpet an aria to signal our approach along the river where some other baritone in some other part of the jungle picked up the message and sang it forward to an accompanying drum beat. It was the 1960s. It was the African internet before the internet.
Getting there was an adventure. Being there was idyllic. We found the nuns living in a large comfortable bungalow surrounded by a riot of flowers, pools and lush tropical gardens. Normally theirs is a reclusive silent order. But here were five of the happiest, funniest, most self-sufficient ladies who, thanks to the jungle internet, were expecting me. At the time they were teaching English and administering medical attention to people in the area. They were young, hip and convivial. They fed me, entertained me with guitars, put me up for the night and introduced me to an outdoor shower in view of a large troop of curious chattering black and white colobus monkeys. It was like being naked in front of an audience at the Improv. Colobus are glorious creatures whose infants are cared for by all members of the troop (step moms and step dads). If you point at them, particularly with a weapon, they hide their faces like frightened children. Sadly they’ve been hunted to near extinction.
Fast Forward Ten Years
At the Washington, D.C. Carmelite women’s shelter I hoped to meet up with my old friends from Africa-the nuns-not the monkeys. I found a different group of ladies with the same joie de vivre.
Each day as the sun set on the nation’s capital, scores of homeless women lined up for supper and a safe place to sleep. Though basically a contemplative order of sisters who had also spent considerable time in Africa, this group sheltered women of all ages, backgrounds and degrading levels of destitution. The sisters were physically and mentally strong, compassionate and steadfast in keeping the facility safe, clean and calm. With all the daily stress they dealt with, they were unceasingly happy. I wanted to know what the secret was to their happiness. They had what Joseph Campbell referred to as “joyful participation in the sorrows of the world,” and they had it in spades. I wanted to feel that same joy.
Into the Fire
When I offered my services they gave me the job of interviewing each arrival and filling out a brief written profile. One elderly woman arrived clinging to all her possessions including the lice in her hair. I remember thinking she was about the age of my own mother. When I told her she had to relinquish all her clothes, she panicked, flew at me with long dirty fingernails, then tried to run. Sisters Margaret and Evangeline caught her, managed to get her multiple layers of clothing off and into the incinerator. After scrubbing and delousing in a steaming hot shower, followed by a nourishing meal and clean bed, the woman relaxed and settled down. She allowed me to apply vaseline over her chapped face and peeling lips. Before she closed her eyes she uttered, “Ah, tonight I’m off the streets.”
I used to offer money or look the other way when I saw homeless people on the street. But I learned a different way of experiencing life in the midst of human suffering. I returned often to the shelter to wash windows, mop floors and do whatever they asked of me. In my “real” job I was a media specialist. But I was never happier than when giving myself to those simple chores alongside those amazing ladies. You cannot save the world, but you can change your perspective.
Meals On Wheels
In subsequent years I found myself volunteering at soup kitchens, homeless shelters and VA facilities wherever I lived. In Florida I discovered a narrow stretch of land along the southeast corridor, sandwiched between upscale Boca Raton and the beachfronts of billionaires. That narrow strip was occupied by poor black Floridians with no means of support except the Catholic and Jewish facilities that operated minivans to deliver their meals.
These housebound people inhabited a rabbit warren of tiny homes, usually one room shacks hidden from the thriving world around them. They often had no relatives. To them each day was a blessing and they never complained. They loved a good joke, a friendly chat. They were cheerful, grateful seniors whom time forgot, except for the charities that cared for them. Frankly, hopping on and off the vans carrying food a few times a week gave me more joy than I could ever have given them.
“And in the end, the love you get is equal to the love you give.”
Giving is a commodity which is needed more now when there is abundance in the pockets of a few. Donating to a favorite charity is nice. But seeing the Self in others is the Grace that connects you to your own Divinity. The journey from the head to the heart is the most rewarding voyage of discovery a human being can make.
+++In their late eighties, President Jimmy Carter and Rosalyn are still with Habitat for Humanity, now in its 31st year of building affordable housing. See: AmeriCorps at home; Peace Corps abroad; and everything in between.
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