40 Years in America
The Homeless in Madrid
When I was six years old, my family moved from our hometown in New York to Madrid, because of my fatherís business. We stayed for three years. Thirty years later, I traveled again to Madrid, this time to do the business of my Father in Heaven. I celebrated my sixth "spiritual" birthday in that city. Oh, yes -- and I stayed for three weeks. Coincidences of this order are not rare in a life of faith. I had to believe Godís hand was genuinely in the lottery that assigned the volunteers in my church to a foreign mission country. But even while I was admiring Godís modus operandi, I struggled with the idea of going to a civilized Western capital, when I had longed all my adult life to do "real" missionary work in the Third World.
God came to my rescue by giving me a new understanding. One drizzly, cold November day as I was driving through the streets of southeast Washington, D.C., pondering how to approach my overseas mission, my eyes were drawn to a homeless old man in a bright pink blanket, trying to sleep in a bus shelter. In the instant I looked at him, he looked up at me, directly into my eyes. I parked the car, put some money in my coat pocket, and approached this greasy stranger. I removed my coat and tucked it around his shoulders the way I tuck blankets around my little boy at night. As I did, I felt my heart swell with the same motherís love, and tears coursed down my cheeks.
So there it was. Great need exists even in the heart of the most advanced cities of the world. Since our pastor had asked us to go to our country as servant of servants (the position Jesus took when he washed the feet of his disciples), I decided I would serve the street people of Madrid. From this point of internal departure, the rest of my plans fell easily into place. I found a soup kitchen in Madrid run by the Missionaries of Charity, and I wrote to say I would be joining them.
The Missionaries of Charity are Mother Teresa of Calcuttaís heroic sisters. They devote themselves to serving the presence of Christ in his "distressing disguise" as the poorest of the poor. For me it was the fulfillment of a long-held dream to work beside them. By following my inspiration, I found the soup kitchen run by the "Indian sisters" in the famous blue-and-white sari.
Situated on the Ronda de Segovia in the shadow of the Royal Palace, every afternoon an average of 200 poor or homeless people gathered at the comedor (dining room) for a free meal, and to receive the other nourishment of Godís love, meted out generously by the nuns and their dedicated co-workers. My first job, given to me minutes after arriving at the bustling soup kitchen, was to chop up hairy pigsí trotters for the stew. I regret to report that at that moment, I felt that it was truly more blessed to give than to receive.
But after a few daysí experience I realized that the menu was generally delicious and healthful, albeit based haphazardly on donated foodstuffs. I became expert at preparing bucketsful of potatoes, stacks of cookies, and laden platters of sliced chorizo (sausage). After the meal I helped clean the kitchen, dining room and eating utensils with large quantities of bleach. A young priest remarked candidly, as we rolled up our sleeves to hand-wash 230 plates after Christmas Eve supper, that disinfectant is the most heavenly perfume you can wear after being among the street people.
The high point of my day, every day in Madrid, was that one blessed hour in which I helped serve the dinner. In this moment I felt the closest to the saints who served the poor and sick. Now I know the smells their nostrils have been filled with, sharing a room with people who had no facility for washing. I know what it is to give fresh clothes to a man whose shirt and pants are covered in blood, judging only his need, and not his worth.
The poor people sat at long tables and we, the volunteers, served them as in a family restaurant. The nuns reserved the right to hand out the bread, as bread has a spiritual significance beyond its belly-filling properties. I felt Godís love flow through me as I poured a cup of water or filled a plate with second portions, and served it with as much love and care as if I were serving Our Lord himself. I received joy that lifted me up until I felt light as a feather when an old Portuguese seaman mumbled, "Gracias, bonita" ("thanks") as I passed by with the kettle of hot chocolate.
Mother Teresa said, "Only in heaven will we see how much we owe to the poor for helping us to love God better because of them." Amen, Mother Teresa.
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