We invite Dehonians, co-workers and other collaborators in SCJ ministry to share their personal reflections regarding the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in their lives and their communities. The following is from Fr. Guy Blair, SCJ, who ministers to the deaf in San Antonio and serves as a chaplain at the State Mental Hospital.
I caught a glimpse of her, or rather I glimpsed someone wrapped in a blanket in an alleyway near the Dollar Store. A week later, as I entered that Dollar Store, there she was sitting outside staring into the distance. An old woman surrounded by the usual shopping cart filled with her belongings, sad. Back at my apartment, I considered her, perhaps 70 years old, homeless in the “greatest” country in the world. I thought about people close to me and how it would be if they were wrapped in a blanket sitting on the sidewalk.
It wasn’t an easy action for an introvert like me to do, but it began with the realization that this old woman might be someone’s mother; really, she was my sister. I made a meal and walked to the store. She was there and I offered her the meal. No answer, no emotion. That’s okay. She pointed to the ground near her feet so I placed the plate there and left. I couldn’t help but consider my own finickiness with cleanliness and cutlery.
The next night I brought her another meal, introducing myself using my first name and asked her name. No response. That made sense considering that I was a strange man asking questions. Who knows what she wished not to reveal, perhaps an illegal alien status? I couldn’t know.
After two weeks of meal deliveries I again asked her name. “Susie Q,” she said.
“Is there anything that I can get you?” I offered this with some fear because more than likely I could not deliver what she needed.
She shook her head no. I was relieved. Another week or two of meal deliveries and still no response to my questions except when I offered to bring her to a local homeless shelter, Haven for Hope, or the Salvation Army. Her reaction was immediate and loud, “No! they stole my stuff and beat me up.”
“Okay, okay, is there anything I can help you with?” I asked again.
Surprisingly she responded, “I got everything I need here.”
I got everything I need here. Really? My face reddened at the embarrassment of myself and my inflated needs.
One evening as I brought the meal I noticed a person picking food out of the dumpster nearby and eating it. Approaching him I asked if I could give him something to eat. He paid no attention to me. Hooded with his back to me, I persisted and when he turned, I saw why he might have preferred to be left alone. He must have been born with a face, but it was now just scarred. He peered at me as I suggested that we go into the store and buy food. He chose a sandwich, lifting it up as if asking for my approval and stood there. “What about something to drink?” He lifted a bottle of Coke for my approval. At the checkout counter I suggested a candy bar; he looked at the candy and then back at the salesclerk. I chose for him. He was out the door and into the night before I could say anything else. Occasionally I meet him, he never speaks but accepts the food I offer.
The meal deliveries at the Dollar Store began in November 2019 and now it is mid-April. Susie Q still sits in front of the Dollar Store despite threats of arrest and removal by the owner. There is a rare word or two of conversation, except for a remark about the food I bring: “I have no teeth, don’t give me no apples.” So much for my power of observation, my attention to detail. I offer an extra blanket, an umbrella, and brought a collapsible stool. But she looks at these things and tells me, “I don’t need them.”
Despite whatever her issues are and what may have led an old woman into homelessness, she has not complained about social distancing, about deprivations because the stores are closed or that there are no beauty salons to get her hair done. She has not complained about feelings of disconnection. She is a woman acquainted with pain; she has made friends with suffering. I don’t envy her and wouldn’t want to be sitting outside day and night as she does.
The COVID-19 virus, the disruption to social life and all the other situations that we find ourselves in, she has already experienced them and more. Her demeanor, her responses, are not based on complaints connected to the lack of comforts in her life. She has intimacy with pain, she seems to have accepted suffering as her companion.
In a way that I cannot define, both of these people, beneath their suffering, radiate a calmness, a quiet spirit. As a homeless old woman and a disfigured man, they manage to survive each day having embraced the “little” in this life.
I rush around, complaining that this and that store is closed, having to wait in a line even to get into the store and then not finding what I want anyway.
That afternoon I bring two meals for my friends at the Dollar Store. For the first time, it seems, the man with the disfigured face smiles and Susie-Q says “Thanks.”
There it is, that peace and gratitude for the day. The peace and gratitude that I have lacked.