Category Archives: Human Connection

The Pedaling Shepherd

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Sister Libby Fernandez of the Sisters of Mercy is legendary in Sacramento, California. She has been the Executive Director of Loaves and Fishes, a private charity that serves the hungry and the homeless, for 11 years. She joined Loaves and Fishes in 1985 as a volunteer. In the 32 years that she has been with this organization, it has blossomed to have a budget of six million dollars, 80 employees, and 12 programs with services that include hot meals, restroom facilities, showers, day and overnight shelters for women and children, medical and mental health care, and a school for children between the ages of three and fifteen.

It’s not Sister Libby’s prodigious work with Loaves and Fishes that recently caught my attention, however. She has announced that she will leave Loaves and Fishes to start a new ministry called Mercy Pedalers. On an adult electrical tricycle, she (and volunteers, in case you’re interested) will go to meet homeless individuals where they are instead of waiting for them to come to Loaves and Fishes, something which may never happen for some.

Unfettered by the administrative duties of being Executive Director, Sister Libby hopes to bring people more than needed supplies. She wants to build connections and trust. By helping people to build self-respect, she hopes they will decide to move forward with their lives and trust her to link them to the services that will help with that next step.

Imagining Sister Libby on her tricycle searching for people who feel forgotten or unwanted in order to help them believe that they matter and are loved, I can’t help but recall the parable about the lost sheep and the shepherd. Jesus taught that the good shepherd leaves his flock of 99 sheep to find the one lost. I get it, Sister Libby. Ride on.

 

©Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2017.

 

Man in the Vestibule

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This photo of homeless protestors outside Sacramento City Hall appeared in an article by Steve Milne in Sacramento Capital Public Radio News on January 26, 2017. 

A homeless man died outside Sacramento City Hall the other night. He was the second man to die outside City Hall in a week. It has been a wet and cold winter so far, and homeless people have left their campsites at the river’s flooded banks. Some of them, like this man, found spaces to sleep under the well-lit overhangs of City Hall.

The paper said the man had nothing but the clothing on his body to keep him warm. This immediately brought me back to a homeless man my husband and I were startled to find sleeping in a parking garage two weeks ago. We had dinner downtown and were returning to our car, parked on the roof of a public parking garage. The elevator doors opened inside a tiny vestibule that offered some shelter from the cold and the rain. Our laughter was abruptly cut short as we stepped out of the elevator and saw a man sleeping on the floor to our right.

The first thing that struck me was how long his body was. He had to curl up into an almost fetal position to fit into the space between the elevator door and the door that led to the garage roof. His face was light tan. His skin was clean and unwrinkled. He was clean-shaven and handsome. His black hair was streaked with long strands of white. His pants and coat were dark.

I didn’t want to wake him. It was well before 8 p.m., but how was I to know if this would be the only rest he would get that night? I didn’t stand over him and stare – it felt invasive to catch the glimpse that I did – but I saw so much in the few seconds it took me to walk past him.

“He had nothing,” I said to my husband when we were a few steps beyond the door that led out to the roof. “He had no blanket, no backpack, no bags. Nothing.”

And then came the silence in the car as we tried to process what we just saw. Wrestling with helplessness and guilt, we started to make our way down to the first floor of the garage. We spotted a young man carrying a broom and a dustpan. The wet spots and smell of urine in the elevator when we arrived; the wet, washed floor of the elevator when we were leaving; the man sleeping in the vestibule; and the anxious look on the attendant’s face as we passed him – it all made sense. Would the police come to escort the homeless man from the garage if the attendant called? Would the attendant let the man sleep there as long as no one complained?

I felt sad when I read about the second homeless man to die outside City Hall in a week’s time, but the sight of that man sleeping in the vestibule that night was personal. If you don’t want to be racked by helplessness and guilt, look away from the homeless. But if, like me, you happen to glance at a homeless person and see this person – really see this person – you’re screwed. You might be haunted into action.

 

©Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2017.

The Stringer of Pearls

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During Pope Francis’s visit to the United States in September 2015, I was glued to my television. I found it inspirational to watch Pope Francis meet crowds wherever he went. I marveled at his ability to keep up with his exhausting schedule of back-to-back appearances. What intrigued me most about the Pope, however, was his willingness – his determination – to physically touch as many people as he could.

With tens of thousands of people clamoring to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis wherever he went, and given the mind-blowing task of keeping him safe from those who would hurt or kill him, each hand shake, each pat of a head, each hug, and each kiss from Pope Francis was a statement of his willingness to risk injury and death to accomplish something with each touch.

For believers, the Pope’s touch is likely seen as a conduit of the healing power of Jesus himself. This might explain the desperate attempt of so many to re-enact the biblical account of the hemorrhaging woman who touched the hem of Jesus’s cloak and received healing. If the healing power of Jesus could emanate from the cloak on His body, why couldn’t it manifest in the touch of the man who is a successor to Saint Peter?

But even non-believers and those without apparent need for healing seem intent on making physical contact with Pope Francis. So what, right? People climb over one another for the chance to hug, to shake hands with, or to take selfies with celebrities and political candidates. Is the desire to touch Pope Francis any different?

Because I’ve heard Pope Francis referred to as “The People’s Pope,” I can’t help but recall Princess Diana, “The People’s Princess,” who was criticized for breaking royal protocol by insisting on touching, hugging, and holding sick children, the elderly, the disabled, and people with AIDS. Is it mere coincidence that these two charismatic individuals, each with a place in history, share the intuition to touch people?

Having never been in the physical presence of any Pope, let alone Pope Francis, I can only guess at the following: People can sense Pope Francis’s strong desire to touch them, and they are drawn to this desire for connection because it symbolizes their desire to connect emotionally, psychologically, and maybe even spiritually with or without the construct of religion.

To whom or to what were all these people trying to connect? I’ll hazard another guess: Not church dogma; not religious canons; not catechism; not judgment; not condemnation; not disapproval. Perhaps these people – perhaps all of us – are drawn to simplicity; to freedom from want of excess and luxury; to humility enough to wash the feet of the poor, the sick, and the unwelcome; to a sincere empathy for pain and suffering; to understanding, acceptance, forgiveness, hope, and love.

We are taught that Pope Francis is the shepherd and we are the flock, but in my mind, he is the stringer of pearls, connecting us all to each other, creating a luminous strand that reaches toward the Divine.

© Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2015.