Holy Thursday

“…Mary was an only child…”

Art Garfunkel’s high tenor gently filled the car as we turned onto Sixth Street, on the way to take a meal to The Well, a women’s shelter run by The Welcome Church. 

“…but she shone like a gem in a five-and-dime store.”

In the basement of a small Episcopal church on a side street, two of the women of The Well looked up from the movie they watched on a tiny screen to greet us warmly. As we busied ourselves in the kitchen preparing a beef stir-fry, other women arrived. They put down their carts or bags after a long day on the streets, free for a while from the burdens of homelessness. Most then went off and took a few minutes to themselves before joining the others around the table,

It was a familiar, domestic scene — except their “private” space was half of the tiny fellowship hall, jammed with cots hidden from the rest of the room by a makeshift curtain. And “home” didn’t open until 7:30 pm, and would send them back to the streets 12 hours later.

While the meal cooked we sat and talked over fresh vegetables and dip. Their concerns were heartbreakingly ordinary: The difficulties of getting to medical appointments. How hard it was to find fresh, healthy food. Missing the camaraderie of singing in the church choir.

Suzanne broke out her guitar and we sang old chestnut hymns. Shall We Gather at the River? Precious Lord, Take My Hand — “Oh, that’s my favorite,” Carol* said. Alice recalled a song from the old hymnals in the basement that she and a couple others had read the other night. “Could we hear what it sounds like?” Shirley passed out the worn books and we sang Lord of All Hopefulness. 

The women sang with joy and gusto. One voiced an especially gorgeous soprano. “God gave the the gift I wanted, the ability to sing,” she said. This eclectic congregation shared church. Where many would have experienced despair, the dingy basement hall was truly a place of hope.

During dinner, more stories. Carol shared her multiple medical conditions. But instead of whining, she offered gratitude for finding good doctors who care about her. Most are south of the airport, so she has to take a bus multiple times a week. “God has really provided for me,” she said.

Over pear cake with caramel sauce, Lisa shared that she had once lived and worked in New York City, and still enjoyed listening to NPR. Her situation, she hoped, was temporary. “I feel bad that I haven’t given up anything for Lent,” she said. “I guess being homeless is my Lent,” she allowed.

Before we knew it it was time to leave. After hasty goodbyes, and see-you-again-soons, we started the long drive back on the winding roads of Bucks County. 

During the drive, and since, I’ve been reflecting on this unexpected Holy Thursday. 

I was chastened to realize how little gratitude I feel every day for simple gifts — a healthy meal, health care, songs to sing, a comfortable home. 

I was a bit uncomfortable with the realization that, like Lisa, I (and any of us) could be an unlucky turn away from poverty. Or that, like Carol, health concerns can snowball into larger issues.

Mostly I was aware that Christ was truly present in that room — and that had more to do with the women’s joy and honesty than anything I brought to the table.

God showed up here — and can show up anywhere — even if we don’t have eyes to see. As the Garfunkel song concludes:

“…then you might have seen Jesus, and not have known what you saw.
“Who would notice a gem in a five-and-dime store.”

*The women are not identified by their real names.

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