It’s About Who You Know

“Are you having any luck?”

He laid down his sign for a minute, dug in his pockets. “Guess it depends on how you define luck. I got more than last week, but last week it was raining, so.” I nodded.

“You got to that church down the street, right? Do you know Sheila**?”

“I don’t think so” I said. But then again I was never good at coffee hours. The only people I knew besides the priest were the regulars at evening Masses and the folks in my catechesis class. “How do you know Sheila?”

“Everybody knows Sheila! How do you not know Sheila?”

By everybody, he meant all the homeless in downtown DC. I thought it was hyperbole, but they really all do know her. She started our church’s ministry of serving breakfasts to the homeless on Saturday and Sunday mornings almost 20 years ago, to fill in the gaps left by social services on the weekends. After years of practice, she had it down to a science. There were two routes that covered a decent area of downtown and Georgetown. There were certain spots known to have at least one person huddled against a grate or overpass or park bench, and those were the stops. It had to be early in the morning so that you didn’t miss people before they moved on. Every Saturday and Sunday morning required two drivers, and you really needed another person to tag along and help. There was hot coffee to pour into paper cups, and you needed a second person for the parks, where crowds would gather.

I didn’t know Sheila because she was almost always one of the volunteers on Sunday morning – sometimes Saturday too – and then she would attend the 9 a.m. Mass after returning to the church and cleaning everything up. My lazy butt went to the latest Mass.

During one route, she told me about how she discovered the church. Turns out she lived across the back alley in a little apartment. She would hear the church bells, and one day decided to check it out. Since she was always up very early, she went to the first service at 7:30. In a church known for its music, this service was simple and spoken. She laughed when she said that it took over a year for her to check out the high masses.

She had a grown son, so perhaps she was widowed or divorced. She didn’t like to talk about herself: she lived a simple life, working in a gift shop for one of the Smithsonians. She came to the evening Masses during the week too, and you might catch her in the kitchen helping run a parish-wide event. She was never conspicuous, except for the way that she would smile. I never saw anyone so full of joy, always, even at 5:30 a.m. in sleet. Best of all was watching her interact with the homeless. She remembered all their names, their stories, their family members, what needs they had, even down to how they liked their coffee. She delighted in them.

She wasn’t the type of church lady I grew up thinking I would have to be. She rarely wore dresses or makeup, and was often in jeans and a windbreaker. Her hair was naturally gray. She was practical, down to earth, and sincere about everything.

When I feel despair about the world, I remember hearing her pray as we held hands in a circle before going on the routes. “Remember all who are homeless due to violence, poverty, and oppression. Help us to see the face of Jesus in everyone we meet.”

** Name changed.

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