Friday, October 2, 2015

Dwight And Josh

Josh and Dwight
Have you ever been at a party, enjoying a conversation with a friend while discovering that you are almost overwhelmingly curious about what two people are talking about just out of your hearing?

 It happened to me one recent Saturday morning at Isaiah House, Catholic Worker’s shelter for homeless women in Santa Ana. For over two years, Josh Bradshaw, one of our high school students, has organized our Isaiah House breakfast and fellowship ministry. It’s now scheduled almost every month on the second Saturday at 9:30 a.m.

I was talking to one of the residents about her plans to move back east to rejoin her family. Over my right shoulder, I could hear Josh having an intense conversation with Dwight Smith, who has operated the ministry for nearly 20 years with his wife, Leia. I was dying to listen in.

As the other members of our St. John’s contingent were leaving, I gave Dwight a blessing (he’s having back surgery in early October) and then sat at his knee for half an hour. Dwight’s an authentic prophet, living out Catholic Worker’s mission to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Reporters call him to find out what’s really going on around town. City hall officials see him coming and hide. One leaves a conversation with him feeling indicted, reconstructed, and energized.

I also hoped he would give me a flavor of his conversation with Josh, and he did. I’ll leave it to them to tell you in more detail. But it’s no secret that Dwight thinks that people such as Josh who choose to serve the poor face to face occupy a privileged position in the heart and mind of God.

Dwight and Leia work each day in the spirit of pacifist Roman Catholic laywoman Dorothy Day, who
Dorothy Day
cofounded Catholic Worker in New York during the Great Depression. Isaiah House is one of over 200 such communities, mostly in the U.S., that practice hospitality for its own sake. In Orange County, if you’re a woman on the street, and Isaiah House has an opening, you can receive food and shelter indefinitely as long as you follow house rules.

 St. John’s has many historic links to Isaiah House. Our youth leader, Patti Peebles, takes our middle and high school kids regularly. When he was working as an attorney, Andy Guilford provided pro bono legal services. He still volunteers each month. We also make periodic financial contributions. Isaiah House depends on the kindness of its volunteers and donors as well as the faith, energy, and self-sacrifice of its proprietors.

The Smiths (who promised in 1997 that they would give it five years) live upstairs. Leia is a cancer survivor, and Dwight had lost significant mobility because of back problems. Serving the poor every day of their lives, they have foregone most of the luxuries we take for granted. And yet they don’t sentimentalize the poor. Working with people on the street, many of whom are suffering from mental illness, is exhausting and sometimes dangerous. But their hearts compel them to remain in relationship with marginal people from whom most of us are tempted to avert our eyes.

As it turns out, the purpose of Josh’s ministry isn’t to feed the women. If it were, we could take up a collection each month and have someone drop off 35 Big Breakfasts. Instead, Josh takes us there to meet fellow voyagers, sit across the table from them, shake their hands, learn their names, say ours, and ask the questions that always work. Where are you from? What were your parents like? Do you have any brothers and sisters? What do you love the most?

These questions also work at the monthly Rancho Santa Margarita food pantry and anywhere else St. John’s people make personal (the Christian word is incarnational) contact with the poor. (The questions are just as helpful with newcomers at coffee hour.) An exciting new example of such a ministry is Laundry Love, coming together under Mo. Martha’s stewardship. You may have the mistaken impression (I certainly did at first) that the purpose of Laundry Love is to do poor people’s laundry. Its true, divine purpose is to enable new relationships among God’s people. It is from these gracious little miracles, one built on the other, that all good things come.

This post was originally published in the Vaya Con Dios, the parish newsletter of St. John's Episcopal Church.