“Go on your way; behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves.
Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals, and greet no one along the way.
Into whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this household.’ ” (Lk 10:3-5)
Dear Jesuit women and friends,
On July 24th, 2018, I set out from Grand Coteau, Louisiana with the clothes I was wearing, a bus ticket to an unknown destination, and $20 in my pocket. The goal was to reach Chimayó, New Mexico by August 30th, relying on God and the generosity of others to help me along the way. If you have spent time in Jesuit culture, you may recognize this journey and its guidelines as “the pilgrimage” – one of the more colorful parts of a Jesuit novice’s first year of experiments in prayer, discernment, community, and service.
It was a graced time, and God brought me back safe and full of stories. (At this point, your mother might want to know that we have not lost one young man or woman yet on the Jesuit pilgrimage…if you have felt drawn to making this journey, please see some guidelines for a safe and spiritually fruitful pilgrimage here.)
I found that the pilgrimage is like the Spiritual Exercises. In fact, we could think of the pilgrimage as an extension of the Exercises. On the 30-Day Exercises, we enter a silent, protected space into which God can speak, intimately and idiosyncratically, to our mind, heart, and soul. On our pilgrimage, we carry this relatively newfound intimacy with God out into the world, and literally let Jesus take care of us as the Holy Spirit breaks open the lives of the people and conditions that we encounter, revealing the presence of Christ in everything. This description may sound a little esoteric in the abstract, but on the pilgrimage Christ becomes concrete, very real and direct and personal.
Because the pilgrimage is not an idea but a direct, sustained experience of God (3-D! Multi-sensory! 24-7!) there are literally hundreds of ways I could speak to you about it, and just as many stories. Today I would like to tell you about pilgrimage as an experience of freedom. And one aspect of freedom in particular – the freedom of “just enough.”
The Freedom of Just Enough
To know what something is, you sometimes need to learn first what it isn’t. The first 36 hours of my pilgrimage were like that, a crash course in basic needs. I landed in Dallas on the Greyhound bus at 10:30 pm on a Tuesday night. The news said that it had been 110 degrees Fahrenheit for 5 days in a row, and the city had finally cooled down to 99 degrees that day. “Killer heat,” the forecaster had said, and the people I met confirmed that sadly, this was true. People could die of exposure both inside and outside in this heat. On the bus, my seat mate was a young off-duty police officer who had a wife, 3 children, a Christian men’s group and a podcast that he ran on living a Christian life. He was coming back from a weekend of helping his in-laws in Houston with some overdue electrical repairs, and told me it was back to work in the morning.
Now, one thing about pilgrimage is the discovery that Greyhound buses, like city buses and Amtrak trains, are holy places, where you can strike up a good conversation with a person you might never otherwise meet. And if you want to have an amazing conversation, just tell people that you are a pilgrim. You will hear stories that are hair-raising, humbling, inspiring. People will tell you all about God, and how God is working in their lives. People will tell you what they love and hate about church, where they are growing and struggling, and what to pray for. They will challenge you and tell you that you are “very brave,” which is sometimes a code word for “very foolish.” Somehow the conversation cuts right to the issues and people that are most important, and the questions that are most unanswerable. This is just one amazing thing about pilgrimage.
Bert and I had talked for 4 hours about God, family, police brutality, the vocation of policing, starting over, Church, and what faith really is, with an increasing sense of the mystery in all this. Something in him came to life as the hours passed. We stopped at a gas station, and he got back on the bus with a bag of chips and a big bottle of water for me, for which I was grateful because I was already a little hungry and thirsty. As we got off the bus he said, “My dad is picking me up. Let me see if he can take you to that ‘Catholic Worker’ house you’re trying to get to.”
When we got to the Catholic Worker house, which I had picked out from an online listing that had only a phone number, it appeared to be defunct. It was 11:30 pm, dark, hot, and far from downtown, and there was loud music, bass bumping, at a house party going on two doors down. Two men approached the van to ask why Bert’s dad was wearing a uniform. He was a security guard at Radioshack, but I could see why they were suspicious. Bert’s dad drove a white, unmarked van with no back windows and a cage separating the front seats from the cargo space. I, too, had been a little suspicious!
All three of us – Bert, Bert’s dad, and I – just looked at one another, everybody thinking what to do. As I was about to suggest that we go back to the bus station (my fall-back safety plan), Bert had an inspiration. He had contacts at one of the emergency shelters and could put on his police hat to call and see if there was an opening, now that everyone else was checked in for the night. “Hi, this is officer Miller,” he said in a friendly-professional voice into his cell phone, standing outside of his dad’s van in shorts, a tee-shirt, and trainers, and holding a piece of Wallace fried chicken in his other hand. I had never seen a police officer like this, vulnerable, human, excited to help. I thought of the men who had come to screen us from the nearby party, and my heart was squeezed by the world’s complexity.
They could give me a mattress on the floor at the emergency shelter overflow, which was turning away no one that night because of the heat. When we arrived there, Bert threw me a big, rough hug. “Ok, be safe! Call me tomorrow if you need a ride back to that ‘Catholic Worker’ house!” A sign on the door said, “No outside food or drink allowed.” I looked regretfully at my own Wallace chicken and fries, and my huge and mostly un-drunk orange soda. It was midnight and I was hot, sticky, and exhausted. So I pushed the bag into a concrete trash bin and entered the flourescent lobby of the emergency shelter, hit by a wall of welcome cold air.
I have worked as a nurse in homeless shelters, but I learned more about being homeless in the next 24 hours than I had learned in 2 years of staffing a shelter. The learning was real over those 2 years, but it was also slow and once-removed. At the shelter that night, though, and over the course of the next day (102 deg F and heavily humid) I learned what it feels like to be temporarily homeless with no money in a strange city. It is a full-time occupation just to survive.
When you are homeless in the city, everything necessary is locked up – food, showers, a place to lie down and rest in safety, relief from extreme heat and extreme cold, laundry facilities. It seems like everything you need is miles away from everything else. I began to recognize the same people as I wandered through the city, trying to learn the streets and get to the library to do research on a place to stay for the night. It was as though we were a network of ghosts, part of an unseen dimension. Everybody walked by us on their way to the next thing, and sat absorbed in conversation in restaurants and stores. We could see each other, but no one else could see us. The lights in the emergency shelter, which was kept operating-room cold in order to reduce the potential for disease transmission, had slammed on at 5 a.m. that morning, and we were all gritty-eyed and shivering as we lined up to get breakfast. There was a heavy emphasis on what we could not do. (“Do not get out of line! Do not take more than one piece of fruit! Do not take too long to finish your milk! You may stay inside the shelter until 8 am, but do not leave the boundaries of the TV room itself.”)
I was grateful for breakfast, grateful for a few hours of indoor sleep, and grateful for the shower and the toothbrush that the staff allowed me to take after hours, as a late arrival to overflow. But I realized that there was another basic human need, which we were not experiencing in my short time at the emergency shelter. This basic need lies somewhere at the intersection of beauty, warmth, respect, and a decent conversation. Basic friendliness. Maybe we could call it “soul.” And if we can, then soul is a basic human need.
Over the course of the day, as I experienced the ups and downs of the street in search of food, shelter, and soul, I was surprised at how quickly and how far my spirit sank. There were moments of consolation: Jhodyi, a woman soliciting donations for a children’s fund who had $4 and gave me 2, when she heard what I was trying to do. Two packets of peanut butter and a banana from the grocery store, and a young woman in line who laughed with me and the cashier about the heat. As we left she said, “Welcome to Dallas!” A sweet secretary at Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral who asked her manager if I could use the phone to try the Catholic Worker number a few more times, and then to call Bert and let him know that I was OK but did not need a ride, since I hadn’t reached them. And maybe most consoling, there was la Virgen de Guadalupe herself, who presided over the cathedral sanctuary and received my tears and prayers that I learn what God had for me to learn in this city. Her peace was real.
There were times of desolation, too. I will always remember sharing a tired 5:45 am breakfast with two women who were having tough days. One woman, young with a sweet face, who had managed to do her hair nicely with lots of rubber bands sitting in a dark bunk before lights-on, had to go wait tables at Appleby’s after a night of only several hours’ broken sleep. She sat with a hand over her eyes, not able to eat her waffle for many minutes. “I have done things I never thought I would do,” she said. The other woman, older, told me that pancreatic cancer was eating her up. She had lost a third of her body weight in 8 months. “I am tired, tired of being on the street,” she said. There was no treatment plan for the cancer, she informed me. It was just being monitored every several months with imaging. She wasn’t sure why this was. As we were shuffled out of the kitchen on schedule by staff who looked pretty tired, too, I rolled the prayer beads that someone had given me earlier from my wrist to hers and said that I would have her in mind and be praying for her. “Thanks, honey,” she said, put her purse on her shoulder, and walked away to start the day.
Both of these women also mentioned sexual exploitation or rape as a trauma they had survived while homeless. Later that day, I had a flash of understanding just how this happens within a woman, how we might get stuck on the street or in an exploitative relationship in a moment of crisis. It is related to the freedom of just-enough, and the unfreedom of not-enough.
Just after 5 p.m., feeling tired, hungry, grimy, and lonely, I approached a place on the edge of downtown that I had heard about from a kind older woman sitting in the shade of a street sign with her dog, selling newspapers for and by the homeless. I had arrived too late, though – the day center was closed. In the street outside there were people wandering vaguely around, and a couple of mattresses set up on the ground. There I met a man in a wheelchair who looked as though he may have suffered from multiple sclerosis. He wore a clean white undershirt and a bucket fedora and spoke slowly, with an unchanging grin. His voice was purposeful, but light and sighing, almost wheedling, like it was hard for him to breathe.
“Can you help me?” he said. “I don’t want sex, I just want a friend. I have a lot of money. I have piles and piles of money. Can you help me get a motel?”
“Maybe I can help,” I said. “I don’t have any money.”
“Do you do drugs?” he said. “No,” I answered, realizing that this was not a good situation and it was time to disengage. “Meth? Cocaine?” he continued. “I have piles of money and I can’t help myself. I don’t want sex, I just need a friend.”
Then I thought, Maybe if I can just help him get the motel room, find a phone…maybe he will give me $20, or enough to get somewhere safe. “Can I help you call somewhere?” I asked, feeling an increasing tightness in my chest.
“What are you talking about?” he said. “Are you stupid? I can’t help myself.”
“I’m sorry, I’ve got to go,” I said, starting to turn away. “I will be sending you a lot of positive energy.” (I say that when I’m not sure how people will feel about the word “pray.”)
“You can take that positive energy…and shove it up your ass,” he said in the same sighing, wheedling voice, still grinning. “Ok,” I said, starting to walk more quickly.
I got a few blocks away and sat down on a concrete retaining wall outside of another large downtown building. My chest still felt tight, with pain now shooting up the back of my neck and a throbbing headache. I had a deep understanding at that moment of what might happen inside of me under the grinding pressure of not-enough – how I might perform sex acts for money, with everything locked up in this city and a crushing loneliness, and an urgent need to eat and be inside for the night. How easy it would be for me at that moment to think that God had abandoned me. And I realized that when our basic needs are not met, we are not free. Without food, shelter, a place to rest, the ability to get clean, and some real friendliness – a little bit of beauty and a decent conversation – we are not free. It may be possible, though, to approach freedom again through the door of just one basic need.
I walked heavily down Main Street and noticed a little park that was beautiful in the late afternoon sun. It was still oppressively hot, but this park was shady, full of locust trees and multicolored rags, tied to wires strung between the trees. The public art had a humorous effect, as though a huge balloon full of rainbows had popped over the square, draping everything in random color. There were also rocks to sit on, with a little canal of water running through them, and a man playing the same short jazz progression over and over on a public art piano. I sat a safe distance away from him and listened for a while. Then I crooned a little over the chords, and he noticed and gave a little nod and just kept playing, which made me feel that he was friendly. An officer on a bicycle stopped and leaned on one foot for a while to listen to our improvised song. When we finished the tune, the man at the piano and the officer exchanged a familiar greeting, and the officer moved on.
The piano man beckoned me over. “Hey, sister! You can sing! I’m Robert, and this is my park.” He pointed to some wide marble steps, about 30 feet from us, that were part of a posh restaurant patio, with two floor-to-ceiling glass walls behind them. “I sleep there.” Robert explained that he had a disability check, but not enough to pay rent and food and medication, so he chose to sleep outside. He had almost died four times, mostly from heart and stroke problems. He didn’t believe in using people. He believed in God, who had done a lot for him. He invited me to sing another song. “Maybe we can make up an act and make some real money. You can sleep over there tonight if you want to – I won’t bother you. I’ll protect you.” I told him that I had a rule against sleeping outside, but that I really appreciated the offer, which was so true. Sitting on a bucket next to the brightly painted piano, I listened to Robert’s chords and improvised a song, and he sang too. We sang the blues and my heart felt unburdened, a little freer than before. “You want a gatorade or something?” he said. “Come on, let’s go to 7-11.”
One of the things that had been toughest in the city so far, even in only a day, was the loneliness. A key aspect of this loneliness was a feeling that women were reluctant to connect with me, and men were immediately projecting all kinds of things onto me that I didn’t want. Robert was an exception, hospitable and natural. But on the way to 7-11, Robert said, “I think we could really make some money with this act. And I’m going to ask the Holy Spirit if you’re ‘the One.’ ” I assured him with great conviction that I was not ‘the One.’ “I’m still going to ask the Holy Spirit,” he said. But he let go of the music act project idea, and outside of 7-11 introduced me to a young man in uniform who was on foot, a crossing guard for the DART light rail. As they greeted each other, I thought of all the times in the last 20 years that I had wondered if somebody I liked was ‘the One’ (or had even tried to convince them that they were!) And I realized that part of hospitality is being able to experience our projections without forcing them on people. To offer others freedom in this way. And that Robert was actually doing a great job of this!
We three talked about rental prices in Dallas, and how to tell if someone was conning you, and how each person determines their own boundaries about helping others with cash. The crossing guard offered to buy both Robert and me sandwiches and drinks, and I remembered that I had meant to go to 7:30 p.m. mass at the cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It was on the other side of downtown, but with the sandwich, and the drink, and a decent conversation, I had the strength to walk there. Robert said good-bye and God bless, and left me with the crossing guard, who told me that he himself had been homeless once for two weeks in Los Angeles, after running away from home out of frustration at losing his football scholarship to the University of Washington. “I was stubborn, dumb. I didn’t accept any help. It’s different out there,” he said. “You know that hierarchy of needs? It’s like all of the top ones burn away, and it all boils down to the basics. It was a good experience. I hope you will be ok. Hope to see you again.”
As I walked quickly to mass in the setting sun, still grimy and raw inside, still tired, but heartened, I thought about what a difference the hospitality of Robert and the crossing guard had made for me. A little space, a song, a sandwich, a drink, and a decent conversation. They had responded with generosity to my appearance in their lives, and had done this for others before. At mass, I met another string of women and men who were generous like this, too. They were not wealthy people, not associated with any organization other than the Spanish language cathedral choir, and yet they found a place for me to sleep, and offered a ride there, a shower, fajitas, a tee-shirt and soccer shorts as pajamas, a canvas mission bag, and an enormous amount of love and goodwill. They laughed the next morning that I had fallen soundly asleep within 30 seconds of lying down at the far margin of their daughter’s bed, and slept for 10 hours straight. All that is a story for another day, but what all of these people in Dallas taught me, aside from profound gratitude, was that the whole world looks different when you have just enough. There is freedom in just enough. And you can transform the world for another person, too, by noticing and meeting even one of their basic needs with friendliness and respect.
I want to know: when have you experienced the freedom of just enough?