A wonderful group of volunteers came with a meal from Munholland United Methodist Church to join the rest of us in serving our street friends at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church. They came from a church in a wealthy part of town to a church surrounded by destroyed roads and great poverty. Some of their new cars were made by Mercedes and Lexus. Some of the volunteers are just beginning to have contact with our street friends for the first time in their lives.
It is August in New Orleans and that means people who spend the day on the street know the misery of bearing the heat until they smell of the street. The mix of aromas from the hot meals and the hot people is, well, a bit like a teen boys’ school locker room. I guess you have to be in the room to get it, but it ain’t pretty.
When the food is ready to be served, and the shelter vouchers are ready to be shared, we all gather to take a moment to be present, to actually “be with” each other. The volunteers are invited to stand in a giant circle with our street friends and we all hold hands. We look at each other. I invite everyone to take a few deep breaths of the same cool air we all share. I invite them to notice that the Love of God is there among us and between us. I call on each person to be aware that “we are the ones” who can help each other by creating a loving space right here and now.
Then we have a brief prayer. Sometimes I lead that prayer. Sometimes Rev. Sonya Lars, pastor of Mt. Zion, leads the prayer. And sometimes one of our street friends agrees to lead the prayer. Yesterday Patricia led us, she who has the darkest skin tone possible, who never says a word from week to week, spontaneously led us in the Lord’s Prayer. It was the first time in eight years of serving with this ministry that someone has led in a prayer that everyone knows.
She started with, “Our Father.” And then a prayer leveled us. Everyone there followed with the words we learned since childhood, “Who art in heaven.” And as we continued I felt the transformation. We were no longer separated by who has nothing and who has everything, which is always a false distinction anyway. Suddenly we were one, a room of people who all have the same need for the One.
So maybe our specific needs were spread across a wide range of our humanity and situations. Maybe some needed God’s help in actually getting a crust of “daily bread,” while others were more focused on needing God to forgive “our trespasses.” Some might have needed more help in forgiving “those who trespass against us,” while others were seeking to actually want God’s “will to be done.” But in that moment of transformative leveling we were all the one people of God, voicing our needs in one chorus, every voice coming from a cherished child of God.
When oneness happens among all the diverse people of God, I say “a gate of heaven opens.” It’s a modern day miracle really. People who might usually avoid street people at all costs are somehow drawn to be in one circle, holding sweaty and dirty hands, and saying a common prayer. And street people who would usually fear the disdain or disgust of rich people are somehow willing to hold perfumed hands and be in prayer together.
Carol, one of the regular meal volunteers from the rich church who has a delicious smile and an obviously warm heart, edged up to me later and said, “Some of us are beginning to move way out of our comfort zones to talk with people.” I affirmed that and said one of their former pastors, Rev. Sione Tu’uta, had learned to love street people when he served in another church in Shreveport. I guess those of us who have received every privilege in life can actually experience God’s ongoing conversion of heart over time, as we learn ever so slowly that everybody has suffering of one form or another. Robin Roberts, television anchor of Good Morning America, titled her recent book Everybody’s Got Something. That really says it.
So when a prayer leveled us, the truth of that book title became a living reality. We all became the people who have “got something,” some need drawing us into prayer, some tug drawing us down below our outward appearances and smells, into the place where we are all one with the One. Perhaps you will pause right now and reflect on a time when a need, a prayer, some experience leveled you. Remember so a gate of heaven can open once again.
For more stories like this see Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture.