I’m enraptured by an image from a story shared with me this week by Sylvia, a long-term volunteer at Project Lazarus. In a meeting of residents, staff, and volunteers we heard the pain of what had been a rough weekend. Some residents were relapsing in their addictions, and that had created the terrible maelstrom of downward spiral that tends to suck everyone around it into a dark place. There had been nasty moments of anger. Some residents left. Everyone was disturbed. And the backlash and residue was still lingering around the Monday morning meeting.
Sylvia decided to follow her “first mind” and tell us all about the early days at Project Lazarus. She felt we all needed to hear a story to help us through the rough patch. She shared about the days when AIDS was a very unpopular disease, meaning there was little funding for medical treatment research because society presumed AIDS patients were all gay and so they didn’t deserve treatment. Society was extra cruel in those dark days.
But then she shared the image that captured me. Sylvia said people were dying of AIDS there with little or no family support. So volunteers from the New Orleans community rose up with compassion and formed 24-hour vigils to be sure no one died alone. A candle was lit outside the dying patient’s room to alert volunteers and staff that the resident’s time was short. Their wounds were often terrible as multiple diseases took over. Many looked like they had leprosy. And in those days there were still questions about how AIDS was transmitted. Volunteers had reasons to fear for their own safety.
Even so, the brave volunteers let love rule. They took turns sitting with the patients through their last days and hours. They manifested healing compassion and lovingkindness. The candles were the sign that extra love was needed as death drew near. And the courage emerged in those who stepped up to serve. A small candle became a symbol of the need for great love. The story has stayed with me all week.
I know our society is going through some dark days. Hatred and anger, fear and alienation, are all dictating the ways many people are responding to each other. And yet there are amazing signs of light appearing across the land too. Candles are being placed outside the door, so to speak, in many neighborhoods across our country. While some people are being openly rejected, just like those AIDS patients were decades ago, volunteers are rising up in waves to show compassion wherever it is needed. The Great Love is being revealed. Hearts are being moved by empathy and the call to action. Despite the dark days in our starkly divided culture, I am seeing the candles appearing everywhere.
One of the local places where I see a candle lit, and volunteers responding, is at the First Grace United Methodist Church. Members there are being trained to walk with immigrants through the process of applying for citizenship. The church has opened its doors for immigrants to gather on Wednesday evenings for Congreso de Jornaleros, the congress of day laborers, in a time of self-empowerment regarding how to deal with the stresses of the broken immigration system. Hundreds respond every week. I have just learned of this mission, and so I have never attended a meeting, but I bet I would see the face of Christ in the volunteers and immigrants there.
And that is what I am searching for in these dark days. I need to see the face of Christ in both the people with great needs and the volunteers who serve them. I see that face at Project Lazarus, Congreso, our Open Table ministry with street friends, and in the people who bring their spiritual search to the weekly and monthly gatherings in our School for Contemplative Living. The candles are being lit all over. People are responding. And those small lights can help push back the darkness.
I’m enraptured by the sight of such candles, tremendous needs, and an outpouring of love. Perhaps you can see them too. If you wish, respond with a candle story of your own. We need the light in times like these.