It is the first day of spring. The gods have delivered inches of snow. A thin line of crocus stalks are teeming at the edge of a flagstone. Life is holding to a stationary orbit but struggling. A minister posted she would pray each morning and asked: How can I pray for you? This is a human prayer.
A Prayer on Your Wires
copyright 2020, Vincent Hostak
From the end of a copper wire
then the air
a minister’s voice signals
“For Whom Should I Pray, Today?
Leave Your Comment.
I Will Speak Them.”
For those I will not visit
for their safety
not a casual breath will pass.
For the cashier, who’s fingernails
are each a different glossy hue
clutching the currency passed
and bagging the beans and milk.
For the letter carrier, we forgot, still
distributes our gratitude,
our well wishes
quiet from a large world,
to dull colored mail drops.
For the peace officer by the phone,
the cook and expediter
whose holy eyes scan
curls of braising cabbage,
whose hands wrap parchment,
box a gift to nourish.
A teacher reworking
what was already troubled once
to make it small enough
to travel cables,
arrive total and rich
to a still new mind.
The doctor, nurse
upon the sixteenth hour,
i hope not to see you,
but to hear your breath
singing of sweet sleep
from miles away.
Even from this isolation,
your every movements
stir air around us
in ways we can’t ignore
it whistles with your hope
whirrs with your industry
is scripted with your courage
and encoded with your devotion.
we have chosen to see only shortages
and you have shown us abundance.
In a time of Affliction, or fear of Affliction, imprinted with the apocalyptic-sounding COVID-19, there is a rising tide of compassion. Look away from the LCD cool fire for a moment and be in residence in the Common Stream.
I know full well that invoking the term “faith” will make many bristle. But faith and science are connected openly in conversation at this moment. The seperation of the two has been exaggerated by the real presence of organizations in our communities fueled by fundamentalist principles that devalue the self-evident, long proven models of our reality. But those are not the streams within most of us wade. Faith and science are both empowered to explore the mysteries, like the presence of conciousness and awakening of biological life. One challenges the other to work harder to abstract a model for our understanding. In an enlightened age we can no longer afford to envision these two as combatants, but rather working together to lift our hearts and our knowledge of the natural world or whatever may be beyond the layers of our understanding.
Which brings me to this, in our time of Love and Affliction: there is tremendous energy radiating to educate, care and simply befriend from across many faith communities right now. People asking the questions: How can we connect and hold the appropriate distance recommended by the CDC or NIH? What do our neighbors and elders need from us? How do we keep the isolation from getting the best of us?
The social spaces are being utilized to organize and educate to scientifically sound behaviors by contemporary faith leaders. They have been recruited by our Govenors to help direct life-saving education. From my vantage point they had already started.
I am seeing a time in the future when we will look back and say: our faiths became what they were always meant to be, our liturgies came from a shared place such that we could see no differences in their structure nor content. We looked at our elders as we did our young and saw ourselves. We called everyone our dearest. We were serving love and humanity…we found our salvation in this life.
Tonight I’m on the Night Shift for another brief time. Volunteers, three in total, we gather at 8:00 p.m. in a church basement in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. We are part of a network that literally operates underground and in the middle of the night. Temperatures will drop to 27 to 25 degrees overnight.
Names of individuals (other than myself) are fictionalized, location not named for this post. Family Promise is an actual organization.
Two of us, tonight’s hosts, pour over a binder with information on tonight’s guests. One has migraines. Her daughter is sick with a cold. In an emergency contact her uncle. There may be civil orders we need to be aware of for a client’s well-being and security.
It’s just one small hospitality station in a vast network of support from individuals giving up a spare night or two each month or even a quarter. Truth be told, our clients, single parents, experiencing homelessness and many with jobs, are fiercely independent like most Americans. They will require and often insist on very little interference from the hosts. We’ll ready the cots, check the freshness of the milk, make coffee in the morning, make sure outer doors stay secure, respond to an emergency, and take the garbage out in the morning. There will be no preaching or prayers from the hosts. The night, like most, is uneventful. Hosts gather our own bed linens after our own overnight stays in the library. One of tonight’s co-hosts, let’s call her Hope, will take the laundry as homework since she returns again tomorrow.
It is not lost on us that this is where we are now in our beloved country: a swing or overnight shift of volunteers filling in the gaps where social services funding has been cut. A time when affordable housing is the myth of the new century and perpetually out of most states’ reaches. Vast numbers of individuals are underemployed and/or marginally compensated. Denver, by all marks a progressive community with deep commitments to social justice, is reported by a USC study to be in the top ten least affordable rental markets in the country. The clients who will be sheltered here are single mothers. Some have cars, which I’m certain may have provided shelter on some nights before they connected to the host organization’s services.
The later won’t be due to a lack of effort by caseworkers from the host organization, Family Promise. They fulfill a remarkable secular mission to provide interim, transitional shelter when group shelter is not an option or a shelter stay has reached its term before re-entry (usually ninety days). Their mission is broader, of course, with a commitment to homelessness prevention and delivering families more permanent housing solutions. Some 6,000 organizations, many places of worship, will provide the physical accommodations and guided volunteers. If volunteers were staff, they report, they’d be the nation’s 31st largest employer with some 200,000 in the volunteer workforce.
But this week is the core experience for many clients: short term shelter. Tonight, and each night this week, a family will have the privacy of a clean room of their own, albeit a classroom by day. They’ll have fresh linen, reliable heat, a bathroom and shower with no long waits, a kitchen they can retreat to and fix their own lunch or have an apple. They will also have a comfort they barely ever know: locks on the doors.
Let me bust a myth about our homeless populations and shelters: Why, if there are ample beds, won’t many of our homeless stay there? The “why’s” are well reported here in Westword and by Denver’s Homeless Out Loud organization:
Many of these justifications are more heartbreaking than you’d ever imagine.
But one of the most common reasons, beyond personal security, is that a person can’t get out of a shelter in time each morning to make it to their early morning jobs, drop off a child at a day care facility, make it to a medical appointment, or get in line for day labor.
It’s only my second time as a host. My co-host has attended scores of times. But my experience is this: these women will be up before seven without a knock on their door and will skip the coffee I made (mostly for my own morning comfort). They will take a pass on the Cheerios. They’ll fill a water bottle and pour some juice in the sippy cup and maybe also grab a banana for the toddler. Each will have a busy morning, too busy to stop for these comforts. One, let’s call her Michelle, states she will take her one year old to the emergency room because she doesn’t like the direction her cough has taken. Michelle will take the optional van which a certified volunteer is driving. Michelle’s gathered her overnight belongings in a collection of PVC shopping bags and a small canvas duffle. She’s bundled the baby and fastened her in the car seat and stands ready long before our driver’s early arrival for her shift. Michelle, I gather, has had lots of experience preparing each day to mitigate one of the common time management challenges in her life: finding a good place in a long line. She doesn’t even ask for help and begins to sling the bags onto her shoulder. When I do offer, she says: “Would you mind carrying the baby?”
This is my central take-away: these people are trying. They are maintaining as much composure as they can facing the soul sucking daily grind of providing for their families under the most extreme circumstances imaginable–short of living each night in a car, or in a homeless encampment by the ball parks. They absolutely can’t make it alone, but Michelle will make every effort to keep as much involvement as possible in her and her daughter’s life choices.
One more parting notion. This is a secular effort. I am connected to a faith organization with a concept of God some would call unapologetically and even radically inclusive. Others will just say that inclusive is the very nature of God. I’ve read thelogian Tillich, humanist/atheist Hitchens and Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh within the same month and don’t find their messages to be contradictory. I am not a “non-believer.” Core to that belief is that we maintain a secular sanctuary for our government exclusive from limitations of religious dictates of any sort. But I also am convinced of the power of the Interfaith Alliance movement as perhaps the most innovative development in the recent history of religious practice worldwide. It gathers effort from faith organizations around the concept of service for humanity, is duty-bound to social justice, and is filling the broad gaps unfortunately left by the insufficiency of our civil safety nets. Our evening’s host organization, again a secular body, counts on support from the broad array of Presbyterian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, LDS, Lutheran, Unitarian-Univeralist, non-denominational evangelical and other faith organizations. It is not by providence that our country’s sanctuary for free religious practice makes the very idea of an Interfaith Alliance possible.
I’m not a public relations official or writing on behalf of Family Promise. I’m an unpaid, free will scribe. But if you’d like to get to know them, here’s a link to familypromise.org: