“My lid opens – parts of me are spread all over the ground.” – resident, City Gospel Mission.
About an hour, once a week, I considered, as I walked, counting spires and steeples, cupolas and belfries. Church towers popped up like pigeons in my early morning views. How was it, I last attended church on Christmas Day? What had taken the place of entering the stained-glass windowed spaces of reflection in the city?
Drawn-out walks with my husband, where we discussed politics and graffiti? Mouth-watering breakfasts or brunches at famed and not-so-famed restaurants? Visits with my mother in her care home?
For me, it was a practice altogether different.
I had been raised a practicing Catholic, at one point considering furthering my Catholic education during an in-depth confirmation process. But in my twenties, when the Church asked my first husband to deny his first marriage, I apologized to my mother and the ancestors, and bailed.
When I moved to Oregon, I pursued the religion of the sea. And upon my return to Ohio, a period of “outdoor” church was all that made sense. I was grieving, and found God and my grief more accessible where I could get down and dirty with my loss.
After the merger with my second husband, Mark, and acquisition of three bonus daughters, the education of our children became important. I reconnected to a buoyant Catholic community and our children’s Catholic high schools, abiding by Ursuline and Marianist traditions, never my own.
Once we settled into the city, Mark and I began to bop around from church to church, Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, like Goldilocks looking for the right bed to lay down our troubles and rest our feet.
In that unknowing, I knew one thing. I could no longer sit in church. There seemed more work to do than that.
Last summer, I had met a few residents of City Gospel Mission (CGM) on Elm Street. CGM works to “engage, equip, empower those in need to break the cycle of poverty and despair.” Intrigued by the men and their circumstances, I often sat to chat with them and on occasion, my husband did too.
City Gospel Mission soon opened a new space on Dalton Avenue . Ready to re-purpose my life, I emailed one of the contacts and proposed a weekly writing circle. In the new space, the staff was considering innovative ways of engaging the residents, to round out the service hours men were required to attend, to stay at the mission.
The programming director, Jason, was the kind of guy one might meet on a Red Cross mission trip. In fact, he had made annual treks to Haiti and was pursuing his Master’s in social work. He treated me to a pizza lunch, gave me a tour and I couldn’t say, “No.”
But how would I create a safe sharing space in a predominantly male setting, where attendance and attitudes fluctuated daily? How would my own set of rules to live by be challenged or changed?
I began showing up on Mondays, handing out agendas, poems and prompts. We started with David Ignatow’s Journey – “I am looking for a past /I can rely on / In order to look to death / with equanimity.”
Over time, we read Mary Oliver and Wendall Barry. We read a read young, African-American poet laureate from Kansas City, Maya Angelou and Ted Kooser. The men often used their voices to read, whether fumbling or strong.
Our themes stretched beyond nature into work, freedom, city lights and even butter. Our discussions, which surprisingly the men transferred to the page, were broad and deep.
In a Jennifer Grotz poem, Late Summer, we read, And the noisy day goes so quiet you can hear / the bedraggled man who visits each trash receptacle.
One member commented, “I thought about how we are busy going about our day, and only when we noticed something out of the ordinary, like a guy looking in the can, is when we finally begin “hearing” like finally seeing reality. I used to be that guy searching in the can.” He was near tears.
They were getting it, I said to myself.
But it wasn’t “they” who was getting it. It was me.
In my practice of “city spirituality”, the lack of options for some citizens, poor choices with little room for mistakes and blatant attempts by others to cut down instead of helping up, offered the chance to apply what I had faithfully believed for many years.
The breadth and depth of our being was not dependent on showing up on Sundays, but dependent on showing up EVERYDAY in many differing faces and forms. There were many ways to practice being in the world, more in line with who we are at the core, not who our parents were or who society or a culture had molded us into being.
About an hour, once a week. Listening, holding, laughing, lifting up a voice the men might have once ridiculed. Making space for deeper connections to each other. The connection with God would follow, or perhaps He or She had already guided us there.