Sunday, June 28, 2009

Imelda Marcos had nothin' on these...


Contrary to popular Catholic tradition, my family sits in the front pew of our church. Several years ago we discovered that by being close to the action our short people were better able to pay attention. We found it difficult to keep a toddler in line when their only view of the proceedings was the backside of Mrs. Tuttlebaum, no matter how lovely the floral pattern of her polyester-blend skirt. Of course, residing in the front pew comes with its drawbacks; everyone can see you wildly flailing as your son rips pages out of the missal, and a domestic argument over whether a child should be eating Cheerios in church is easily recognized no matter how inconspicuous you think you might be. Nonetheless, the front pew has become our home, and the congregation has grown accustomed to us being there.

Let me take a moment to let you know about my church. In a documentary recently produced about St. Luke's Mission of Mercy, the narrator stated, "They shouldn't even be here". That is very true. The former St. Luke's Parish was officially closed by the Diocese of Buffalo in 1992, another fading congregation supporting a building far too large and costly for it's meager resources. The neighborhood is the poorest in a city with the dubious distinction of being among the most destitute in the nation, second only to Detroit. Nearly fifty-percent of the homes in the area are abandoned. Businesses that once thrived in this community originally occupied by Polish immigrants are all gone, replaced by empty storefronts, broken windows, and urban decay. Drugs, garbage-strewn streets, and crime are so common as to appear "normal" to the residents deep in poverty's grip. It was in this setting that St. Luke's Mission of Mercy was called.

After the founders purchased the entire complex in 1993, the works of mercy began in earnest. The harvest was plenty, laborers few, but the Holy Spirit began to lead men and women to service over the years, and the role of the Mission in the community grew. Michelle and I began attending Sunday Mass at St. Luke's nearly ten years ago after learning about the work being done there at a Cursillo retreat. It was then that the Bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo recognized the value of the ministry and service St. Luke's provided and allowed the Mission to conduct RCIA classes, religious education, daily and Sunday Masses, and to repose the Blessed Sacrament. We felt called early on to be a part of this faithful group dedicated to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

For some years the congregation was quite small and mainly consisted of suburbanites, like ourselves, who were attracted to the charism of mercy; but faithfulness did not go unrewarded, and the Lord began calling men, women and children from the community to Baptism. Soon St. Luke's began to see record numbers of individuals receiving the sacraments at the Easter Vigil and throughout the year. Our little congregation began to grow. Whole families were converted, and received the sacraments with joy. Babies by the busload were baptized, and the church was filled with a beautiful noise.

St. Luke's, now fifteen years old, is a much different place than the one we found. The congregation now better reflects the neighborhood: Black, Latino, Polish, and everything in between. The dwindling parish closed in the early nineties now rings with an assembly that continues to grow and transform. God is so good, and He has only just begun...

But I digress. Back to the front pew.

I usually sit on the end of our pew, at the center aisle; Michelle resides on the opposite end. This provides a book-end approach to policing errant children. Recently I have begun concentrating on the shoes of our congregation as they approach the Blessed Sacrament during Communion. Since we are the first to receive, I am afforded a view of every pair of feet to come after. Before you criticize my apparent lack of prayerfulness after receiving the body and blood of Christ, allow me to reflect on my observations.

The first pair of shoes to attract my attention are a pair of sandals, worn by a young father of two recently returned from Missionary work in Belize. His family has been coming to Mass at St. Luke's for years. What a joy to see them together, and what energy I draw from his courage and devotion. Then, I notice three little sisters in white patent-leather shoes; the shoes are most certainly second-hand, as are their clothes, but mother dutifully dresses them in the best they have for church every Sunday, and they look like angels to me. Next comes a pair of cowboy boots, worn on the feet of a former heavy-drinking truck driver who has found a home in a place that doesn't mind his gruff language and lack of social graces, but loves him for who he is. They are followed by a pair of open-toed sandals revealing feet disfigured by arthritis, most surely painful, and yet they are feet that run to the care of grandchildren abandoned by her daughter's addictions.

Shoes slowly process by, each with a special story to tell: the work boots of the illegal immigrant working endless hours of manual labor to provide for his family; ragged sneakers stained from hours of kitchen work feeding the hundreds who come for food every day; specially fitted shoes on two artificial limbs that replace legs lost long ago to diabetes and a lack of access to medical care; expensive leather shoes worn on the feet of a wealthy benefactor looking to share in the bounty of a lifetime of blessings...

Fifteen years ago St. Luke's closed. We shouldn't be there. We do not have the resources to maintain the complex, much as the Diocese didn't long ago. The neighborhood is broken, and to many, appears beyond fixing. The men, women and children who call this community home have been all but forgotten. Despite these realities, St. Luke's Mission of Mercy exists. It draws God's children home. It helps them to realize how deeply God loves them, and for that, they dress themselves in the very best they have each Sunday, put on their shoes, and walk to Jesus.

How Great is our God.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful reflection. Thanks for joining us.

    ReplyDelete

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