Home in Queanbeyan - helping the homeless

Musings from HOME - Peter Day

 

A Prince of the Church

Father Peter Day

The small room is bulging with people. Some are on chairs, some on the floor; while others straddle the staircase.

The air reeks of body odour and cigarette smoke. The priest sits on a tired, dirty sofa and shares a laugh with those near him, while the house dog rests comfortably under the altar: a low lying wooden coffee table.

Mass is about to begin at Cana: a community house in inner-city, Sydney that offers prayer, support and friendship to people on the margins. It is always a special occasion, too, because it is one of those rare moments when the Eucharist is indeed a banquet for all: the homeless mentally ill, university graduates, pimps, religious, addicts, professional types, street workers, students, seminarians, and anyone else so inclined.

(Mass at Cana - August 1991)

It was at Cana where I first met Dennis Kearney: a truly princely man whose battle with mental illness led him to the misery of asylums, the streets, and hostels for the lonely.Mr Kearney was tall and thin, at least six foot three - and a two-pack-a-day smoker. He walked with a confident, elongated gait, and spoke the Queen’s English as it should be: ‘proper like’. He enjoyed a truly catholic faith, spending time on Methodist, Baptist, Anglican, Salvation Army, Catholic, and Evangelical ‘pews’ throughout the city. He was especially fond of the Mass.

He loved clothes. It was unusual to see him without a combination of hat and tie and jacket; sometimes the tie was replaced by a cravat, and he always tried to wear nice trousers. But rarely did he wear anything new - the cigarette budget made sure of that. So he tended to be a clothing horse for unwanted hand-me-downs that he picked up from a small clothing room located on the ground floor of his hostel: a three storey monstrosity with 80 odd rooms for homeless men, mostly alcoholics, run by St Vincent de Paul. And while his second-hand ensembles tended to be messy mix-and-match affairs featuring zipper less trousers, stained shirts, and shoes that allowed toes to be seen; what he wore, he wore proudly, regally.

He loved animals. His face would always light up when a dog, or cat, or guinea pig allowed him some patting time. Hello beautiful creature, it’s good to be with you, his eyes would sing.

He loved plants. I remember walking back to Surry Hills with him from a funeral at St John’s Church, Kings Cross; normally a leisurely 15 minutes walk, but on this occasion forty-five. Every hundred or so metres we would stop while Mr Kearney stroked a plant as though he was greeting a friend, all the while sharing with me its common and Latin names, its origins, and what climate best suited its thriving.

He loved people, but he wasn’t sentimental or outwardly affectionate - except towards animals and plants, of course. Rather, it was the way he wore humility and dignity and silence and suffering that belied a deep respect for others, for life. Every so often when I was on duty at St Canice’s soup kitchen, he would come in and, without saying a word, pull out from his coat pockets a couple of bread rolls. It was his way of thanksgiving, and what better way than an offering of Bread.

While my encounters with him tended to be fleeting at best, with very few words spoken other than pleasantries, there was never any prolonged conversation, I don’t think I’ve held anyone in such high regard, and I don’t know why. I really loved him. He was a holy man. Every now and then I look back fondly on a brief eighteen months period in which I occupied a space at Mr Kearney’s hostel. I used earn my keep by cleaning some of the rooms, his included. Vacuuming his floor, clearing out his ash tray, and making his bed became a sacred ritual for me: something akin to washing the feet of a Teacher.

It all seems rather strange, this admiration, and I’m loath to project sentimentalism. I can only turn to an old spiritual director of mine to make some sense of it all. He once told me that he would often imagine Jesus wandering the streets disguised in rags, as if to test our humanity. “The question is,” he mused, “How in my life have I greeted this hobo?”

I have no doubt that Jesus would have been very comfortable wandering the streets in Mr Kearney’s skin. I think this is why I loved him so.

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth … After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong … (Isaiah 53: 2-3, 7, 11-12)

Wooden Spoon Moments

What it means to belong

You could barely see her amongst the thousands of other supporters, but she was there. She was always there, wearing her club beanie and scarf, waving the team flag and proudly donning her prized t-shirt graffiti-ed with player autographs. Pat had followed the club for 50+ years. She was a tiny lady, “Five foot one, dear.” The tape measure disagreed, “Four foot 11 … and that’s it!”
There was no argument about her weight, though: fifty kilos ringing wet. But tiny Pat was a giant within the club..

She stood like a beacon, shining forth unmatched spirit and loyalty. The players and training staff all knew her, and respected her. Over the years she’d been involved in a host of voluntary activities including organising sausage sizzles for the fans, helping make match day banners, and even washing the odd jersey for “that homesick youngster who still needed ‘mum’ around.”

Not only that, Pat had been to every match they’d played since 1960; she even turned up without fail on Thursday evenings to watch the boys train. She did concede, however, that there was a little 18 months break when she nursed her husband, Bert, through cancer. “He was my first love,” she said. But other than that, Pat turned up every match day (and Thursday evenings) rain, hail, or shine. “Just to encourage the boys, mind you; not to pester ‘em,” she’d insist. “I’m no football groupie. Sure, I love these boys, but I don’t want to go clubbing with them, and I certainly don’t want to marry them.”

Now this day was special for the club. It was their last training session before the Grand Final. Supporters had come out of the woodwork – thousands of them from near and far. What a year it had been: “A miracle”, the papers were saying. A bunch of young upstarts, predicted to finish in the bottom three, now in the Grand Final. The experts were shaking their heads. Pat wasn’t. She didn’t have much time for the experts. As far as she was concerned “They were a bunch of well dressed, overpaid blokes who get it wrong half the time.” Not only was the club a match a way from being premiers, but membership had topped 33,000 - the previous best was 25,000 in 1975. Happy times indeed.

Well, that was two years ago. Today it won’t be so hard to pick out tiny Pat amongst the crowd. There’ll be no crowd. It had been an awful year for the club. They’d won just six games; worst season in their history; wooden-spooners for the first time. The press had crucified them all year, while many of the supporters tore up their memberships in disgust. Not only that, the coach was sacked and five players were asked to move on. But amidst the misery and panic, there she was, tiny Pat, faithfully at the club’s last training session of the season. She was the only one at the ground, save for the players, support staff and the interim coach. It was a “bloody” cold day, too. Never mind, Pat had her thermos: four teaspoons of coffee, a tablespoon of sugar, and a nip of medicinal brandy. This was her thirty-second consecutive year of watching the boys’ Thursday evening training. She always sat at the edge of the fence behind one of the goal posts. And from her faithful lips you could hear the familiar words of encouragement, words that had echoed around the ground for three decades: “Good mark, young fella; c’mon boys, keep runnin’, keep workin’. Make me proud!”

A journalist got a surprise when he asked Pat why she continued to be so faithful in such miserable times. “Ya know,” she said, “that Jesus fella knew a thing or two. People loved it when he was workin’ those miracles. Even his best mate, Peter, only wanted the highlights package. But he made it pretty clear, didn’t he: ‘If ya wanna come for the ride, if ya gonna love me, you’ll have to accept that along with grand finals come wooden-spoons too.’ It’s a bit like marriage, isn’t it? My husband and me had a wonderful honeymoon, kinda like winning a grand final; wished it’d never end. But life ain’t like that. He also got sick, got cancer … and it killed him. That was like gettin’ the wooden-spoon; that was a heavy Cross to carry. But it was during that time that I really learned about love, about how to love and how to be a true supporter. I reckon ya need wooden-spoon moments to be a better person.

“Son, this ain’t just a club; this is my family – it’s my community. I’ve mixed with all types since I’ve been here: rich and poor; VIPs and ordinary folk; and, ya know what, I hadn’t even met an aboriginal before I got involved in footy; what a blessing that’s been.

“This club - along with Bert, of course - has taught me lots about being there in good times and bad. People need you most when they’re doing it tough, don’t they? When my Bert died, it was this club that paid for his funeral; even held a fundraiser to help with some of the bills.

“I just love this place … It makes me feel like I belong. Not sure whether you’re too familiar with the Good Book, but there’s a passage I’m especially fond of; it’s the one where our Lord says something like, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’. I’m no scholar, but I think He was trying to teach us about the importance of staying close and connected. That’s how I feel here: close and connected, like a little branch clinging to its vine … my club.

“Anyway, son, next year we’ll be a stronger club. We’ve learnt a lot about ourselves this season; can’t wait ‘til training starts again in a few months. Might see you there? Gotta go now, son. God-bless-ya.”

Sally in Egypt

God's love for us

“Cuppa, Sally?”
“Yeh, that’d be good, thanks.”
“How’d you sleep?”
“Not bad; it’s nice to be safe, which ain’t too common given me lifestyle.”

“It must be awful feeling so unsettled …”

“Yeh, not much fun; not much of a life, neither.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, how long have you been using … and living on the streets?”

“God, I’ve been usin’ since I was a teenager … almost 20 years now!”

“Sorry, just a minute; the kettle’s boiled; any sugars?”

“Yeh, three, please.”

“Biscuit?

“Ta, that’d be nice.”

“There you go, hope it’s not too strong.”

“Perfect, ta. Yeh, I had me first shot when I was fourteen. Mum used to entertain a lot, if you know what I mean; not nice blokes, neither. They used rough me up quite a bit; had a pretty terrible childhood, really. Mum was a user too. That’s how I got into the gear … and prostitution.”

“Hope you don’t mind me asking, Sally, but do you think you’ll ever escape all this; the drugs, the …?”

“Look, gettin’ off the gear’s the easy bit; but what for? What am I goin’ to do when I get off it? I’ve been a prostitute and user since I was fourteen; haven’t worked for nearly 20 years; not much of a CV. Not much of a story for a future employer, is it?

The thing people don’t understand is that all me friends are users, too. This is my world. This is all I know. So, if I stop usin’, it means I’ve gotta give up me friends as well. I’ve gotta find another world. It’d be like startin’ all over. I’m not sure I can do that. I’m not sure I’d know where to start. It’s not just a physical thing, drug addiction …”


The English Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, used to say, “It’s not enough to leave Egypt; one must also enter the Promised Land.”

For the ancient Jews Egypt symbolised slavery and misery. They didn’t belong there, and they knew it. Their Exodus to the Promised Land serves as a powerful metaphor for the spiritual life. After all, it’s to this Land that we belong. It’s Home. It’s God. It’s also the place where liberty, love, and truth overwhelm slavery. Entry to the Promised Land is not with feet alone, but with the heart.

Each of us carries the weight of some form of slavery; but what is it that beckons us beyond these dark, heavy places’? Sadly, there are those, like Sally, who see nothing beyond Egypt: so why leave?

Our Jewish ancestors have much to teach us about the movement from slavery to freedom. And while endurance and courage are vital to any pilgrimage, alone they are not enough. We must also be awake to the treasure within; that profound presence of the divine that compels and inspires us to leave Egypt for good; Jesus referred to this treasure as the ‘pearl of great price.’

For the Jews this pearl manifested itself in a deeply held conviction, a knowing: ‘Yes, God-is-in-love-with-us’. This equipped them with the confidence to seek the Promised Land despite the odds.

That we are loved is a given; it is the knowing that changes everything. Armed with this pearl there is nothing that can hold us back: not 40 years in a desert; not drug addiction; not prostitution. Nothing.

Hunger not Worthiness

Understanding that we are worthy

It was just another ordinary Sunday morning for this bag of bones: a body wrapped in yellowy skin, riddled with sores and stripped of its beauty and dignity: AIDS.

The disease had also conspired to kick Mick out of his own home; couldn’t even reach down to wipe his backside. He had been sentenced to finish the rest of his days lying on an unforgiving plastic mattress in a hospital ward. His was a small-ish town, too, so just about everybody knew his story.

Sunday tended to be the hardest time of the week because it, more than any other day, reminded him that he was an outsider. He’d been a faithful Mass-goer all his life but since his early twenties hadn’t received Communion. It hurt him deeply that through the years he would remain in his pew while the community around him enjoyed the breaking of bread. What a lonely time this part of the Mass had come to be. While his exile was somewhat self-imposed, much of it stemmed from a backdrop that made it clear where Mick’s place was in the life of the Church.

Being gay, he felt an acute sense of shame and unworthiness: “Poofta, weirdo, faggot,” how often he’d heard those insults during his teens. And while he had no say in who he was, it was still made pretty clear to him, he was to blame for it: “All ya need’s a girlfriend, that’ll sort you out.”

Despite the hurt, Mick still persisted with Sunday Mass, such was his hunger for God and his respect for his church - warts and all.

Faith, he knew, was not served well by self-pity. He also sensed in his soul that the limitations of men and women could never limit or alter the enormity of God’s love. The life of Jesus was proof of that. It was this rich faith that fuelled his hunger to join Christ at the table. How he longed for that. “Even dogs,” he reflected, “Even they get the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Matt 15:27). He loved that Gospel verse. He could really relate to the brazen persistence of the Canaanite woman. It made him realise that the biggest obstacle to faith is not someone else, but one’s self. So, like the woman, he was determined to hang-in, to keep seeking. No one could stop him doing that.

It wasn’t long before a certain fella heard about Mick’s plight. He understood very well what it was like to feel excluded. Once, the Mass had been central to his life as well, but the anger had taken hold. Unlike Mick, he had long since given-up on the church. He couldn’t bear going to Mass knowing that his sexuality had become a stumbling block.

Sensitive as he was to Mick’s situation, he promised himself that he would visit the dying stranger; and he did. He arrived at the hospital late one night, too late he thought, and kinda hoped. He tentatively introduced himself to the nursing staff and asked if he could visit the sick man. After some discussion, the nurse on duty agreed, if reluctantly. Sure, the hospital had strict rules about strangers visiting, especially the terminally ill, and especially late at night. But given the circumstances, the concession made a lot of sense. Anyway, Mick by now had no family and few visitors.

The stranger greeted Mick nervously and explained who he was. Before he could finish his awkward introduction, Mick welcomed him in with a gentle motioning of the hand. The two were mostly silent during the visit; Mick had little energy and could only speak a couple of sentences at a time through his oxygen mask. Surprisingly, the silence was not awkward but peaceful and, in it, so much was said. After nearly three hours of just being together, Mick finally passed-away with the stranger holding his hand. It was just on midnight.

Moments before his death, Mick had shared these words with his visitor: “Mate”, he began softly, “You never knew me and yet you took the time to come and be with me. Now I know what Jesus meant when he said, ‘This is my body, this is my blood.’ Mate, you’ve fed me. Thank you.”

The stranger marvelled at these words and at the faith of the man who spoke them. It made him wonder whether his own anger was more about self-pity than about faith. Then it dawned on him like a bolt from the heavens: “It’s hunger, not worthiness that’s central to a man’s faith.

“I guess that means we’re all worthy. I’m worthy.”

The Cupboard

You are loved

“There you go, Peter; today’s pay. Don’t waste it.”
“Thank you, Mr Boss; I can now buy some paint for my cupboard. Have a good night, Mr Boss, I’m going home now.”
“Okay, Peter, see you tomorrow; same time?”
“Yes, Mr Boss, same time, same time: fifty-five past 8 o’clock in the morning.”

It usually took Peter a couple of hours to get home as he navigated the bustling alleys and back streets of Kolkata, passing fruit vendors, beggars, monks, sewerage drains, smoking meats, motorbikes, street kids, temples, magicians, orphaned dogs-cats-and-rats; not to mention the myriad friendly faces ‘who just had to be smiled at’: really, it was a journey of 1,000 “hellos”, with each greeting accompanied by a gentle, respectful bowing of the head. Peter was always conscious of being polite, which wasn’t at all difficult thanks to an innate fondness he had for his fellow man: a true philanthropist, you might say; if a very poor one. This gentleness flowed from the nurturing and modelling of his beloved grandmother; more on her later.

Generally, it was spot on 9pm when Peter strolled into his tenement building; or, as he would insist with a twinkle in his eye, “Nine-hours-after-12-o’clock-midday.”

The building was a similar age to Peter: thirty-plus years; but not in nearly as good a shape. It stood like a tired old man carrying a heavy yoke: perhaps if someone blew hard enough, it too would tumble over. Socks, towels, t-shirts, electrical cables, TV antennas, and assorted sneakers hanged messily from balcony rails and windows as if to witness to the reality within: unforgiving, overcrowded chaos; five-hundred rooms’ worth.

Usually it was six minutes past ‘nine-hours-after-12-o’clock-midday’ when Peter entered the first floor corridor to commence his settling-down-for-the-night routine. It was all very simple: he’d roll out a Hessian mat, say a quick prayer of thanks, then lie down very quietly next to his cupboard: “The most cleanliest and tidiest cupboard in all Kolkata,” he’d rejoice with anyone who was interested; not many were.

The cupboard, like his gran, was a significant presence in his life, and he dutifully attended to it as if it were the Taj Mahal. Probably his most important duty was its annual painting: this year bright yellow; twelve months ago bright green, and the year before that, bright red.

It didn’t make much sense to his neighbours, this attentiveness to an unremarkable cupboard in an even less remarkable building. “I bet,” some passers-by would scoff dismissively under their breath; “I bet that’s where he keeps the proceeds from his pick-pocketing and thieving; or maybe he’s got some pet rats!”

Peter hadn’t chosen a good place to sleep either: a busy corridor with lots of people traffic. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to nudge him with a swift kick: “Why don’t you pay for a room like the rest of us; and who gave you permission to paint that cupboard, anyway?”

“Sorry, sir; sorry, sir,” Peter would reply patiently, respectfully; which tended to disarm his plaintiffs.

“Arrgh, never mind, never mind; but make sure you clean-up your mess.”

Sure, to outsiders it was just a cupboard, but Peter knew otherwise; indeed, he knew everything there was to know about it; even its dimensions, and to their nearest millimetre, thank you very much: “Five foot 3.2 inches long; two point zero feet exactly high; and four foot plus 6.6 inches deep.”

Despite these modest proportions, Peter’s annual painting rituals were long, drawn-out affairs, usually around six hours: each brush stroke was akin to patting a much loved pet: gentle, slow, even tender. This was certainly not just another chore; rather it was a sacred action; comparable to a sacristan polishing a tabernacle or decorating an altar.

What was also compelling about the cupboard was how immaculately clean it was: literally spotless inside and out. Not so the rest of the building which had been meekly surrendered to the powers of dust and dirt and grime and cockroaches and rats.

While these annual transformations were not to everyone’s taste, especially this year’s yellow; the cupboard certainly offered some respite from the colourless apathy and neglect that abounded.

Peter’s attention to detail was another virtue that could be traced back to the guidance of his grandmother: “If a job’s worth doing, Peter; it’s worth doing well … very well.” He’d first heard that gem when he was just seven.

Indeed, his memory was infused with his grandmother’s wisdom and teachings. He adored her: “My bestest and favouritest person in the whole world.”

She was also the one who made sure, unlike the busy, distracted people around him, that Peter knew he was truly loved and truly valued. “The world needs more like you, dear grandson; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

This was a difficult truth for Peter to grasp because every day he was reminded in some way that he “was a bit slow”, and very poor.

No wonder, then, the care and attention he afforded his cupboard: after all, that was where his beloved grandmother slept, and it was his duty to keep her safe in a nice, bright place:

“The cleanliest and tidiest cupboard in all Kolkata.”

This is a fictional tribute to Peter de Cruz who did indeed keep his grandmother safe as she slept in a cupboard next to him in the corridor of a tenement building in Kolkata, India.

The Unreasonable Commandment

Love your ememies

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’
But I tell you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you ...
(Matthew 5: 43)

David was a good Jewish man: faithful to his God; devoted to his family, and deeply connected to his land.

Khalid was a good Palestinian man: faithful to his God; devoted to his family, and deeply connected to his land.

Each year, in early spring, David and Khalid would meet for a chat at a small cafe. It always began with a respectful, silent handshake. Then, after a kindly nod towards the waiter, the pair would sit down.

More silence would follow, usually a couple of minutes, until their coffee and sweet biscuits arrived. Then, without any small talk, off they went – as they had done for thirty odd years:

Said the Jew: “I think it’s important we are allowed to state our case.”

Said the Palestinian: “I think it’s important we are allowed to state our case.”

Said the Jew: “This is rightfully our land.”

Said the Palestinian: “This is rightfully our land.”

Said the Jew: “We are victims of your aggression.”

Said the Palestinian: “We are victims of your aggression.”

Said the Jew: “We will fight ‘til the bitter end.”

Said the Palestinian: “We will fight ‘til the bitter end.”

Said the Jew: “We are a brutalised and traumatised people.”

Said the Palestinian: “We are a brutalised and traumatised people.”

Said the Jew: “You hate us.”

Said the Palestinian: “You hate us.”

Said the Jew: “There can be no peace ‘til you change your ways.”

Said the Palestinian: “There can be no peace ‘til you change your ways.”

Said the Jew: “Mmm, a nice coffee. Give my regards to your family. See you next year.”

Said the Palestinian: “Mmm, a nice coffee. Give my regards to your family. See you next year.”

The never-ending cycle of misery that is the Middle East is a painful reminder to us all of the consequences borne out by pride, hatred, and an inability to forgive. On a much smaller scale, we too can find ourselves living in a state of ‘war’, a war within that corrodes and destroys: a culture of death.

The Easter event, on the other hand, is a glorious reminder of the consequences borne out by humility and forgiveness. It invites us to that place the ‘warmongers’ and cynics want us to believe does not exist: communion with the One who, while pinned to a wooden cross, said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing”: a culture of Life.

This commandment – it was not merely a suggestion or recommendation – to love our enemy is extraordinary … and ‘unreasonable’, and ‘irrational’, and, gosh, nigh on impossible! Yet it is the only way to end the ‘war’.

It is Christianity at its purest, saltiest, and most transformative.

And, while one might be a wonderful pray-er, or mass goer, or charity worker; none of us can claim to know and love Christ until we are prepared to know and love our enemy.

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