From: Windows Into the Light
Gracious Father, whose blessed Son, Jesus Christ, came down from Heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer)
You are always welcoming me back to the feast, God, no matter how far I stray, no matter what I do, or what I say. Let me see that you have always loved me and that you are always welcoming me home with a feast of new life. Amen.
(The feeding of the five thousand)
Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat? He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little. One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people? Jesus said, Make the people sit down. Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost. So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world. When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
God feeding us is the most basic image we are given in the Biblical narrative. Adam and Eve ate from the abundance of the Garden of Eden, living in paradise where the goodness of the Earth’s bounty was evident in every plant and animal. The Israelites gathered manna, the bread of God’s grace and love, as they wandered in the wilderness. God’s mercy was showered upon them as they gathered just enough food for the day. And, of course, the disciples gathered together for the Passover, only to be transformed by the love of the Eucharist, God’s giving of God’s very self to us in the bread and wine. God’s food is the very image of God’s love to us.
It’s no mistake then that God shows up when food is shared in love. And likewise, it’s no mistake that God is most evident when food is shared among those we often forget or fail to see.
No one really saw Billy. He was homeless. Suffering from schizophrenia, he’d been on the streets for many years, probably about twenty-five. According to what people who knew him pieced together, Billy had been a normal twenty-something when the first signs of his illness emerged. Within a few months, he started on a roller coaster of ups and downs, in and out of mental facilities, fighting with family and friends over whether anything was wrong with him. Like so many, he couldn’t fathom that the people and things in his mind weren’t true, so he gave up battling who couldn’t see his world and withdrew to a place where his world was free to be real. On the streets, he lived completely in his world; there, the people and places no one else could see moved freely. The streets became the easiest place for all of them to live with each other. As cars drove by, he stood on the corner with his friends, waving, talking, and arguing.
Billy lived in about a six-block area. It was well-selected real estate. In the winter, he lived over a grate next to a government building. The warm air from steam generated for heat warmed his lean-to refrigerator box covered with a tarp. On warmer days, he had a little porch with several folding chairs for his guests. They often sat in the late December sun talking and arguing for hours. In the warmer months, the western sunshine was too hot, so Billy moved to his summer house down the street. It was in a shaded alleyway with a large open grate from the underground parking garage and skyscraper next door. Since it was so cold in there that the lawyers and accountants wore coats on the hottest August days, the leftover air that escaped out the grate and up from the garage was just right for Billy. The refrigerator box was recycled and an old mattress from the dump just sat on the ground. I’m sure Billy enjoyed the stars in the summer as he fell asleep.
Billy’s routines were set in stone. Each morning he arose early, walked over to the state capitol and sat on a bench. Usually, he found a newspaper, just a day or two old, for his morning read. He read the paper from cover to cover. Since he knew most of the people who were featured in the stories, especially those causing international havoc, he wanted to keep up with their latest movements. He often argued with them late in the afternoons, trying to convince them to abandon their foolish ways.
After reading the paper, he would take out food he had saved from the day before. Half a sandwich, a pack of crackers, anything that would provide a nutritious beginning of the day. When he was lucky, he enjoyed an apple. Sometimes the people in the tall building would leave perfectly good food in the trash bin next to the grate. Billy especially enjoyed those days – sometimes finding whole meals from a meeting or a party. One time, he found shrimp. It was great but he had so much trouble breathing afterwards that he had to go to the hospital for a few days. He always hated being in the hospital because they usually gave him things to erase his friends on the street – destroying their lives, as he said.
By midmorning, Billy would move down the street to the Methodist church. Every weekday, good men and women from the city came and made a fresh lunch. In the winter soup and sandwiches were the staple. They cooked a massive pot of soup on Monday and gave it different flavors each day of the week. What started as tomato on Monday was a great stew by Friday. Billy always said that Thursday soup was the best; more flavorful than Monday and not too leftover like Friday. In the summer, the Methodists served salads instead of soup. Billy didn’t really like salad.
But Billy’s favorite day was Sunday. At the cathedral across the street from the capitol, the people of the parish had been preparing a hot breakfast on Sundays for over twenty years. Scrambled eggs, grits, bacon or sausage, toast, and beans were all served fifty-two Sundays a year, plus Christmas morning. A bag lunch was also given to all two hundred or so of the guests. But Billy was not a guest, of course. Billy was a member and a volunteer who brought many people with him.
He was often first in line so he could proceed to the other more important work he had to do in the cathedral. He’d stand there ready for the doors to open, ready for the hot meal, ready to see people who needed him, his community. He especially liked one member of the cathedral, a lady who had been a chief organizer of the breakfast for many years. She understood Billy, and more importantly, all his guests. She’d talk with them like no other. In addition, she listened to everyone who had a need and she’d find things for them when they told her about missing socks, gloves, or toiletries. An angel in the flesh, she was the image of God to many – a savior, a redeemer, one who took their prayers and really prayed for them.
Billy would finish his breakfast, and without being asked, wash his hands and face in the restroom, and then come back into the grand hall ready to clean. With oil portraits of nineteenth-century clergymen looking on, Billy would wipe down tables, get a broom, and help clean the floors. This many people make a mess in my Father’s house, he’d say as he worked. Sometimes, he’d also talk to the other people he was supervising. There must have been twenty of them some weeks. Calling them each by name, he could see them all working, listening to his every command. Sometimes, a parishioner or two would give money to Billy. One even told him to share it with the other workers.
When his work was finished, Billy selected a chair and sat down to survey all he had done. He’d sit and wait for hours sometimes, and if he could, he liked to stay for Sunday school. He’d sit in the back of the hall listening, sometimes talking softly about what was said. Sometimes, when he had brought lots of people with him, he was preoccupied with their behavior. They often have poor manners in church, he’d say.
One Sunday, Billy didn’t show up for breakfast. And neither did he the next week. Or the next. Asked about him, no one said a thing at first. Information on the street is often hard to come by if you live in a building, because you are viewed with suspicion. Eventually, a man I’d never heard speak said that Billy had been knifed really bad. He thought I needed to know. Pressing for more information, I heard that another man living over the grate by the skyscraper wanted Billy’s mattress and Billy didn’t want to give it to him. So, the man cut Billy and left him there to die. The next morning, an officer on patrol who knew Billy and checked on him regularly found him there in the alleyway. The man who cut Billy had already disappeared into another dark corner of the city, probably getting on a train by sundown. News of crime among the homeless spreads quickly and their own police force is responsive.
By the time I arrived, Billy had been in the hospital for several weeks. Not only had the doctors performed several surgeries to repair all the damage, the psychiatrists had also been giving Billy lots of medication to quiet all the people who had come with him to the hospital. It had worked. The guests had left the hospital for about five days when I saw him. When I walked into the room, I didn’t recognize him. Clean, shaven, with his hair recently cut, it was as if I had known his photographic negative before and now I was encountering the full-color image of him. Instead of dark, hollow eyes, he had lively, warm, glowing eyes that spilled light into the room. His hands, which had always seemed larger than my head, now appeared smaller, the dirt and grime washed from them. Still a large man, he’d lost lots of weight; his thinner frame looking strangely familiar and alien all at the same time.
Good morning, Billy, I said, walking into the room. Good morning, came his reply in a deep yet lively voice. Thirty minutes later, I had learned more about this man than I had ever thought possible. Stories about his childhood, his parents, how he missed his family and friends, and his remarkable desire to get a job. He talked openly about extensive drug use and how his brain really didn’t work well anymore, as he put it. And near the end of our conversation, he told me he’d stay on his medication this time, how he wanted the voices to go away, and how he planned to make life right this time around. As I left the room, he prayed for me and thanked “all those good people at the church” for all they did to bring hope to his life. Lord, he prayed, give ’em lots of food for the souls lost out in that mean, cold world.
I went back a couple of days later only to find his bed empty. Billy had checked out as soon as the confinement order had expired. The nurse just looked at me, sadness overtaking her face. I suppose she saw lots of people from her ward check out too soon.
That Sunday, Billy was back at church, eating breakfast, sweeping the floors, overseeing all the workers he had brought with him. And as I caught his eyes, he stopped sweeping, looked squarely at me, and stared intensely. I could almost see him thinking, reflecting, and wondering all at once. And then, he smiled. A massive smile from ear to ear. I’m back, he yelled. Welcome back, Billy, I replied.
And at the table next to him, one no one else could see, even I heard their cheerful replay, Welcome back, Billy. Welcome back.
Images of Food
For most of us, food is no longer tied to hunger. Out of the prosperity of our lives, we see food more as a commodity or product than as the goodness of God’s Earth. Because of Billy’s life he experienced the breakfast at the cathedral as a nourishing meal of abundance amid the harshness of his life. Because of that, even in his darkness, he was also able to bring hope to others and do his part in making the whole experience enjoyable for those he served.
- Numerous magazines, including food periodicals if possible (available from friends and sometimes the local library). The magazine should be disposable.
- Small poster board, approximately 12 x 12.
- Rubber cement or glue stick.
This exercise is a simple collage.
First, prepare your work area. Assemble your magazines in stacks on your worktable and prepare your poster board and other materials. When you have prepared the area, prayed for God’s guidance during your exercise, and centered yourself, take the magazines and begin to look through them quickly. Without reflection or study, tear any food image from them that appeals to you. As you go, also note any images of people that appeal to you and tear those out as well. The quicker you work and the less reflection you have, the more authentic your response to this exercise will be. You might consider using your nondominant hand as mentioned in the Introduction.
As you look, also consider any images of those society often forgets. Are there any homeless or disadvantaged people in the magazines? Are images of suffering or despair available? If so, tear any out that speak to you and place them with the images of other people and the foods that you find as your work.
Continue to tear images from the pages for several minutes. Then, without reflection, begin to cut the images and place them on the poster board. Don’t stop to glue them but just arrange them as it comes to you. It remains crucial at this stage that you work quickly and without reflection. If you start wondering why you chose an image, move on. There will be ample time for such considerations when you are finished.
When you are happy with the arrangement, begin to use the rubber cement to glue everything into place. Don’t be surprised if some of the items change as you glue them. Often, you’ll discover new relationships that you like. Go with the flow and allow the creative process to guide you. And if an inner critic emerges, move on and continue to work.
When you have completed the project, sit with the composition for a few minutes. Reflection and consideration can now emerge as a guide to your understanding and the Spirit’s revelation to you. Use the Soul Questions to guide your meditation.
- What types of food did you include in the composition? Are they your favorites?
- Are any of the foods you included tied to memories?
- Did you include any items you don’t like? Why?
- What people did you include? Why did these images appeal to you? What might their inclusion be saying to you about your own life at this time?
- If you found images of the homeless or people often forgotten, how did you relate them to the food in the composition? What do you believe that your soul was discovering in the way that you arranged these people with the food items?
- How do you fit within this collage? Is it totally foreign to you? Familiar? Why or why not?
Thoughts for the Journey
- Have you known people such as Billy? Do you see them when you’re driving in your car or do you fail to see them? How might you see others as they are as you travel your road with God?
- Have you ever had a relationship with a homeless person? If so, what drew you to them? Pity? Respect? Family relationship? If you haven’t known such a person, why not? Are you afraid of homeless people?
- Is there a soup kitchen, church program, or social service agency where you might be able to meet a person like Billy and help provide food to those often unseen in our culture?