In Memory of George

george

George was one of those guys that I saw early morning. As I would wander up Tremont Street from the Park Street T Station he would be setting up in front of the Granary Burying Ground. This cemetery is Boston’s third oldest cemetery and the final earthly resting place for the likes of Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere.

Outside of this historic cemetery, George would set up his earthly belongings. It was a perfect spot in many ways — never in the direct sunlight, but always in the line of visitors to Boston who might spare a dollar or two for the homeless.

So early morning I would walk by and we would greet each other. No matter how grey the day, George would smile. His personality showed through and as I would pass by he’d never fail to say “Have a good day Babe!” Maybe it’s because I’m daily growing older, but somehow I loved that he called me that. I never gave George money. We would just talk and then I would go on to work and he would continue on in his day.

It was the beginning of August that I realized I hadn’t seen George for a couple of days. Perhaps, I reasoned, it was too warm and he’d found another spot. Two days later as I passed by his place in front of the iron fence of the cemetery I stopped cold. Flowers adorned the fence and there hung a picture of George along with a typed story about him. I gasped aloud as I read it. The picture resembled a magazine cover with a banner over the top that read “Rest in Peace.” The bottom had these dates:

October 7th, 1972 – August 4th, 2016

George Dagraca, 43 years old, had died. 

I felt a sense of shock and sadness. I didn’t know George’s story, I had never heard it. We were early morning greeters and our conversations didn’t go deep. Turns out, he was a heroin addict, addicted to those highs that could temporarily remove him from some of the pain of his youth.

Along with the picture was a eulogy of sorts, by someone like me who met George on his daily walks.

We don’t fully know who we will meet in life, who we will touch and who will touch us. Many like me mourn his death and somehow that gives me hope. Because if we who barely knew him care about his death and mourn our short, daily connection, how much more so does the God who sees a sparrow fall?

My faith holds me tight in times like these. Earthly status means nothing to a Heavenly God. Whether our lives be small or great, he counts the hairs on our heads, the freckles on our noses. He cares about our habits, our diseases, and the addictions that sometimes kill us. This is the goodness of the Lord.

A favorite verse comes to mind many times when I walk on Tremont Street and I think of it today:

“I would have despaired, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage,  Wait, I say, for the Lord!”*

I walk up Tremont Street, a sky brightening over the Atlantic Ocean. Sparrows sit on the fence above George’s memorial.

In a sky brightening,in sparrows chirping, and in a homemade memorial I see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. And it is enough. 

You can read more of George’s story here. 

*Psalm 27:13-14

I Cross to the Other Side

At 6:30 in the morning Central Square has already been awake for hours. Stale pools of water with some left over garbage cover the brick side-walk in a low lying area, a result of heavy rains from last week that have not yet evaporated. Pigeons flock to the water enjoying an unexpected pool, loudly arguing about who splashes first.

My husband arrived back from Turkey last night and we talked late into the night resulting in a worthwhile fogginess. So on this Wednesday my mind is buzzing with both the noble and the mundane.

I arrive downtown and I purposely choose to get out on a different side of the subway. Because today I don’t want to see Valerie and know that she is still homeless. Because today I don’t want Donald asking me for spare change.

I am the Priest and the Levi of the Good Samaritan story – I cross to the other side. 

Is it ever okay to cross to the other side? Is it ever okay to purposely choose to avoid the unpleasant? Is it ever okay to ignore disparities?

I don’t think it is, but I do it. I could give all manner of excuses, I could explain myself away, I could tell you that it really doesn’t make a difference. And maybe it doesn’t — but maybe it does.

I cross to the other side because I have no solutions. I cross to the other side because I am tired. I cross to the other side because there is no inn to take people to.

Maybe it’s not about having solutions or an inn. Maybe it’s about just showing up and saying ‘hi’; acknowledging the humanity of another person who struggles. Maybe it’s about early morning solidarity and knowing I share these streets, this neighborhood with the homeless, the crazy, the suits and ties, the little black dress, the vendor, the street musician, the fruit man, the tourist. Maybe it’s about being present among people and proclaiming a faith in the midst of this beautiful, broken world.

But all that comes to me after I cross to the other side. 

What do you do when you cross to the other side? 

It’s Getting Cold

It’s getting cold.

I walk to work in the morning with my body bundled into a warm coat, my feet in boots, my head down to keep the wind from biting too fiercely. We who are on these streets walk quickly, there is no room for small talk or conversation. We are glad to get to our destinations and breathe, away from the wind and the cold.

It’s getting cold. Yet there are still homeless on my streets. There are still men and women huddled together, spooning under blankets for comfort, there are still signs that say “Homeless. Can you help?” Shivering in the morning wind, Charlie asks me for spare change. I get him a cup of coffee and move on.

Border crossing - Turkey Syria

It’s getting cold. And Syrian refugees in no man’s land are in flimsy tents with little to guard them from the incoming winter. Bare feet and no jackets for children of all ages, families that have nothing left, a system strained under fear and corruption that has to fight to make sure aid goes where it is most needed.

I am acutely aware of all of this as I take a hot shower and sit before a warm heater drinking hot coffee. It’s getting cold and there are so many without — without heat, without home, without family. I can hardly bear this, hardly bear the thought of millions of refugees that can’t keep warm or nourished. Hardly bear that I walk by homeless huddled for comfort.

“This is not the way life should be” I shout in my head to a silent Heaven.

It’s getting cold and I have my choice of 3 coats to wear and scarves line my closet. It’s getting cold and I have warm sweaters and food, heat and light. I pray the only prayer that makes sense: “Lord Have Mercy” adding a question to the end of the prayer:

“How can I bring warmth to a world that is so cold?”

How do we bring warmth to a world that is cold? 

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date raisin muffinsI don’t know about you, but I find baking healing. Especially when the goods can be shared. Stacy has an amazing recipe today: Date Syrup Raisin Muffins. One of the things I love about Stacy is that she links stories to her recipes. Here is what she says about this recipe: “This week on Monday, 2 December, the UAE celebrates its 42nd National Day so I decided to create a muffin with some local-ish flavors.  This muffin is made with date honey or syrup and cardamon along with some cinnamon and raisins.  For those who can’t find date honey, molasses is an excellent substitute both in deep flavor and consistency.” If you try these muffins – let us know! Either click on the picture or the link above to get to the recipe.

Coffee or Quarters?

It’s Boston hot.* With high humidity even mid-eighties feels uncomfortable. As it goes to the high eighties you’re dripping.

Give me the dry heat of Phoenix and 122 degrees any day. Really.

With the beginning of summer the visible homeless population has increased ten-fold. On my three-minute walk from subway to office I pass by 12 homeless people in varying stage of wakefulness. Some groggy eyed; others loud, ushering in the morning light with raucous interactions helped along by the strong smell of marijuana; three of them curled up, asleep in the doorways of nearby businesses.

It’s never easy. I don’t know much about the homeless, but I do know that there’s nothing simple about it. I do know that the issue is multifactoral and my response is shaped by the complexity of the issue.

quarterI’ve discovered something in the past couple of years as I daily see the faces and slowly learn names of some of the homeless in this area. I’ve discovered that giving quarters doesn’t work well for me. Because a quarter is too easy.

What’s hard is stopping and offering coffee.

“No, but do you want a cup of coffee?” That’s hard for me.

“No, but do you want a cup of coffee?” means a couple of things. It means I’ll get to work later than I wanted. It means I may have the inconvenience of waiting in a line. It means I need to pay attention as I ask what kind of coffee — Cream? Sugar? Hot? Iced? It means they become a person. It means I have to engage the humanity of the person.

And a person is much harder to ignore than a body.

A body is just a body. But a person has a name, likes, dislikes, a personality shaped by life and their response to life, a temper, a mouth, language and more.

A person challenges me to see through the eyes of God, something that isn’t easy. A person is my equal. When I begin to see someone as a person, not a body, not a statistic, I move into uncomfortable and necessary relationship. It forces me to face my prejudice and privilege.

Seeing someone as a person reminds me that “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – These are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” 
― C.S. LewisThe Weight of Glory

So offering coffee is my new response. I don’t always offer it, and even when I offer it, it’s not always accepted. But overall, “No, but do you want a cup of coffee?” is teaching me far more than giving out quarters ever could. 

What do you think? How do you, or would you, respond? 

*I qualify heat by describing it as Boston hot as opposed to Djibouti hot which I’m learning defies imagination.

My Colorful Neighborhood

This post was first published in February of 2011 – it’s one of my favorites, if only because it gives the reader a colorful picture of where we live!

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It’s a 8 am and I’m a kind of drunk and I want you!” were the words sung to me at Central Square, Cambridge.  The truth is – It was 7:30, he was drunk, and he didn’t want me!

But it brought laughter to my heart and I realize how much I love my colorful neighborhood.

While Harvard Square is full of intellectuals of all ages, brain cells abounding with funky stores,coffee shops, and Out of Town News – Central Square is hardcore life. It is dirtier and grittier with a cross-section of people that defies any stereotype. Recent and older immigrants speaking everything from Amharic and Arabic to Portuguese and Punjabi; every age from infants in strollers to the elderly heading to a community center or the library around the corner; and the sassiest and saltiest homeless people you will ever meet, all converge in Central Square.

If you don’t give money, the homeless population have no problem escorting you to the nearest ATM or looking you up and down with derision and the comment “That’s ok! What goes around comes around!” and you are left feeling cursed.

Central Square T Stop
Central Square T Stop

Maybe the reason I feel so at home in this neighborhood, as opposed to Harvard Square with its sophisticated milieu, or Kendall Square filled with Geeky MIT students and biotech engineers, is that I feel like I am a cross-section of worlds and people. The suburbs stifled me as I felt the need to fit in with beautiful homes and more beautiful people, never quite measuring up to what I perceived as the unspoken expectation.

My past of both Pakistan and Egypt didn’t seem important in the suburbs, but in Central Square it feels like my background belongs. Central Square welcomes me with its imperfection and honesty. There is the ability to feel fully alive and authentic, even as I am serenaded by intoxication at 7:30 am.

With burnt orange, brick-redelectric lime, and hot magenta all mixed together in one place, Central square is like a box of crayons that are primary colors – no pastel pinks, light blues, or pale yellows in sight.

A Way in the City

I step off the subway at the Park Street stop and walk up the dark staircase that takes me out to the Boston Common. It’s still dark and winter is all around me. The annual tree lighting ceremony has taken place and the lights shine brightly in this early morning hour.

White, twinkly lights brighten other trees in the area as well – symbolic of the season. But despite the attempts at magic and celebration, all the lights and decorations in the world can’t hide the homeless man who I just passed, can’t hide the dirt of yesterdays’ tourists, can’t hide the brokenness of the city.

All around me I see evidence of this brokenness. It is in the glum, moodiness of passers-by. It is in the grocery cart pushed by the homeless woman, piled high with bottles and filthy blankets. It is in the impatient honking of a car, driver angry at the vehicle in front of him. It is in the sadness in the eyes of the young woman on the street.

It’s the world of Isaiah 35 – A world of the blind, the mute, the lame, the broken.

A world that needs the hope of the Incarnation, the joy of redemption.

And in the quiet of the city morning, the melody of Joy to the World comes faintly, unexpected. I can barely make out the words and I don’t know where it’s coming from. I wonder if it’s in my head, a trick of my mind. But as I walk it gets louder and there is no mistaking Mariah Carey’s strong soprano “Joy to the World, the Lord is come, let earth receive her King…..No more let sin and sorrow reign, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make his glories known, far as the curse is found….” It’s a song of redemption in a weary city; a God-breathed reminder that our world has not been abandoned.

This is the everlasting Joy that Isaiah speaks of — that our God will come; our God has come. This is the joy in the desert, the joy in the city, the joy of the redeemed. The joy of a rainy Monday in a bleak December.

(This piece was originally written for an Advent Devotional produced by Park Street Church)

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Boston Common Christmas Tree – Early Morning Hours

I want to thank so many of you who shared yesterday’s post “It’s not the way it’s supposed to be!” I purposely didn’t post on Saturday feeling like there were no words and that was best. I know some of your stories, and I know that you are keenly aware that it’s not the way it’s supposed to be – and yet at the end of the day, you have hope. Thank you – it shouts to me from your comments and emails.

Warm Slippers and Tortellini Soup

I asked her if she was hungry and she looked at me out of her one good eye. “Yes! A bowl of soup would be great!“. And so I got it. Hot, steaming tortellini soup, bread to go with it, a banana, and mango Snapple. I stooped down to give her the heavy brown bag and help take the soup out for her. “You need something for your feet!” I said. “I’ll be right back”. “You would do that for me?” said she, completely shocked. I smiled and left her in her usual spot outside the 7 Eleven on Washington Street, but inside, I was feeling a little bit great.

And so I got them. Strong, boot-like slippers with good soles. And as I was buying them I had that little feeling inside again – the “I’m a little bit great!” feeling. I pushed it aside and looked around me, afraid that someone could have overheard that thought, felt the feeling. I would have hated to be found out. To have it discovered that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t about Sheryl, there was a little something in it for me. A little something that would pat me on the back and say – “Wow – look at you! Aren’t you something?!”

But I pushed the thought down, and resolutely walked back to Sheryl, warm slippers in hand, slightly Pharisaical in my bearing.  And there she was. No food. No soup. No banana. No mango Snapple. No napkins. No spoon. No bread. Nothing. Just Sheryl. Sheryl asking me for money.

The Pharisee left and the plain outright mean in me came out. “What’d you do with the soup?” I demanded. “I just bought you soup. Where is it? Where is the banana, huh? Where is the Snapple? I like Snapple, I would’ve drunk it.” She peered up at me with the good eye – “Oh, It’s over there in the square with my boyfriend.”

I was furious. And then I stopped short. I had given away something and it was no longer mine. I gave the food to her, and it was then hers. I had no right to ask her what she had done with it. I had no business giving the food if there were strings attached. The self-righteous part of me was what was angry. I had taken my precious time, when I had things to do and places to go. I had done this for her and look how she repaid me! And I realized that the minute I let those “You’re so great” thoughts come in, it ceased being about her anymore. It was all about me.

I put the slippers on her, humbled. If I choose to give, it can’t be about me. The minute the gift leaves my hand, I have relinquished my right to it. It belongs to the receiver. If it was any other way than it wouldn’t be a free gift. It would be like the offers that fill my inbox promising me a free iPad or trip only to discover that I have to complete 12 to 15 offers and scroll through numerous pages before I can even think about a gift, exhausting me in the process. In the case of Sheryl and me, it has to be about her. That’s what a true gift is. It can’t be about strings attached that would entangle me. It has to be about a free gift and grace.

When I see her again, she may not have the slippers. And I might choose a different way to show I care. But whatever way I choose, it has to be about warm slippers, tortellini soup and God – it can’t be about me.