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Posts Tagged ‘compassion’

I think the lady meant Jesus, but in any case …

I heard her coming before I saw her. She made her way up the ramp with an awkward sliding gait, using a cane for additional support. I walked over to greet her. A small woman — a good wind could blow her down — but she exuded presence even when she wasn’t talking. Now when you enter the building where I was that day one of the first things you might see is the No Public Restroom sign, a not uncommon sight in the heart of Boston. And it was when she saw that sign that she made her declaration about God and peeing but she quickly moved on from that topic to talk about life more generally. And as the air around me became lightly perfumed by the scent of alcohol, I gently interjected to ask, “Ma’am, I see, but how can we help you today?” She seemed perplexed by the question so I added, “Would you like to sit in the sanctuary for a bit and maybe pray or something like that?” She looked me straight in the eye and said, “Of course!” Now when she went in, I did peer through the window to make sure that that was all that she was doing. She sat with head bowed and I let her be. Eventually she did come out and as I held the door for her — she was trying to coordinate handling several bags as well as her cane — she asked, “Now where’s the bathroom?”

After letting my colleague know I was going to be occupied for a while, I guided her to the restroom. It was a long walk because as she explained several times, she can’t walk fast anymore. As we came to the stairs, she held onto the railing for support. At one juncture, I took one of her bags. And all the while she talked to me, telling me of her daughters, her son out west who was buying a house where she might stay one day. As for today, she was waiting for a bus. “And I planned it just right,” she explained, “so that I have time to come here to pray and then go to the bathroom and then get to the bus stop. I got plenty of time. Cause you see I don’t like to be rushed.”

“Where are you going on the bus?” I asked. And when she said to the shelter, I asked which one and she said Pine Street Inn. I could only say, “I’ve only heard good things about Pine Street.” And she nodded.

Now by the time we make our way down the stairs, there is no railing for support and so I say, “If you need to, you can hold my arm.”

She leaned her whole self against my side and took my hand.

Resuming our slow walk toward the bathroom, she apologized, “I don’t walk fast anymore.” I said, “That’s okay.”

Eventually we made our ascent from the restroom, back up the stairs.

She said, “You’re a lot like my friend Sue. She doesn’t mind that I’m slow. She never rushes me. Sometimes she lets me stay at her place. I can take the bus there too. She’s got her own place you see. She’s the best friend I ever made at Pine Street.”

Finally back in the lobby she adjusts her bags and we agree after looking at the wall clock that she still has plenty of time to make it to the bus top for her journey to the shelter.

“What’s your name?” she asked. I told her and then I asked her name. With a big smile she said, “It’s Theresa. Like Mother Theresa. Maybe I’ll be a saint one day too.”

And then she was gone.

http://www.pinestreetinn.org/

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The man knew why security and I escorted him to the door. He was drunk and that meant he could not stay on the premises especially not with the beer he held tight in its brown paper bag. “I want to make a change,” he said, voice cracking. “I want to stop.” He sounded sincere, as sincere as the friends and family I knew who struggled with alcohol. “I believe you,” was all that I could say, then added. “I wish you well.” He shook the security guard’s hand and then he turned to me. “Will you give me a hug?” What else could I do as he leaned down but to embrace him?

After my shift ended I wandered around the building and there he was. Close, so close, to another door where he could have received help. Instead, he stood there in the damp of the day and opened the bottle.

The child did not utter the words, give me a hug. She just walked up to me with no other expectation than what was to be. If she were to lean against me but of course I would wrap my arms around her. Had I not done that the whole of her short life?

Somehow the child felt heavier than the man. The weight of her promise waiting to be fulfilled versus all that he had lost perhaps. “I’m tired,” she said. “I know,” I replied. “You can lean here for a bit but no sleeping. I might have to tickle you so we can get you home.” There was a giggle but the weight remained in my arms a while longer. And that was alright.

In my dreams I sometimes try to hold people. It is the gift of paupers and probably no greater gift. I hope so.

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Increasingly, as one watches or reads the news, it becomes clear that individual as well as collective action will be necessary to help people survive this looming long winter. These scarves were tied around the trees in Copley Square today. You can read more about the people behind this particular grassroots program to help people stay warm here: http://www.chasethechill.com/

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I’m not as limber as I once was and so I was having difficulty getting through the window but I didn’t have to fret for long because a stranger took my hand and pulled me through and when I lost my shoe on the rim of the window frame, he picked it up and gave it back to me and then turned and continued to help other strangers out of the train.

I wasn’t sure that I’d write about the chaotic experience of being on the Orange Line train yesterday in Boston’s Back Bay Station that filled with smoke. In the moment I was less concerned about the possibility of a fire in the station and more concerned about the growing panic of the people around me. Later I just wanted to let the incident go. But then today I picked up something and I remembered the feel of that man’s hand holding mine.

It was rush hour. People had had a long day and just wanted to get home. The car in which I stood was not packed but it was tight enough especially as most of us wore the beginnings of our winter gear. The lights were on but there wasn’t much air circulating and the intercom system must not have been working because there was no news being shared by anyone. The train had partially pulled away from Back Bay Station before coming to a halt, and later, officials would note that that was the reason the train operator could not open the doors, because of the danger of people stepping onto the tracks and landing on the electrified third rail. But most people were not thinking of that as the smoke grew thicker, and from inside the car, we could see people on the platform start to run for exits.

Even as I was starting to say, please, be calm, I felt my own panic rising. And then people began to scream, especially when they realized the doors were not opening. People began beating at the windows. The smaller windows on the sliding doors were easier to break. Individual flight was on many a person’s mind for sure but others were trying to help scared people through the small openings. Then in the part of the car where I stood, a man on the platform motioned people away from a larger window. He was not a train official or one of the policeman stationed in the area. He was just a regular guy. He kicked at the window, again and again, until it flew in, a single large sheet, shattering into a spider’s web pattern but no jagged edges did I see. People started leaping out the window while that man and some others stood, held out their hands and helped strangers out. I did not stop to ask his name but I think I shall never forget him.

Read more: Boston Globe article

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One of my mid-year photographic challenges is to photograph more people. Perhaps a post each Sunday? We’ll see … I begin with Robert Yearwood. At some point I may pair stories/brief interviews with these images. Given that Mr. Yearwood has been in this world since 1938, he has a lot of stories to tell. I first met him at Trinity Church.  I’ve learned a lot from him about patience, letting things go, and especially an idea that I have rephrased a bit — that all who enter a place, regardless of age, race, gender, or creed, the clothes upon their backs or the lack thereof, all shall be equally greeted. Whenever I want to be … not nice to someone … I try to remember that idea. 🙂

Robert Yearwood

Robert Yearwood

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I recently met a man who was rather wizened. His hair and beard were white as snow. He was bent over and not just from the bulging back pack he wore.  He leaned heavily upon a cane.  Still, there was a youthful air about him especially that twinkle in his eyes.  He entered the place where I was working and asked to use the bathroom.  Now even as I prepared to utter the standard words often uttered in the heart of Boston, he stopped me.  “Yes, yes, I know. You don’t have a public restroom.  But this is an emergency.” Isn’t it always, I thought.

But then he proceeded to share the nature of his emergency and so after making a quick call for coverage, I helped the gentleman to the bathroom.  It was a circuitous path down several small flights of stairs and around some corners. He moved slowly and so he and I had time to chat. And as he talked I could not help but remark, “Sir, you do have a way with words.” He laughed.  “Well, I should. I’m a writer.” As we eventually made our way back up the stairs, we talked some more. Once again I remarked upon his way with words.  He chuckled, that youthful gleam awful bright.  “Have you ever heard of The Pilgrim?” I hadn’t. ” Thumping his chest, he said, “Well, I write for The Pilgrim.”

I saw him to the door. We wished each other well and that was that. I forgot about our encounter until today, for some odd reason, and decided to look up his magazine.  I was not completely surprised but still a bit startled to see that it is a publication written by the homeless.  It’s edited by Atlantic columnist James Parker and published out of Boston’s Cathedral Church of St. Paul. You can read more about the publication via this link: http://www.thepilgrim.org/#!about/c69s

After reading several entries on the Pilgrim Blog, I almost titled this blog post “hard reading.” The writing is intense. Of the pieces I’ve read so far, one of the most moving passages, Adam Staggering, was written by someone who is no longer homeless but still adrift.  And then there’s The Bed Lottery by Ricardo.  The print publication must be filled with so much more and that is available through subscription.

I’m glad my path crossed with that of the wizened little man. I only wish that I had asked his name so that I might know which pieces he had written.

 

Image Source: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Head of an old man.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-ca87-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

 

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Courtesy of Trinity Archives

Photo of Charity, Courtesy of Trinity Archives

Charity is a stained glass window once located at Trinity Church in the City of Boston. It was designed by Frederic Crowninshield.  The inscription at the bottom of the window, barely legible in the above photo, reads “In memory of Cordelia Harmon, the friend of the poor and friendless. Died May 25, 1883.”  In an 1888 publication providing a descriptive account of the church, including of its windows, Harmon was described as “the Almoner of Trinity Church for many years, and through her good deeds was well known by all the poor in any way connected with the Parish.  The window was a gift of members of the Parish.”

Born in Maine, Cordelia Harmon (1820-1883) spent her adult life in the Boston area.  It is clear from surviving records that she consistently strove to help those who could least help themselves.  Regardless of good deeds done as an elementary school teacher, a nurse at Mass General Hospital or serving people through programs offered by her church, Harmon appears to have never turned her eyes away from the wrongs that remained around her.

One of the church-supported programs that she participated on was The Ladies’ Relief Agency.  As a part of that charity’s design, every application submitted seeking assistance was investigated, including a home visit.  Through such visits, and no doubt her work with other charities, Harmon was able to see firsthand the lack of support for those with chronic diseases, people who were turned away from hospitals, and many of whom had no family to care for them.  She would write:  “How can a man, breathing fetid air, living in the squalor and debasement that abound, where the poor most do congregate and often of necessity, feel hope or courage to rise above his condition?

Harmon imagined creating a home for those people where they could live a good life until the end of their days.  It was an idea that she would discuss with Phillips Brooks, the rector of Trinity Church.  He would help her raise the funds to open The Boston Home for the Incurables in 1881.  Harmon would work at this home until she “died at her post” in 1883.  Phillips Brooks was traveling abroad when he learned of Harmon’s death.  In a letter to his brother he wrote:

Despite his expression of not feeling well-fitted to do the work of Cordelia Harmon, upon his return to Boston, Phillips Brooks did continue her legacy.  In 1883, Trinity formed The Committee for the Establishment of The Boston Home for Incurables to raise funds to expand upon Harmon’s idea.  Funds raised helped the Home to acquire a larger facility and accommodate more patients.  It would continue to expand and refine its services over the next 130 years.  Today, the Boston Home is a respected, model institution serving nearly 100 residents.

Charity, designed by Frederic Crowninshield,

The only known surviving image of the Harmon window is a black and white photo taken in the 1920s. In the center of the image, a woman and two children, destitute.  To the left, a figure with head bowed, the weight of the world upon his shoulders.  Standing amidst them is Jesus.  And above them all, in capital letters, is the text:  Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me.  The window did not survive major renovations that took place in the 1950s. The window may be gone but the memory and legacy of Miss Cordelia Harmon lives on and continues to evolve.

 

Sources, Additional Reading, Etc.

http://www.thebostonhome.org/

https://www.givingcommon.org/profile/1072657/the-boston-home-inc/

September 19, 2014 article with video: http://assistivetech.scripts.mit.edu/blog/finding-a-home/

Charity postcard with insert about Harmon available at Trinity Church Bookshop

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