Seeking the face of God in everything, everyone, all the time, and his hand in every happening; This is what it means to be contemplative in the heart of the world. Seeing and adoring the presence of Jesus, especially in the lowly appearance of bread, and in the distressing disguise of the poor.
-St. Teresa of Calcutta
My friend was homeless on the streets of Atlanta decades ago. Looking at me as we stood on the corner of Courtland Ave. & Gilmer St. with Love & Serve Atlanta, he tried to make me understand a reality that is so far from my experience, he knows I won’t get it. “Hurt Park is not a happy place, Kerrie. There’s not a lot of hope here. That’s why we come.” This was years ago. I keep coming back with my family, especially on Christmas Eve.
Every time I go down to Hurt Park, I always wonder if the homeless people I meet have any idea of the gift they are giving me. Looking them in the eye, I consider if it would sound too trite and ‘benevolent’ to tell them.
They are men and women, vagrants, addicts, veterans with PTSD, moms escaping abusive relationships, women looking for a better life than some demeaning situation that they are trying to leave behind. They come to Hurt Park because they have nowhere else to go. The shelters are full and dangerous, and in Hurt Park there is a chance someone may show up to give them something to eat or a blanket to keep them a bit warmer during their cold nights on the street. And, in the park, they aren’t alone.
There are as many stories as faces. I show up in Hurt Park, on their ‘front lawn,’ so to speak, with my children and a few things to give them that will never be enough to keep them warm or stop their hunger. Approaching them, I smile and ask if they would like a coat, or a granola bar, a cup of coffee, or some prayers. A drop in the ocean of need before me.
Then, the miracle happens. They disarm me with their openness and humility. They meet my gaze and welcome me, as a stranger, into their day, their life, their ‘home.’ Would I do the same? How often in my day do I avoid conversation, rely on my self-sufficiency, put up a smile as a barrier rather than as an invitation?
After giving them a pair of gloves, a scarf, or something else that seems so small in the face of their enormous challenges, I try to walk through the ‘front door’ they have opened. “How are you?” “Are you from here?” “This is my son, Daniel, do you have kids?” They could close the door in my face and walk away. Isn’t that what we often do with each other when someone gets a little too close, asks questions that crack our façade a little bit?
Instead, they offer themselves, their stories, their joys, their regrets, and their hopes, with humility and candor. They tell me their kids’ names and how proud they are of them, even if they’ve been estranged for decades. They tell me about their education, their work, their skills, and their mistakes. They tell my kids to be obedient to their parents and not to fall into the trap of drugs that had consumed them. Their names are Leo, Willy, Valentine, Peace, French Fry, Selma, Sylvia, Nini.
They gift me with the treasure they carry inside- sharing who they are, even at their most vulnerable.
And time after time, they offer their faith. They speak of their love for God, they speak of their gratitude to Jesus for all he gives them.
In the middle of Hurt Park, the miracle of the Epiphany takes place. In the cold, poor park, Christ is acknowledged as Lord. And I recognize Him in their eyes. I try to welcome the holiness in the people before me with my smile, by listening, by praying with them, by making them laugh and giving them whatever paltry material gift I can.
I want them to know how loved they are. I want them to know Christ is with them and in them, but I can only express the depth of that truth with my prayer and my presence. I tell them Christ loves them, and they tell me who Christ is. They tell me He is mighty. They tell me He is watching over them. They tell me they HAVE Him, looking into my eyes as they point vigorously at their hearts.
And they are so right. They have the true Christ of the cave in Bethlehem. The God who became small and poor and cold so that these people who have nothing could warm Him with their hearts.
Getting in the car after a few hours, I look at my kids, and I know they saw the miracle too. Their eyes, gazing into the distance, pondering the stories of the new friends they made, say “I have seen the Lord and the ones He loves.”
We go from Hurt Park to Christmas Eve Mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. We are a bit worn out, dressed in our jeans and sweatshirts, with red noses from the cold hours in the park, coffee splashed on our shirt sleeves, and grass stains on our knees from playing soccer with a group of homeless men.
Around us, everyone is elegant, polished, clean and in their Christmas Best. The kings who have come to pay homage to the baby.
We are the shepherds. We smell like the sheep, and like Hurt Park. We have nothing to offer but our love, our presence, and our gratitude for the gift of witnessing the Epiphany of the Christ Child in the cold December evening. Our hearts are full, and we couldn’t imagine Christmas any other way.