When we began, we promised to “publish pieces that Bitter Southerners like ourselves create as we wrestle with our region.” This is one of those. Ladies and gentlemen, in one corner, Susan Rebecca White. As for who or what is in the other, that’s up to you ...
Years ago, when I lived in San Francisco, I volunteered at St. Anthony’s, a Catholic nonprofit that runs, among other things, a dining hall for the homeless in the Tenderloin district. Every two weeks, I took my place among the other servers and ladled a hot vegetable onto each tray that passed before me. A few hours later, I would take my own tray of food into the dining area to eat with those we served. It was tempting not to do this, to make a beeline instead for the locker room where we kept our coats and bags and return to my clean and sunny apartment in Cole Valley, my yuppie bubble of a neighborhood, where I would shower off the morning.
Nearly all of the people who stood in line for hours to eat at St. Anthony’s lived on the streets. Many smelled of old sweat, dirt and urine. Some looked skittish and wary. Others were kind, gracious and polite. One man in particular stood out for his radiant smile, as if the difficulties of his life had burnished away all but his pure soul, and there he was, a beatific Buddha in pants that were too short for his legs.
Others were not so easy to love, like the bug-eyed fellow who ranted about how God had sent Hurricane Katrina to New Orleans to punish the city for its decadence, and in particular its embrace of homosexuals. But none of this mattered — not the smells, the desperation or even the kindness of the guests we served. At least that was what we were told by the volunteer coordinator.
“At St. Anthony’s,” she said, “we believe that we are all beloved children of God, and so it is only right that we — spiritual siblings — break bread together.”
Adjacent to St. Anthony’s was St. Boniface Church, also Catholic and also committed to serving the homeless who lived in the Tenderloin. Once, I peeked in there after my shift. The back two-thirds of the pews were filled with the homeless, sleeping. This was allowed, from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day, part of an outreach program started by the Rev. Louie Vitale. You could hear the collective snores of those taking refuge there. The interior of St. Boniface smelled a lot like the dining room at St. Anthony’s, that same mix of old sweat, dirt and urine.
I had heard other volunteers at St. Anthony’s refer to this oh-so-human odor as “the smell of God’s presence,” meaning that God resided with the poor and downtrodden. I envied how centered my fellow volunteers were in their faith, so that even the stench of humanity became sacred. For me, a core faith had always been elusive. Instead, I poked around the edges of a mystery that I did not understand. I knew that there was something more nourishing than the consumerist life, where you hunger always for the next acquisition, and I believed that what truly nourished us had something to do with God. But I had never been able to declare, with any certainty, just exactly who or what God was.
When I was very young, Sunday mornings meant eating my dad’s waffles and reading the “funny pages” in the newspaper, but when I was around 8, my parents joined a mainline Protestant church that offered Sunday School classes with titles along the lines of “God, Buddha and Jesus,” “Mysticism,” and “Quantum Physics and the Spiritual Universe.” (Meanwhile I was stuck in the church basement with a bunch of kids I did not know, making macaroni artwork and singing “Morning Has Broken.”) My parents loved the discussion-based classes but were less enthusiastic about being preached to, so we would duck out before the actual church service began and secure a table at Houston’s for lunch, before the more faithful arrived. I guess you could say my parents’ official stance toward organized religion was “one foot in, one foot out,” and as I grew up I continued to follow their example faithfully, sampling different churches, reading a lot of spiritual memoirs, gravitating toward books that engage, somehow, with the search for God, but never finding a church of my own.
I think this is why I had always had such a rosy view of Catholicism. How could I not? My first exposure to the Catholic faith was through the writings of Flannery O’Connor and Thomas Merton, which quickly led me to Walker Percy and Dorothy Day. I knew there were people out there who hated the Catholic Church, and often for good reason, but what I saw of it—through my readings—was an institution that valued the intellect and social justice. That perception was only strengthened when I moved to Northern California after college to teach at a Catholic girls’ school, where I was both startled and delighted by the feisty nuns who lived there. These were no knuckle-rapping caricatures, but women committed to stewardship, environmentalism and a recount of the 2000 presidential election.
Indeed it was because of those nuns that I first started serving at St. Anthony’s, where I would eavesdrop on the easy chatter of the other volunteers, women who could call up saints’ names as readily as I might reference a favorite novel, women who justified (in my opinion) their opposition to abortion by being just as adamantly in favor of a strong social safety net. I was and remain pro-choice, and yet the Catholic ladies allowed me to leave my fiercely held beliefs for just a moment while I wondered: What if we truly fostered a culture that embraced life? That didn’t treat an unplanned pregnancy as the pregnant woman’s problem alone, but as a community’s responsibility? That provided a poor, young mother with the very real resources — food, shelter, childcare — she would need to raise her kid?
A couple of years ago, around Christmas time, a friend and I decided to attend a Catholic mass in Atlanta. At the time, I was in the middle of a divorce, and I needed all of the spiritual guidance I could get. The church we visited is known for its outreach, its commitment to social justice, its gospel choir. I wondered if it might be a place I would end up joining, after converting, of course. On Sunday morning at 10 a.m., the nave was packed with black and white families, babies and children everywhere. I covetously eyed a gregarious toddler who would have approached everyone in the congregation if her mother had let her. She had huge eyes and a mouth that opened and closed like a baby bird taking food.
At the few Catholic masses I had previously attended, the program had explicitly stated that the Eucharist was reserved solely for confirmed Catholics. But at this church, the wording of the program was different, stating that communion was to be taken only by those who accepted the offering as the literal body and blood of Christ. I read this as a really smart way for the church to sanction wiggle-room. As long as I believed Jesus was present in the sacrament, I could share in the taking of Him. And I did believe, or rather, I didn’t not believe.
When it was time, I joined the wave of people approaching the altar to get my share of the body and the blood. Everything moved very quickly, and when it was my turn I fumbled, didn’t place my hands correctly to receive the wafer, didn’t cross myself, hesitated before walking to one of the officiates holding a chalice of wine. One of the priests, a large man with a solemn expression, motioned for me to come to him instead. I was touched. I thought he was going to explain what I should do. I stood before him.
“Are you Catholic?” he asked.
“No,” I said, still not getting it.
And with that he plucked the wafer out of my hand. I wonder now where he put it. In his pocket? Under his own tongue? I’m pretty sure that after taking Jesus from me, he offered a blessing, but I have no recollection of his words. For all I know he could have said, “Cast out this sinner.” The inside of my head was roaring. I worried I might start crying, remembering other humiliations from my past, all of the times it was made clear to me that I did not belong. I kept thinking about the time my dad and I drove by the home of one of my friends who lived in our neighborhood, and half of the kids from my fourth-grade class were on her front lawn — at a birthday party I had not been invited to.
I breathed deeply as I walked back to my seat, murmuring comforting words in my head, trying to mother myself, a trick I learned when I first separated from my husband. “This has nothing to do with God’s love. You are beloved, sweetheart. You are.” I tried to think of the priest’s refusal as a beautiful gift, wrapped in ugly packaging. He showed me how it felt to be singled out, not served. How many others have felt this same sense of rejection from the church? And my rejection didn’t even go that deep. If I wanted to, I could take classes, convert, be offered the sacred wafer once I learned to ask for it correctly. But how many people have been denied the body of Christ because of something about themselves they cannot — should not — rectify? How many gay people are asked to abandon a fundamental part of themselves in order to participate fully in the sanctified expression of God’s love?
I remembered a story a friend told me about how his mother kept taking him and his sister to mass, even after she was excommunicated for having “allowed” her husband to divorce her. She would show up every week so her confirmed children could take communion, while she remained in the pew, having been banished from God’s table.
When church ended, I came home to the family who took me in when I moved back to Atlanta after separating from my husband. Peter and his partner Bruce had given me a carriage house to live in rent-free in exchange for my babysitting their daughters, ages 3 and 6. They were all in the living room, putting up the Christmas tree. The girls were running around with 10-foot strands of red tinsel trailing behind them. I sat on the sofa and the girls swarmed around me, pulling my hair in front of my face and securing it with a rubber band so that it covered my chin, so they could say, “You have a beard.”
The girls got down on all fours and began meowing, so I offered them each an imaginary bowl of cream. Heads bowed, they lapped it up, then looked at me excitedly, eyes asking, “What’s next?” I suggested the kitties cuddle on the couch, and they did, purring as I scratched their backs, their warm brown bodies pressed against me.
When my friend and I had left the church that morning, we, along with all of the other first-time visitors, were offered a small loaf of bread. Lovely though the gift was, I felt awkward taking it given what had happened at the altar. But as my friend dropped me off at home, he insisted I take his. After the girls wearied of being kittens, I asked if they would like a slice, maybe toasted. Yes, they would. They wanted it with butter. I texted my friend, “The girls are eating the bread.”
He wrote back, “They are eating Jesus.”
Meaning, despite human effort, God can’t be limited to the confines of a wafer, even one that is sanctioned by the proper authority. Love continues to bubble up and expand, like yeast rising in an ordinary loaf of bread. I am beginning to believe that it is the ordinary bread that is holy — or rather, that is made holy once we break it open, eat from it and share it with those who are hungry. Which is to say, once we share it with all.