From my first day here I have felt myself fit as a key to a lock, as though for the first time I was “home.” It does not seem very probable for a middle class, white, country-raised woman to find her home in Kensington, a neighborhood I would be advised by most not to drive through let alone live and work, and - “God forbid” - love. But love is precisely what brought me here and keeps me here. Jesus reminds us that what was most important in the Law and prophets of the Old Testament is also his call for us today. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. Over the past two years, loving my God, my neighbor and myself have all become wonderfully one in my daily activities of life.
I can’t put my finger on what exactly thrilled my heart so quickly that it claimed itself “home” in Kensington. Maybe it is the roosters across the street that crow every morning, reminding me of my time in Central America. Maybe it is because when I walk into the clinic, it feels more like walking into my living room or the bar on the TV show “Cheers,” instead of walking into a job. Maybe it is falling asleep listening to the two moms I live with saying bedtime prayers with their children, each in their native language of French and Spanish. Or maybe it is most simply where “I feel God’s joy.” As the runner says in “Chariots of Fire,” “I run because that is when I feel God’s joy.” It is here among poor and simple things that I have found my home.
The Clinic is a place where I am both most centered and stretched. We offer free medical care to the uninsured, which usually also involves homelessness, mental illness, and addiction. These conditions are often much more detrimental to one’s health and harder to cure than the medical diseases that I learned about in my training. I have grown much more confident as a medical provider and much less confident in having easy answers to overcoming addictions and mental health problems. My patients are my friends, and these seemingly unprofessional relationships nurture both of us. Some days are full of miracles, hope and the mercy of seeing Jesus in those I help take care of. While other days it seems I see only my patients’ repeated failures and the system’s relentless restraints that lead to a hopelessness that weighs heavy on all at the clinic.
One miracle happened just the other day; the deaf heard! A middle aged, Hispanic man came into the clinic complaining of not being able to hear out of one ear for five years. A few weeks ago, he told me, his other ear also lost most of its ability to hear. His difficulties riding his bike without hearing well led him to seek medical care for the first time in ten years. After ten minutes of flushing his ears with water and removing gobs of wax, he was dancing around the exam room exclaiming, “hallelujah,” and “say something—I can hear!” I realized how fun it must have been to be around the people Jesus healed and how fun it is today to watch Jesus heal people in both practical and miraculous ways.
I have also “been schooled” about using heroin, crack, benzos, Weed and any mixture of the above as well as the destruction of the lives of those who are
addicted to these horrible substances. If I have ever truly hated anything, it is heroin. One patient, who I will call Gary, is slowly being killed by his heroin addiction. Gary is also HIV positive and is often sick because he is not on the needed medications. During my first month here last year, I spent one afternoon in an HIV clinic waiting room with Gary. He would not stay to be seen without me, because after a few hours without heroin, an addict’s body begins to withdraw, overriding the mind’s desires. I was literally holding him as we sat in the waiting room, his body shaking with a mixture of heroin withdrawal and HIV related fevers. He was seen that day, hospitalized and a few days later I saw his smile for the first time. I heard his words promising me that he would not go back to heroin.
After his discharge, I lost track of him until a few months later he showed up at the clinic in the same state I had first met him: addicted and sick with his HIV disease. He has been hospitalized two more times since, all ending up with him back on the streets. There are medicines now that enable HIV positive patients to live near normal life expectancies and high quality lives. These meds are available in our country even to the uninsured and undocumented immigrants. But not for Gary, who is consumed by, 1) his fear of the cops catching up with him, 2) his physical addiction, and 3) the lack of someone to hold his hand through it all.
Oddly, a few months ago Gary kept an appointment (showing up on time was the odd part) to have a tooth removed and was relieved of so much pain that he kissed my hand and wore that rarely seen smile again. Why is he able to keep a benign dental appointment, but not deal with what is killing him? Although the answers lie much deeper, I do know that our clinic is a safe place for him, where he is known and accepted, as well as easy for him to access. Fortunately, I have started working part time at the same HIV Clinic that Gary and I originally went to. This has offered a great connection to link people in our neighborhood with HIV care. Gary has come to the HIV clinic a few times, with much prompting during our visits at the Catholic Worker clinic. His disease and addiction are still out of control, but I pray that I will be able to write about his miracle soon.
Spiritually, I have seen God alive and well in the lives of my patients, both those who are overcoming and those who are being defeated. I often share the Gospel with patients, but many times they share it with me first! We pray together and I have the privilege of helping to bear their burdens. The poor see God much clearer than I and often have refreshing insights that restore my heart to worship our awesome God.
Hospitality, sharing our home with those in need, has been my second place of centering and stretching. It is quite obvious to those close to me that I receive much more than I give in the relationships in our home. A few weeks after I moved here, a refugee woman and her daughter from the Congo moved in. They are moving out this month and my heart is torn as I realize that we have truly become family. It has been a privilege in every way to learn from this mother, and the other mom who is living with us now, what it means to be a godly woman. It is so evident in their lives that the poor in this world are rich in faith, hope and joy. I have witnessed these women work tirelessly at below minimum wage jobs, care for and discipline their children and, most notably, day after day, be full of prayer and rejoicing. The second family is from Guatemala and, on top of the trials of being a refugee, the mom is also battling a disease that keeps her sick a lot. The disparity of my life to theirs is humbling; I have so much more in this world, yet so little faith in comparison. They work twice as hard and longer hours than I do and I make three times as much money. I have learned from the one mom, to “thank God daily for what we have and for what we don’t have, for Jesus alone is enough. With all my possessions and privileges I wonder if I will ever truly know what it is to have only Jesus. I would never dare to ask to share completely the hardships of poverty, but I am jealous of their faith that I may never taste.
Their children—a seven year old boy and an eight year old girl—are my joy and also my teachers. I have become a child again with them, planting a little garden together, doing art projects, and hosing each other down on the unbearably hot days in the summer. They keep me in check on the things I teach them; like not eating too much ice cream, wasting water, and picking up trash on the streets.
The families I live with have also been crucial for my journey of understanding pacifism and nonviolent resistance. I started to get involved with the peace movement during my time here, attending vigils, protests, visiting congresspeople, especially around the war on Iraq. What I learned was that love had to be my motivation. It was imperative that my actions be rooted in love for the Iraqi people. Without love, the movement risks becoming solely political, religious, or at the worst, self centered. Living with two families that have escaped countries of war and listening to their experiences has changed me. War has taken most of their families, fragmented their lives and leFt the children with nightmares. It is out of this love that I participated in my first civil disobedience last year when the war started. I pray that as I continue to grow in my understanding and love for the world, that my actions will follow to resist violence both in word and deed.
I can’t write a summary of my time here without including the trials as well. One season for about six months last year was particularly dark, relatively speaking. Hospitality was extremely difficult as we hosted a woman and her very undisciplined two-year-old. We also were offering hospitality to a slew of mice that ended up everywhere from running across my pillow at night to showing up dead in our cereal boxes in the morning. Even more appetizing was the day I ate a roach in my fried rice, one of many who were also sharing our home for a season. Gladly, they all moved on, at least until warmer weather returns. During the same season on a sunny Friday morning, I caught a man trying to steal our front storm door, claiming he “needed it” to sell in order to buy drugs for his habit. He insisted that he knocked and “didn’t think anyone was home," while I insisted that I was home and either way the door was mine. After a short debate over who needed it more, he left and my neighbor across the street, who was watching, repaired the loose screws. A few weeks later, it disappeared for good in the night. I guess he was right; maybe he did need it more. Broken appliances, a leaky roof that partly caved in, were among my other urban baptisms.
Sometimes, the stereotypic fear of violence in my neighborhood comes true. Last week on my walk home from the clinic I heard a gunshot around the corner and watched a man run into a dark alley. As I turned the corner I learned that the man held up a teenager that lives across the street from me, and then fired the gun into the air. Thankfully no one was hurt, except maybe all of our morale and the tender spirit of the kids I live with, watching through the windows as the cops flood our street. As “difficult” as all this may seem, what is truly difficult are the lives of those who know nothing but these trials and have no ability to escape them. To share in these trials of poverty will always be a privilege for me, not truly trials. Making the choice to live among the poor implies that I can make the choice to leave, a privilege the poor do not have.
Throughout all of this, my theology has been changing, or maybe for the first time existing. In order for my faith to be authentic it now has to stand the test of relevance to my patients, to my neighbors, to the families I live with and somehow the news of the world I read in the paper. Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom. No longer do I want to minister to the poor as much as I want to be poor. I want to journey to that place of being stripped of the securities of the world and be rich in faith: to know all I have is Jesus. I long for the kingdom to come, to truly come. For the high places to be made low and the valleys to be raised up. For Gary to have the simple dignities of daily life, such as sitting in the park enjoying the birds, buying a hamburger without fear, laughing at jokes, falling asleep on a bed. For the women I live with to work for fair wages, for their talents to be honored, and their hearts made whole from all the trauma they have been through.
I have been told for years that all this happens in heaven, but Jesus tells us the kingdom is here now. The small taste of the kingdom over the past two years has me only thirsting for more. It seems no cost at all to lay my life down when I see clearly the kingdom. Although I do not know fully what it means, I ask God to show me how to work and pray for the kingdom to come here in our neighborhood, spiritually and physically.
Katherine Roberts, PA-C, can becontacted at katerpa [at] yahoo [dot] com
As I sit to write my reflections of my time here at the House of Grace community, I find myself asking God if there will ever be a sweeter two years of my life than these.