The District Attorney gave us the barest details: six months earlier Alfredo had pleaded guilty to charges brought by a young man that he was sexually assaulted by Alfredo ten years before when Alfredo was the coach and the young man was just a boy on the soccer team. Convicted and incarcerated, Alfredo was transferred from the general prison population to the prison infirmary. Branded a “pedophile”, his life was in danger. But Alfredo was already beginning to die. He had end-stage stomach cancer and only a few months to live.
The infirmary’s medical director realized that Alfredo would soon need hospice care and that without it his death would be difficult and painful. After conferring with the DA’s office, the infirmary placed calls to hospices and nursing homes in the hope that one of them would provide him hospice care. At the same time, the DA’s office contacted the family who had filed the charges. When asked their feelings about Alfredo being transferred out of prison to die, both the young man and his mother said that they did not want him to suffer and die in prison. They hoped he could be transferred elsewhere and be cared for kindly. But the hospices and nursing homes all declined to accept Alfredo as a patient. When Priscilla Norris, our RN case manager, received the call, she understood the depth of his need. Knowing that the community of Joseph’s House could welcome him, she said, “Yes”.
Once, many years ago, Joseph’s House received a similar referral. At that time I made the decision not to tell the staff and volunteers the details of the man’s crime. I was fearful that if they knew about his past they might avoid or neglect him.
But this time at our weekly staff meeting, before Alfredo arrived, Priscilla shared with the staff and volunteers as much as she knew about him. She discussed the boundaries we would put in place for Alfredo. And she invited all of us present to notice whatever feelings we might have about Alfredo being undeserving of our love and our best care, our interest and attention. She invited us to have mercy toward whatever fear and need to judge might be closing our hearts to Alfredo even before we had met him.
Slight of build except for his huge protruding belly, his skin unnaturally pale, eyes dark and guarded, Alfredo was brought to Joseph’s House in a prison ambulance. His cousin arrived shortly after and helped him settle into the room at the top of the stairs with the windows overlooking the treetops. Alfredo lay down on the bed and rolled to face the wall. He pulled the blanket over his head. When he left, I spoke with Alfredo’s cousin. Alfredo’s belt and shoe laces were in his hands. “I don’t know,” he said, deeply distressed. “He might try to kill himself”.
Despite the clear teachings of Jesus and the other paths of radical non-violence that many of us at Joseph’s House identify with, the natural, human reaction to someone who is branded as evil – terrorists, Nazis, mass murderers, pedophiles – is nearly always revenge. We tend to act as though it is our right to exact punishment…punishment without end. And yet…the prison doctor had mercy. The District Attorney made time to advocate for Alfredo. The victim and his mother felt compassion for him. Alfredo’s cousin clearly loved him very much. In welcoming Alfredo, Joseph’s House would be another link in a remarkable chain of compassion.
Several weeks later I was on the early morning shift with Brennan, one of our new interns. Chatting as we fried bacon and scrambled eggs for breakfast, it occurred to me that Alfredo had not come downstairs as he had been doing for his first cup of coffee. “Why don’t you check on Alfredo?” I suggested to Brennan, “Tell him there’s fresh coffee.” In a few minutes Brennan was back. “Said he wasn’t hungry this morning,” Brennan reported, a little too off-hand. He had accepted Alfredo’s “no” too easily.
Grateful for my years of one-day-at-a-time life at Joseph’s House, I sensed that this was an important moment and that it shouldn’t be missed.
So, taking a tray from the shelf and placing it on the kitchen counter, I said, “Let’s make up something special for Alfredo. We’ll prepare this tray with all the love that we have in our hearts. Then you can take it up to him”. Brennan found a placemat to cover the tray. “Perfect”, I said, “Alfredo takes lots of milk and sugar in his coffee. May as well put the sugar shaker on the tray too, in case it’s not sweet enough. And pour a cup of coffee for yourself too.” Then we found the smallest of our little glass bowls and put just a few pieces of fresh cut melon in the bowl. A napkin, a small fork, and Brennan was nearly ready to go back up to Alfredo’s room.
“Dear Heart, I said, “This time when you go upstairs to Alfredo’s room, pause at the door. I really mean it. Pause at the threshold. Before you open the door set aside your own thoughts and feelings and invite the light and love of God to fill you so that through you, Alfredo will receive only God’s gentleness and love.”
“Okay,” Brennan said gravely as he lifted the tray with its two cups of coffee and headed back upstairs.
When we started the breakfast dishes Brennan was still upstairs with Alfredo. My heart warmed with gratitude. I imagined the miracle of human to human connection that must be happening.. When he returned to the kitchen with the tray of empty cups and bowl, Brennan’s eyes met mine and he was smiling. “Thanks,” he said. “That was awesome.” Brennan had really met Alfredo.
Kate, our live-in volunteer, has a special way of being there when someone has something important to say. One day Alfredo asked her, “What will happen? Will I suffocate?” Even using the oxygen machine he was now finding it harder to breathe. “I don’t know”, Kate told him. “But you will not be alone. We will be with you.”
Joseph’s House is not always the home someone longs for. Alfredo said he sometimes felt imprisoned here. He longed for Mexico. Yet at Joseph’s House, a young woman was able to listen to him so well that he was able to confide this to her.
When he died, Alfredo’s cousin and aunt and uncle were with him at the bedside. Priscilla and I and others from Joseph’s House were there also. Such tenderness and kindness as I have rarely seen were expressed to Alfredo by his family. We at Joseph’s House were not the only ones who met Alfredo with mercy. We were part of the mercy.