We’re Ablaze This Advent Season

Cathedral candelsIn the liturgical calendar this is Advent, a welcome time of dark quiet, and waiting.  But at Joseph’s House, we’re on fire. We’re ablaze because of Kenya.

Kenya is a fierce, vulnerable young woman with learning disabilities and a drug habit. She’s a mother of two young sons and she’s HIV positive. This past summer, suffering from end-stage AIDS and wasting thin, she came to Joseph’s House reluctantly, sent by her doctor, who thought if Kenya could get to Joseph’s House she might not die. If she did die, the doctor knew Kenya would be cared for well, exquisitely cared for. But when she referred Kenya to Joseph’s House, Kenya’s doctor was fighting for her life. She was counting on Joseph’s House to fight with her.

Kenya came to the House fighting too – but not for her life, not at first. She fought with her roommate and with the nurse’s aides. She fought about the food – “Too much!” “Not enough!” “I hate that!” “No meds, they make me sick!” More than once the little paper medications cup spilled its contents across the room. Or she slept like the dead and could not be roused until something in herself woke her up. Kenya was sort of terrifying. None of us knew how to reach her, really.

There was a screaming match with her roommate. I asked myself what my mother would do. So I stood outside the slammed door and gathered myself.  Took a deep breath and let it go; knocked on the door. No answer. I let myself in. No roommate, just Kenya in her bed, turned to the wall. I spoke her name quietly, sat near the foot of the bed and waited until I felt the knot in my chest soften.

“I’m sorry you’re not happy here, Kenya. I really want this to work for you.”

Neither of us moved or spoke. Then from under the covers in a small voice, she cried that she missed her kids. Little by little Kenya’s misery found its voice. She wanted her mother but her mother was afraid of the virus and wouldn’t visit. I could feel that this was sacred ground. Sometimes I think I feel the presence of the ancestors, of our guardian angels. Something prompted me to ask, “Kenya, would you like to pray?” A thin hand extended from the blankets. I took it, and I spoke aloud the prayer I heard in her heart and also felt in mine. Our joined hands formed a lifeline.

In the weeks to come Kenya sat beside me at the table. She ate slowly and carefully.  It took months; she grew stronger and put on weight. Gradually Kenya became able to take her HIV medications when they were brought to her. In time she remembered to take the meds without prompting. Her uncle brought the kids to visit. She gained enough confidence to speak of the fact that she can’t read. Living in shelters and foster homes Kenya never learned to read. She wanted to. Wanted to stay off drugs. Wanted to work. She had a lot to live for.

The day came for Kenya to pack up her things and move back across town to where she had grown up. She had come so far, just as her doctor had hoped she would. She felt ready to leave and we needed the bed for someone else who was very sick, much sicker than Kenya was now.

Ann Dodge, one of our nurses, greatly admires Kenya and delights in her fierce spirit. She treasured the trust Kenya had given her. “What can we do to help you stay on your HIV meds, Kenya?” Ann asked. “Call me every day,” was her answer.

Ann set up a phone tree and every day someone from Joseph’s House who Kenya knew well called her to keep in touch and remind her to take her meds. At first she picked up when we called. Then the conversations grew awkward, mostly silent on the other end of the phone; then she didn’t pick up at all. Kenya came back just once to refill her meds box. Twice, when she didn’t show up, we drove the box to her with a bag of groceries. She was relieved, appreciative, but it took no time before Kenya was sinking again in the same surround that had failed her since she was born. We lost contact. Early in December Ann took a call from the clinic. Had we heard from Kenya they asked. No one there had been able to reach her.

“What I wish,” Ann said when she got off the phone, “is that we had known how to keep Kenya engaged in a relationship with Joseph’s House. If Kenya dies it’s only because she is poor and it’s not fair.”

With these words Ann set Joseph’s House on fire. She wasn’t done.

“What are we tempted to say? That she has to take responsibility for herself? What does that mean? She’s alone and depressed; she’s poor and hungry, always has been. She loves her kids but she can’t keep them safe. Drugs kill the pain for a while; then make it worse. The woman has AIDS. Her own mother is afraid to touch her because she doesn’t understand HIV. Kenya is all alone and she’s practically invisible. Couldn’t we have tried harder? We know her! If we don’t find Kenya what does it tell us about ourselves?”

Ann’s passion has moved Joseph’s House from what could have stopped with our community’s reflection on the candle of hope in the Advent wreathe, to a blazing commitment – dare I say conversion – to go beyond where we have the energy and resources and time to go. Today we have a full house of men and women who are very ill and dying. Each one must have our full, loving presence. And, we know we are called to more. With respect for the powers Ann named that surround Kenya and would have her die a premature, unnecessary death – we know we must go to her, and her sisters and her brothers, and extend everything we have – all the hospitality and warmth and resourcefulness of Joseph’s House – hoping that what we have to offer – mostly our friendship – can help Kenya stay alive.

This hope we’re feeling is not easy. But it feels like an awakening, like a gift from God. Of hope such as this, Gustavo Gutierrez, true friend of the poor and founder of the movement for liberation theology, has written “… fragile as it may seem, hope is capable of planting roots in the world of social insignificance, in the world of the poor, and of breaking out, and remaining creative and alive even in the midst of difficult situations.”

We have learned from Kenya that to really mean something, our love and solidarity and hope must extend beyond the comfort and warmth of Joseph’s House. We have to go out into very difficult situations. This Advent our meditation is about not waiting. The message we hear is, Don’t wait!

Ann and Scott, our deputy director, our nurse’s aides, volunteers and I are working together so that practically every day at least one of us touches base with  the seven or eight folks we still know who once lived at Joseph’s House, healed and left. These are the folks we want to strengthen or renew relationships with.

If a person doesn’t pick up the phone for a day or two we’ll drop by their building with a bag of burgers and fries, wait to be let in, knock on the apartment door and hope that they answer. One man is living in a shelter now. We fill his medications box every week and when he comes to Joseph’s House to pick it up he takes a shower, does his laundry and stays for a meal. We’re visiting someone else in jail, trusting the friendship will be there to support him when he gets out. We know that Kenya is hurting and in trouble. Two of our volunteers took groceries to her last week. She let them in and cried when she heard the words that we miss her. We want to bring Kenya closer and help her get back on her medications, but we’re struggling. I carry her in my heart and I pray for her. I pray for us.

Joseph’s House is stretching and strengthening our compassion and presence beyond what we imagined we could. We want our friends to have their HIV medications, take them and stay alive. It may be impossible. But the cloud of witnesses, those who died at Joseph’s House cared for with great love, but who died too soon nonetheless – we’re feeling their presence. And we have this fragile hope. It’s enough.

Your faith in us is helping to keep this fire at Joseph’s House ablaze – helping us grow into who we’re called to become, and helping us learn to do more of what we know is right in our continuing friendships with those who are desperately poor in Washington, DC. This is not for the half-hearted. Nor is it work for individuals, no matter how passionate or visionary they are. As Paul Farmer, founder of Partners In Health, puts it, bringing our whole selves to men and women who are poor and dying, with tenderness and skilful compassion, and learning to accompany people who are poor and about to become desperately sick again – and helping them help themselves to stay well is “…the work of many, pulling together and over long years and many miles.” Together, we are the many.

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