Saturday this week provided another occasion quite out of the ordinary - and very different from last week's Monteverdi concerts. This weekend was a another special blessing. Several of us went to Newburgh in the late afternoon to help bless Ecclesia House, which will be a residence for formerly homeless women. It has been the dream of Ecclesia Ministries in Newburgh, presided over by our friend and Associate Steve Ruelke, who is a minister of the United Church of Christ (serving a Presbyterian congregation). Our Brother James has also worked with Ecclesia Ministries for a couple of years now, and has labored hard over the plans for the residence and in raising the money to get this project going, and in many, many other ways.
Ecclesia House is in a very run-down part of Newburgh, which is a very poor and suffering city. The house was formerly a shelter run by the Roman Catholic Church. After years of operating they ran into financial difficulties and after a lot of struggle finally had to close the place. When it finally closed, two women, both named Pat, continued to live in the building because they would not let their vision of the shelter die. They knew that some day there would be a shelter there again, and so they stayed there winter and summer, even when finally there was no electricity and no heat, waiting until their dream that the house would be a shelter again finally came true. After the years of their waiting one of them has died and the other is in the hospital now, just a few days away from death. But their dream has indeed come to fruition.
Now the money has been raised and the remodeling is nearing an end. 14 women will live there and have a place of privacy and dignity where they can get their lives together and move on towards a better future. The renovations are not quite complete, but the time for celebrating the project and blessing it had come and, since we at Holy Cross have had a part in getting this project going, and have helped with the fund raising, we certainly weren't going to miss the celebration.
We got there by driving through a very dismal part of the city, driving down block after block of empty lots, buildings in disrepair, abandoned buildings, buildings in which one light bulb burned on an upper floor and others that were completely dark. We parked in a lot, across from a car all of whose tires were flat, and walked up the block to where a small crowd was gathering in front of the building that will be the shelter.
It was dark and it was cold. For light we had the mercury vapor street lamps. For heat we had what the homeless have - nothing. By the time everyone had gathered there was a crowd that I estimated at 80 or 90. We were a very mixed group; volunteers, helpers, supporters, donors and the homeless. We were watched over by members of the local chapter of the Guardian Angels, who kept the street clear and safe for us.
Last week I talked about what a revelation the performance of the Monteverdi Vespers was for me, and how it revealed a depth to the Psalms deeper than I had encountered in all my years of praying them. Last night, when Steve broke the bread on a dark, cold street corner in Newburgh, I saw a depth to the Eucharist that I had not seen before.
Then we went down the street to Calvary Presbyterian Church where we had a wonderful dinner that people had been working over all day - roast pork, fresh winter vegetables, home made apple sauce, and the sort of pie extravaganza that only churches seem able to put together. We ate, we sang, we met some new people, we laughed. We were the Body of Christ.
Last week's memories are of light and magnificent music and a celebration that revealed the depths of the Scripture to me. This week's memories are of joy in the darkness, of a small group of people who have somehow caught the vision and have worked and worked to make it come true, and of the Eucharist revealing the depth of the Spirit's presence in this sad neighborhood in a suffering city.
They were two different experiences. And they were the same experience. It was God, asking us - and me - to open our eyes and see.