All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colours,
He made their tiny wings.
Last night a generous spring rain drenched parched south Orange County, California. As I sit in a chair facing Father Gordon Moreland SJ, the expansive window behind him frames a desert garden. A green-blue humming bird flits from plant to plant, finally settling within a bright yellow cactus flower. The bird emerges, moving to the window to stare at us, turning its head right and left. A sudden strong wind gust buffets the tiny bird and it disappears.
Inside this conference room at the House of Prayer Retreat Center, the temperature is warm, and I feel safe, the kind of secure feeling that allows tense muscles to relax, breath to slow and to know that I am in the Lord’s presence. In this place, seated in this chair, facing my friend and spiritual director Father Gordon, I want to speak honestly and transparently, as if I am conversing with God.
Through the years our friendship and trust have grown, as I have journeyed through the many health crises of our son Erik and the challenges and hard work of being pastor of an inner-city parish. As my spiritual director, Fr. Gordon helps me to notice what is going on in my life when I am aware of God. I chose his Jesuit background because I went through a year-long meditation program with The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola. Time and again, Gordon opens my heart to remembrances of gratitude to God for daily graces.
At our session last month, I gave to Gordon a copy of my new book, The Spirit in the Desert: Pilgrimages to Sacred Sites in the Owens Valley.
Gordon, have you had time to read the book? What do you think about it?
“Your book was helpful to get a sense of how sacred space works. It works with an imagination that is attuned to surroundings. You remember foundational experiences of God and you relocate them out there in those desert spaces of the Eastern Sierra. Sacred space is a sacrament that renewed your experience of the Lord’s presence. Your description of these grace experiences gives a sense of fullness. It took me about one-third of the way into the book to get that.”
“I was in Death Valley myself a few weeks ago. We walked about looking for the flush of wildflowers that was promised after the drenching rains last December. We looked and looked and all we saw were rocks and sand; not one flower. Finally, when we were about to give up and leave, I saw a wildflower; suddenly, I could see all the flowers!”
I want to share an experience with you, Gordon. A couple of months ago Leah and Dwight Smith of the Orange County Catholic Worker called me. We are good friends since they used to serve lunch to the homeless twice a week in our parish patio. Now they have two hundred mothers and children sleeping at the Isaiah House every night. During the day the older children go to a special County school for homeless families in Orange. But there is nothing for the preschool aged children during the day. The mothers and children all must leave the house during the daytime. So, these mothers take their children to a Santa Ana park; the children run around, and the mothers can get into trouble.
They knew about our licensed early childhood center, Hands Together, that was serving low income families in the barrio. Couldn’t the church do something during the day to provide for these homeless little ones and their mothers?
Here is where I wonder at what God is up to: a few months ago, my lifelong and former Kindergarten classmate Carol (Grizzle) Nasr moved to Santa Ana from Nova Scotia. Two blocks from my parish. What are the odds? And she is an early childhood educator!
I told Carol about the challenge and opportunity. We visited Isaiah House one afternoon when all the mothers and children were out. As we walked through the huge, rambling old Victorian home, we noticed most of the furniture was removed to make room on the floor for sleeping bags and mattresses. Outside on the concrete patio more mats would become bedding and a dozen tents were pitched on the grass. Two hundred mothers and children sleep here every night!
Something stirred in Carol’s heart and she proposed that we offer supervised play for the children a few mornings a week at the church and work with the mothers about being a mother.
And so it began. I visited our child care room off the parish garden patio the second day. I could hear loud children’s voices shouting and shrieking. I entered the room to see six little ones climbing the slide, bouncing balls and moving toys on the carpeted floor. Frenetic energy. But Carol was the calm within the storm, speaking softly and playing with the children.
In the corner curled up with a sleeping bag was an African American mother who worked nights at Disneyland and tried to catch some sleep.
As the children’s energy began to dissipate, Carol gathered the little ones around a large half circle wooden table. A wooden squirrel figure held a small lighted candle. The children sat on tiny chairs and Carol knelt within the circle opposite them. They were now tired and calmer. I remember that Carol had a bowl holding warm face cloths scented with lavender, to calm the children. She took the hand of one little girl and gently wiped the hand; then the other hand; then the face. Slowly. When Carol was done, the facecloth was dark with dirt. But the little girl’s face was radiant. After all were cleansed, there was a snack of cheese and crackers with apple juice. This became the closing ritual to every morning session.
As I witnessed this on my own knees next to Carol, I could not help but see Jesus washing the feet of the disciples and the warmth of the Eucharistic table.
The jumbled room of children toys and balls strewn chaotically all around us had become safe, sacred space for these mothers and children.
So, we have started this new program for homeless mothers and children. Carol is calling it Morning Garden. But I am anxious for the next steps.
I have gratitude to God for reconnecting with my old friend Carol. I am amazed at the “coincidence” of her coming to Santa Ana and the emergence of this need for care for these vulnerable little ones. Having been through the launching of our licensed child care center and all the problems and demands that have come from that, I am anxious about this new program and how to sustain it.
“The littleness of the parents and the poverty of those children! Leave it to the Lord to water and grow this. We are tempted to move on to grandiose projects. Keep it small. You are modeling serenity for the parents. The little things will make a difference in their lives. Jesus did most of his work with small groups of people. This is so precious; don’t bureaucratize it.”
“A bruised reed he shall not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench. (Isaiah 42:3). Treasure what is small and fragile: these mothers and children.”
Lord Jesus, you entered our world as a vulnerable child. Inspire us to care for and protect all your little ones; humble the hard hearted with renewed awareness of their dependency on your grace; in our own weakness may we see your face. Amen.