It was the cockroach racing up the concrete block wall of the Project apartment that assaulted me with the pure presence of Christ. Of course I was always looking for a sign, any sign of the holy, scouring the ground for spores and scat and anything that would lead and guide me on…And keep me out of trouble with three good and not so good guys who I had to live when I was young. They had all been in the two world wars. Maybe the propensity of the mystic grows out of such common ground. So seeing signs of the Christ in a cockroach may not seem so unusual as you read on.
The little church had agreed with me to do Bible Study in the projects. It was a six of seven week program during Easter on the great women of the Bible. The first meeting was in the projects in the home of Louise. The Archdale Housing Development and other public housing was built by the city in the forties to the sixties and by 1980 they struggled to keep the windows, doors and hallways secure and free of urine.
The projects in Roslindale, a neighborhood in Boston Massachusetts, were better off then some, but there was a great gulf between the poor who lived in them and the rest of the marginal working and middle class who lived outside and around them. Some of the politicians had successfully used fear of the poor and the marginal to cultivate votes. It had worked for too long, still does. My work it seemed was to bridge the gulf, or fly over it.
About six parishioners from the church assembled and drove as a group to the projects. Louise, a Baptist, had told me when I knocked on doors throughout the project to get the lay of the land, that rather than a youth center or a refurbished swimming pool, trashed by a kid driving a stolen VW Beetle through the fence and into the pool, Louise wanted bible study. I wanted to open the pool. For now bible study won
I was proud of the six who had come. It was an act of great courage for them. In the room from the church was Helen the matriarch of a large family of plumbers. In her sixties, she liked to dress in tight cashmere sweaters that showed off her figure. She wanted me to be there to bury her she said. Her son Richard Trethewey can be seen on “This Old House” on public television. Helen was one of the saints. Marion was the Senior Warden, a formidable woman, never married, whom I had known for most of my life, and she was a debt collector for Filene’s, her brother was there and three other women. From the projects were Louise, Alice a mother and African American, Rita from Puerto Rico who spoke little English, and a white mother with a learning disabled son and three others. We crowded into the living room of the Louise’s apartment.
As we said prayers and sat for meditation on the reading about Miriam, the sister of Moses, the cockroach started to climb the wall. It was the only one that showed itself that evening; the others were somewhere lurking, because cockroaches like to come and forage at night.
After a heart opening discussion, we said the blessing and shared simple refreshments of crackers, cake and Kool Aid. It was our Eucharistic Feast. “Christ has died, Christ is Risen, and Christ comes and will come again.”
The cockroach once more opened my eyes to some of the insults and injuries of poverty, the cockroach which is as common among the poor as hunger.” The brazen cockroach did not evoke comment or shrieks from the church people. Instead they continued, shared insights, put themselves into the shoes of Miriam. They were present to a greater and lesser degree in that room with each other bridging the divide that separates us from each other and from the Christ who breeches all barriers and unbridgeable divides. I thought, with a great sigh of relief afterwards, “It could have been otherwise.” (Note Jane Kenyon’s poem, Otherwise)
The next week we gathered at the house of a parishioner. Parishioners picked up Louise and Rita and the others and drove them to the home of a recently widowed member of the congregation. She had set the table for a feast with linen and a lace table cloth. The room was simple yet elegant and the woman had baked for two days. She displayed bone china in her glass enclosed cupboard. I remember Louise’s complaint afterwards. She protested that the woman was “putting on airs”. I chuckled. My grandmother, pure and unbridled working class English from Liverpool poverty, used to say the same thing about the ladies who wore expensive hats to church. I said, “Louise, it may have looked that way, but she had done her very best to show you welcome and hospitality.” Also she was terribly lonely since her husband’s death. So while the Christ crosses that divide, it’s harder for people. We continued to work with our prejudices for the next five weeks and for some of us…much longer.
Within five years the community did organize with the people in the projects. The city with much encouragement from the organized churches, aptly named, Project ACTS, came up with at least five million dollars to take the VW Bug out of the pool, restore the pool and its buildings and set up an inter-racial and inter-ethnic community council to care for the building and those who would use it. It is still in use almost forty years later and as far as I know it has not been vandalized again.
(Here’s a poem that is apt for our life together. While it may not be directly relevant to the text this week, here it is anyway, may you enjoy and may you have and be enough)
by David Whyte
Enough. These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here.
This opening to life
we have refused
again and again