What God Promises During a Pandemic: My Month at The Pope Francis Center

Right after Easter, my month-long quarantine was interrupted. The Pope Francis Center in Detroit–a place where folks on the margins can get meals and other essentials–needed workers. Accustomed to relying on volunteers to help serve meals, stay-at-home orders put the Center in a bind. The pandemic had increased demand just as the staff was reduced to a handful of full-time workers. The head of the Center reached out to the Jesuits at Loyola University Chicago for assistance, and I was sent with one of my Jesuit brothers to fill in the gap for a month.

Most days, my main role was to assist in distributing food starting at 7 AM. Even with six-foot social distancing gaps in the line, the guests moved quickly, requesting coffee, orange juice, “bagel bags” and oatmeal. On our busiest days, we’d serve 500 meals in less than four hours. It felt like I was standing with Jesus and feeding the 5000. As I’d hand meals out the door, more and more and more guests would appear requesting anything we could offer. The cooks were so adept, though, the food never seemed to run out. It was both exhausting and exhilarating.

As I’ve previously imagined the scene of the multiplication, an orderly crowd peacefully received the miraculous feast. Matthew tells us that the disciples “gave the food to the crowds” and that “they all ate and were satisfied.”1  After a few days at the Center, I began to doubt the Evangelist’s easy resolution. A number of our guests suffered from various levels of mental illness, as must have been the case back in Jerusalem. A few were actively using drugs. Frequently, I was the target of particularly virulent flares of mental illness and experiences of withdrawal. One particular guest stands out.

She’d visit us almost every day, clearly suffering some sort of mental duress. One day, she actively rejected what I gave her three times in a row. First, she slapped a cup of orange juice across the street, spilling it everywhere. Then, she threw an orange into a dirty puddle on the side of the road. Finally, she took and immediately threw out a brand new pair of socks.

“Why are you doing that?” I asked her, “Look at all these people who would want that.” 

“Because I can,” she responded.

For a time, she channeled her inner Mary Poppins and began re-gifting the food I provided to the ever-fatter birds that circled around the Center each morning. “Don’t feed the birds,” we’d call out, as she strewed bowls of chili and bags of chips across the road. As her avian friends swooped in, it resembled a scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Her actions weren’t always quite so docile. One morning, another staff member rushed in, panicked. “There’s a dumpster fire out there,” he said. “Literally or figuratively?” I asked. “Literally.” My friend the bird feeder seemed to have lit the match. Thankfully, the fire department arrived quickly.

Despite her open rejection of what I offered, and her refusal to stop feeding the birds, and her troubling acts of arson, I found myself growing particularly fond of her, excited to see her and talk to her and to offer her food each day.

I took the experience to Jesus, asking him, “why her? Why should I love her?” Jesus reminded me that the promise of resurrection is transformation. 

My brother has struggled for years with opioid addiction. On numerous occasions, he also flatly rejected offers of love my family and I gave him. Many times, he refused to do the things we asked. I even remember him playing with matches. Jesus reminded me of the ways he had invited me to ever greater love of my troubled brother. In my prayer, Jesus told me: 

“You struggled to love him, but now it’s easy to love her. Relish that.” 

God had transformed one of the great struggles of my life into a freedom for love I didn’t expect to have. 

Maybe that’s what resurrection looks like.

For the disciples, resurrection meant watching their friend being killed by corrupt authorities and, instead of cowering in fear, feeling emboldened to proclaim his name across the land. For me, resurrection has meant experiencing the anger and confusion and rejection brought about by my brother’s addiction, and finding in it God’s invitation to love with even more depth. What resurrection is God inviting for me as I mourn for a world torn apart by deadly racism and a persistent pandemic?

In this woman, God invited me to look in the face of mental illness and outright rejection and see the face of my brother. God called me to love them both anyway. So must we all.

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Photo courtesy of the author.

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