Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The trail of Cardboard city

The underground passageways were not sympathetic to high heeled shoes as the sound of the heels echoed like a background metal beat along the grafitti walls. I rushed along the platform catching the bemused look of a few business men walking briskly towards the train. Okay, I reminded myself, tomorrow wear your moccasins. You can change shoes at the office.
The woman was there again. Sitting on the ground, her back resting against the cold grey wall at the exit from the tube station. She held out an empty box hoping the next commuter would drop a coin or two into it. "Have you eaten today?" I asked. "Just a tea and bit of bread," she replied. The thought wouldn’t leave me.
The following Friday night after the prayer meeting the subject of the homeless came up during our coffee gathering and it was agreed that we should do something about it. "We could go to Cardboard city" Darren said in his south-east London accent. "Where’s Cardboard city?" everyone asked. "It’s a pedestrian location behind Waterloo station. The homeless have gradually moved in there where they found empty cardboard boxes stacked along the side streets. Up to one hundred have built their cardboard homes alongside each other." "You mean they sleep in cardboard boxes?" I asked. "That’s right," Darren continued. "There's another place just a short distance from there. I don’t think many have visited that particular area yet. It's Lincoln's Inn Fields. A big park where other homeless sleep at night. I went once with Fr. John who lives near that station. It’s like an extension of cardboard city and my guess is we should do the soup run there."
Eleanor walked into the room. "What’s all the excitement," she asked as she took off her coat. Darren related the news of our intended evangelisation project. Eleanor, who was also part of the youth prayer group, listened to our plan looking unsure about it as she glanced around the room. I quickly dismissed the notion that she seemed to have reservations or doubts. I was too excited at the prospect that at last I felt I was doing something worthwhile. But my young dreams of the Lord’s servant were soon to be captured like soft wisps of white cloud and chased away by a cold wind from unexpected places.
Darren volunteered to be the driver with his six seater van and he was appointed Project Manager. Eleanor would be the Co-ordinator, also organising and arranging the food and drinks for the soup run. Five of the prayer group would go out every week. The names already decided by Eleanor for Friday next. Darren and Eleanor, Jenny and Laura and myself. A sixth person was to be picked up on route.
Friday night arrived. Within a short time the boxes of food and drink were prepared and packed, then placed into the van. It was nearly time to leave, but first we gathered in the little chapel before the Blessed Sacrament. There, we asked God’s blessing and protection upon each one of us for the work we were about to embark on.
It was a cold October evening in 1988 when we set out. We were young and enthusiastic to work in the harvest field of the Lord. It seemed the more I spent time with the invisible God the more His love became visible to me, in my thinking, in my heart. Yet I knew I was a spiritual baby in His arms with much of the growing pains yet to experience.
The van pulled up outside an old red brick house in the heart of London. A middle aged man opened the door, gave the thumbs up to Darren, and a few seconds later reappeared pulling his winter coat collar around his neck. "Hello there," he said with an Irish accent as he jumped into the van and surveyed the bunch of new faces in the back. "Oh no! I thought I’d get away from all the Irish over here" I joked. Fr. John laughed "I thought I was the one who got away from you lot!"
A minute later we were driving into a wide open green. "Okay everyone, we're here, welcome to Lincoln's Inn Fields." I jumped out and stood there. "But there’s no one here," I said, looking around "Not for long," Darren replied as we took down the boxes and opened up the table.
The night was cold and dry. I pulled my knitted scarf closer around my neck and blew on my fingertips exposed to the elements, the woollen glovelettes keeping my hands warm. As I stood there in the dark of the night, I whispered a short prayer to the Lord, that He would be with me and guide me in my thinking and meeting with the homeless.
Fr. John walked towards the bandstand. "Come with me." I stepped in alongside this tall priest and stopped where he stood on the big circular platform, nothing but a wooden roof as it's cover. All along the sides of the bandstand were discarded boxes and pieces of clutter thrown in bundles around the place. "Hello fellas!" Fr. John called out, taking a box of cigarettes from his coat pocket.
A big cardboard box moved slightly to the left of where we stood and a wheezed cough emanated from inside. A pair of icy blue eyes peeped out. "Oh Father, you’ve arrived," said a whispered voice. He pushed away his cardboard blanket and stood up, shaking off the dust and cold around him. Reaching out he took the cigarette from Fr. John and cupped his cold hands to let the flame light his tobacco. "Tom, I have an Irish friend with me tonight." Tom exhaled a grey film of smoke upwards into the night air. "Hello" he smiled and reached for my hand. "What part of Ireland are you from?" I asked quietly. "Midlands" he replied, eager to talk. He pushed his weather beaten hand through his grey hair and looked at the ground for a second. "Are you long in England Tom?" "Maybe five years. That's a country accent you have," he stated. "Sure is Tom, I was reared in the West of Ireland and I guess I’ll always be a country girl at heart." With that he grinned, and then a sad picture formed on his face.
Tom decided it was time to introduce the Irish visitor to his friends. With a sudden shout he roared "Hey Ginger, wake up, we have someone here from Ireland." With that, a loud swear filled the bandstand, a few more choice words followed and then a giant of a man threw back his cardboard cover and rubbed his eyes. I trembled, feeling a sudden shakiness in my legs as I continued to stand there. I looked at Fr. John who remained calm and composed, a peaceful expression on his face, his eyes alert and awake. I took a few steps towards Ginger and then stopped. He was still waking up, the bleary eyes showing the effect of alcohol. "Ginger, I want to introduce you to a young woman from Ireland." Ginger looked up at me. Again I shook, but quickly gathered myself, remembering that I was here to do the Lord’s work and He was in charge. "Hello Ginger." He sat there, half slumped back against a layer of propped up boxes. He studied me carefully. My throat did a little somersault as he continued to look at me without speaking. Fr. John remained standing there, watching. "What part of Ireland are you from?" he suddenly asked in a strong Irish brogue. "The West," I replied. "County Mayo." "M-mm." he nodded. "County Mayo! County Mayo. I’ll call you Mayo!"
Darren and Eleanor stood behind the table with Jenny and Laura a short distance away. One by one the ‘hidden folk’ walked out from their boxes and hedges and queued for food. Jenny and Laura spoke with everyone who arrived over to the van. Their bubbly humour and personalities reaching the poor folk who stood quietly in turn waiting for their food. In ones, in twos, men and women, they continued to arrive. From the unused garden sheds each side of the park, from underneath the wooden benches, and from the ‘caves’ formed inside the thick overgrown bushes hidden from the outside world. The sight of them all was not to leave my memory.
I returned to the bandstand to chat with Ginger. Over in the far corner one box remained undisturbed. "Who’s in there?" I asked Tom. "That’s Michael, he’s very quiet and might not come out." I walked over to the box and stooped down. As if directed by grace itself I knocked on the cardboard box. "Hello," I said. "I don’t wish to disturb you, but if you would like a visitor, I’d be happy to meet you." A moment passed and then a pair of frightened big blue eyes peeped out. He looked at me for a moment and said "Are you the woman who heard the voice of the Lord to come and visit us?" "I’m sorry," I replied. "I didn’t hear the voice of the Lord, but I do believe it was the Lord’s hope that I would come and visit you." "Oh," he exclaimed, "I’d better come out and meet you." With that, he removed the cardboard box around him and sat up. He opened his crumpled brown jacket and reached into his inside pocket pulling out a faded comb, frayed at its edges from over use and tear. With his right hand he moved the comb over his heavy brown hair, the left hand following with little pats, making sure the attractive waves of dark locks all sat in place. Once happy with his appearance Michael stood up and looked around. There was no trace of alcohol from him as we chatted. I was puzzled. "You don’t drink Michael?" "No" he replied openly. My puzzlement grew, as this frightened and tender hearted man was not addicted to drugs either. "Can I ask how you ended up on the streets or would you prefer not?" Michael's quiet nature invited anyone to chat with him. "Gambling," he said looking at me without hesitation. "Gambling!" "Yes, I lost everything. If I had a few coins now for a hot meal I’d save it instead for the races." "You mean the betting office, the horses?" I asked. He nodded in answer. Michael knew himself well and in the presence of Fr. John spoke of the tragic story of his gambling addiction, the delusion of the great win that could still happen and the betting stakes he learned from his father. "My father is always with me when I place a bet in the bookies," he added as he described the addiction. "Your father is dead?" I asked in a whisper. "Oh yes, he died twenty years ago but he’s with me every day, especially when I go gambling."
Ginger continued to sit there watching us beneath his dark red bushy brows. Suddenly, without warning, a young fellow to the right of Ginger made some personal remark that had him jump up and confront the man. Fr. John moved in quickly and chatted quietly to Ginger who sat down again breathing heavily. The priest explained that Ginger had been elected by the boys to be the leader. Anyone who steps out of line - Ginger deals with. He decides who leaves the camp and who stays. Usually in groups like this a leader is elected for those reasons. Rows often break out and the more vulnerable men of the group need a protector. "No one has given me soup," Ginger interrupted suddenly, with an anger welling up inside him like a tempest that returned frequently to his wounded emotions. The truth was none of us had thought of asking the waking giant. Darren arrived in, two helpings of sandwiches in one hand and a big cup of vegetable soup in the other. Ginger mumbled his thanks and ate like a child who was content to be fed. "Do you sing?" he asked out of the blue. "Depends on what you like," I answered. "Anything at all," he challenged. "Well Ginger, you’ll have to tell the boys to be quiet and I will give it a go." Delighted to exercise his role as leader he let out a roar to the boys that a song was going to be sung and in a painful stream of warnings, let everyone know silence was required. I began to think of Ireland and the land that these men loved and left. Calm filled the band stand. "I’d like to sing a song to the Lord, a calling out to the tender God who loves us." Ginger nodded his agreement and I began to sing to my new audience. Different thoughts moved through the night air. The tilling of the land, the sound of the violins, the dream of the tomorrows all swept away by hunger and unemployment. In the midst of it all the song was lifted to God, an expression in verse of overburdened hearts. I finished singing. All eyes were on Ginger. Darren indicated it was time to leave. As I left the bandstand Ginger called to Fr. John who walked over and chatted quietly with him. No heroines dreams could provide a house overnight for the homeless men I had just met. It was an injustice that they remained on the streets, carrying nothing except their broken hearts and broken dreams.
With the van packed up I returned to the men to say goodbye. Finally I came to Ginger. "Will you be back?" he asked. "Usually they don’t come back, they hand out a gift or two, it eases their conscience and then they are gone." If you’d like me to, I’d like to come back" I replied. "Okay Mayo, see you again!" Suddenly the Lion became the cub as I reached out and took his hand, praying that the Spirit of God would be in the passing of the handshake. The Lord had guided us here - I had only followed in the shadow of a special priest.
The following Monday evening I raced along the platform with ease, skipping across the pedestrian lights as they turned green and ran up the hill into the community house. Inside, I couldn't wait to see who would be with us on the next soup run. Eleanor walked out from the kitchen. "I have a different group this week and for the coming weeks," she said, looking a little uncomfortable. "I'm not going?" I asked astonished. "That's right."
I returned home to my flat and spent the following days and nights pondering all that had happened. I had told Ginger and Michael I would be there. Now it was up to Eleanor to explain why I wouldn't. The people on the streets had been my teacher, Ginger and Michael, Tom and his friends. I, the student, had learned from them in order to understand. They had been let down. I was not to return to the soup run. But Fr. John had been sent! He was the one preparing the way in his patience and wisdom that would eventually lead many of these men and women to council homes in the years to come.
In the months that followed, on my return to Ireland, each morning was a new day with a desire to spend time with God, who seeks to draw us closer to His love and mystery. The cold wind had passed and I was now happily replanted in the fields of Eire where, like the wild flower, I would grow under the care of the Divine gardener. More storms would arrive, northern winds and heavy rain, but always followed by ever changing colours of beauty and grace, in different strands of light. Rooted and planted in God I would learn to bend with the passing winds and not give way, except to where His Spirit was leading.