Oniontown Pastoral: Holy Ground

Oniontown Pastoral: Holy Ground

The real question is, “Why don’t I get up and go some place else?”

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(Credit: Brian Snelson on Wikimedia Commons)

My morning at Starbucks in downtown Erie, Pennsylvania, began with a man shouting into his smartphone. Every word in The Drunken Sailor’s Handbook was deployed with such speed and spittle that the manager—courageous woman!—went over and told him to quiet down.

I thought we patrons might end up on the local news, but he apologized and soon walked calmly outside.

And is it ever cold out there, with the wind chill at 14 degrees. Sure, the weather could be worse, could be a blizzard stinging faces. Even in the still air, though, if you have nowhere in particular to be, the situation gets serious in a New York minute.

Erie is no Big Apple, but this is the urban scene playing out before me. In addition to students staring at their laptops, business types picking up their café whatevers, and readers and writers like me lost in words and white noise, there are folks who are homeless and/or mentally ill. Some seem like lost souls.

Of course, I’m doing guesswork. “All those who wander are not lost,” a popular saying goes. The pilgrim wearing a torn, mustard smeared parka might be a college professor for all I know. The guy who gets into heated discussions with his duffle bag and repeatedly sorts scraps of paper into stacks might have a cozy loft nearby. Clearly some live on the streets or in shelters.

A controversial Starbucks policy adopted in 2018 has made possible the spectacle I’ve described. A Philadelphia barista wrongly kicked out a couple of customers who hadn’t yet made a purchase, and the whole ugly episode played on TV. In response Starbucks wrote to employees, “Any person who enters our spaces, including patios, cafes and restrooms, regardless of whether they make a purchase, is considered a customer.”

The company obviously has protocols to deal with people who act up, but the intent here is otherwise. First, Starbucks wants to avoid further bad press—I’m not naive. But second, I do believe there’s some genuine hospitality in what is a risky business decision. As Gene Marks wrote on entrepreneur.com, “Do you sympathize so much [with the homeless] that you would sit next to someone who’s been living rough (and smells like it) after spending six bucks on a Frappuccino?”

(By Jan Georg van der Vilet, c. 1632 on Wikimedia Commons)

Yeah, I hear him. I’ll even confess to a similar frustration an hour ago when a drunk man staggered in to use the rest room, but couldn’t resist working the room and making like a mime while checking out the pricey travel cups. The same annoyance takes hold, too, when guys who—doggone it—look sketchy slouch for hours at prime tables and thumb out text messages.

“Why don’t I get up and go some place else?” Well, I certainly could leave and not be kept awake tonight by guilt. In fact, I wouldn’t think ill of anyone who said, “This is nuts. I’ve got to get out of here.”

As it happens, the man who was railing away on his smartphone when I first arrived has returned with several companions in tow. Meanwhile, traffic through the front door, down the hallway to the rest room and back outside again has been steady.

I’ll mention one thing more. I’m no superhero, but my spidey sense—or is it my prejudice?—tells me that this person or that is up to no good.

By now you must be screaming, “Hey, Oniontown Pastor, so leave already.”

I’ll respond first with a request. Go ahead and consider me a fool, but don’t call me “holier than thou.” My duffle bag of sin often has me weak in the knees.

What also weighs on me is a truth that I’ve given my life to: The people here—from the unfailingly friendly baristas to the studious young ladies beside me to the pale, tattered procession that needs only to pee and warm up—are God’s children, equals in the ways that matter most.

(Moses and the Burning Bush by Bourdon Sebastien, 1616-1671, on Wikimedia Commons)

A whisper tells me to abide with these sisters and brothers. It may well be that in eternity’s eyes, this Starbucks isn’t here so much to sell me beverages as it is to comfort those with no particular place to be.

In fact, as the arguing man paces around, making proclamations non-stop and itching for more trouble, that same whisper both shames and edifies me: “John,” I hear in the ear of my heart, “the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

A Sad Bird Looked Back at Mary

Mary Birdsong, my photographer/writer friend, has a fierce love for . . . well . . . birds. She, Erie Times-News features writer Jennie Geisler, and I met Friday morning at Starbucks and covered a lot of territory: skunks, writing (of course), the assault on laws protecting endangered species, birds, tuna casserole, and more.

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Mary, Jennie, and I all made tuna casserole recently. A harmonic comfort food convergence during a long winter? This one is Mary’s. (Credit: Mary Birdsong)

We laughed a lot, but Mary was swimming upstream. In recent days she’d rescued an injured red-necked grebe, took all the right steps to give it a chance at survival, and returned it to the water. When she checked on it the next day, it was floating. Damn.

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This red-necked grebe looked good, but didn’t make it. Watch out for that beak! (Credit: Mary Birdsong)

As Mary talked, I remembered the story of a man who traveled to Calcutta to volunteer with Mother Teresa. He presented himself to the future saint, who took him out to the streets, where they came upon a destitute man curled up on the ground. She asked the new volunteer to pick up the man. As he did so, he found that the man had lain so long in the same position that his skin was stuck to the pavement. As the volunteer held the dying man, Mother Theresa said, “The body of Christ.”

Terrible—and lovely! The story is redemptive only because of the denouement: the man, who left skin behind, died surrounded by love and care. Not alone. Not forgotten.

“You’re the Mother Theresa of birds,” I told Mary. That’s much of what Teresa of Calcutta did. She and her sisters gave the forgotten gentle deaths.

I didn’t blame Mary for being down. Her last three rescues didn’t make it: the grebe, a herring gull, and a turkey vulture, whose story she shared on her blog. Here’s an excerpt:

Sitting on the ground, unable to fly, was a young Turkey Vulture, with some white down still visible on its back and sides. It was huddled at the base of a tree, obviously injured and barely moving around. I called Tamarack Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center, they agreed to take it and with their help I hatched a plan for catching it. Anne Desarro, a park naturalist generously agreed to help and soon arrived with gloves and tarps for securing the bird. I had a box in the back of my truck. After several attempts, we eventually cornered the bird and I wrapped it in the tarp. It calmed down in my arms. It felt much lighter than anticipated. In the process of the catch we both discovered that its injuries were far worse than we first thought; most of its right wing was missing. We both knew that Tamarack would probably have to euthanize it due to the severity of its injuries, but we agreed that I should still take it.

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A turkey vulture, soon to be granted a peaceful end. (Credit: Mary Birdsong)

We put it in the ready box, secured the lid and I headed out for Tamarack. When I arrived, the rehabber on duty agreed when I explained the injuries. They deftly and gently prepared the bird for its last. 

The rehabber asked if I wanted to stay. I learned many years ago that I should always stay at moments like this. I had a cat named Buster who was one of my greatest delights. He developed cancer and at the tender age of three needed to be put down. Thinking that I could not bear it, I elected to not be in the room with him when they injected that shot. I still regret that decision and will always feel that I abandoned him at his most vulnerable moment. And I learned that love is not selfish.

I said yes and reached out, putting my hand on the vulture’s chest. It was breathing hard. Slowly, though, it became more shallow. Eventually its chest stopped moving. The room was quiet and filled with respect for such a magnificent bird that did not get to live very long. Eventually, the rehabber said to an intern, “you can let go of its legs now.” 

As I re-read Mary’s account, I’m alone at home on Saturday. The only sounds here are a warm hiss and crack from the fireplace and Watson making old dog smacking noises with his mouth. I read again: “They deftly and gently prepared the bird for its last.” “My hand on the vulture’s chest.” “Love is not selfish.”

Am I morose for receiving these words as a gift? In my particular vocation I see lots of lasts, so when a mindful, loving, gentle death reveals itself, I close my eyes, breathe in and breathe out. How many earthly endings look like a crushed beer can by a dusty curb? This vulture died with a reverent sister blessing its chest. My joy is gray, but it’s joy all the same.

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Joy can be gray. Presque Isle on Lake Erie. (Credit: Mary Birdsong)

Since coffee yesterday, a detail about that red-necked grebe has kept returning. Mary found the bird on a driveway late at night. Who knows why it was there? She said birds sometimes mistake concrete for water. She also said that a grebe can poke out your eye with one swift stab, which is why she approached it from behind. As she drew close, the bird looked back at her—no strength for defense.

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The grebe looked at Mary.

On a winter night, a wounded grebe glanced over its wing at Mary. The image won’t leave my grateful imagination alone. Maybe it’s just me, but world news lands heavily on my heart. (I understand that we—the United States—have flown fighter jets to Ukraine to say hello to Putin. Sigh.) The grebe died, but that’s not the point.

All the birds Mary tries to help can end up floating or put down, but each one is still saved. When Mary and her fellow birders tend the healthy and rescue the languishing, they lay a tender hand on creation’s shoulder. This isn’t poetry! When the grebe looked at Mary and she looked back, the planet saw and whispered, “Thank you, bird. Bless you, sister.” I’m sure of it.

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Grateful for a dying grebe and a woman connecting? A vast planet? Absolutely! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)