Advent always opens me up. Just when I think I am in control of my life and ministry, I am confronted by the challenges of a new liturgical year. The prophets get under my skin. The gospels splash my soul to surprise and awaken me.
Never has Advent shaken my priorities as the year Bonnie camped out in front of the red doors at our urban parish. Our small chapel in Old Town, Portland, Oregon serves our low-income neighbors, our homeless friends, and people just getting on their feet after prison. Just before Thanksgiving Bonnie wheeled a shopping cart to the front door filled with her stolen treasures: picture frames and toys, extra sweaters and fake flowers.
Bonnie signed up for our hospitality center on her first morning in search of new clothing and a warm breakfast. Her boundless energy disturbed everyone’s routine in the small basement room. Suddenly our entire staff, volunteers, and the room full of guests awakened to her forceful presence. We panicked as she stuffed food into her pockets, paperback novels under her jacket, and rolls of toilet paper in her plastic bag.
Bonnie’s kleptomania unnerved the staff, her penetrating voice disturbed many of our shy guests, and her wiry presence evoked fear in me. Bonnie began her Advent journey by disturbing our entire operation.
She prayed during Mass on her first day with a voice that could stop a train, screaming out every liturgical response at the right time but with a dozen extra words. She threw off the rhythm of our common prayer so completely that the entire congregation stopped speaking. People erupted with complaints and tried to quiet her. Bonnie persisted with her prayer.
Many of us were left confused and bewildered in those first few days with Bonnie. She stirred up resentment among our neighbors, angered many parishioners, and even blocked people from entering our front door.
But I also began to notice something shift inside me. Slowly I opened my eyes to see her differently. I began to hear the message of Jesus in Mark’s gospel: “Be watchful! Be alert!” Bonnie shook me out of my own sleepiness toward people who suffer beyond my imagining. I started to interpret her disturbing actions and screeching voice as our Advent wake-up call, a real prophet in our midst.
She challenged our professional ideals regarding how we deal with crisis and how we try to keep order as we serve the poor. As the voice crying out in the desert, she echoed the words of Isaiah and John the Baptist to get our acts together and let go of our control. Bonnie was not going to let us get too comfortable thinking we were in charge of our lives or even of the parish. Once we all began to see her as a gift to us, she started to change our experience both of her and of the Advent season.
One day during Mass I heard Bonnie screaming outside the chapel. She was trying to stop people from stealing her things. When Bonnie started screaming, I saw one of our parishioners leap out of the pew to go outside. There was something about her scream that day that was raw and primal.
I felt deep sadness rise up in me. Bonnie was communicating to us that many things in our society are not right. Her haunting scream reminded me of all the ancient prophets who tried to get the attention of people to reform their lives and society. I heard in her scream the challenge to wake up and realize that addicts need shelter and sobriety, people need adequate housing, and the mentally ill need affordable medications. I felt in her scream the poverty of the world.
Bonnie also changed my perceptions of her loud responses at Mass. In the very predictable patterns of common prayer, I understood by her piercing voice that those who are marginalized by poverty or mental illness need to be heard. Mass could no longer be prayed on autopilot. We had to think about what, how, and why we were praying the liturgy. She made us think about our responses to the Word that was proclaimed. She halted us in the middle of blindly reciting the Creed. Like the biblical prophets before her, she was teaching us how to pray and live with new awareness and intention.
Bonnie still reminds me that most of the suffering around us remains hidden and secret. She helps me realize we all must take on the prophet’s role when disease, poverty, loneliness, and financial instability grab hold of our communities. People who suffer silently need the voices of the rest of us to speak up for the abandoned and neglected. The Advent season calls for courage and conviction to make faith real, inviting, truthful. Advent is a time to go deeper into our human condition, beyond the surface of relating to one another from our financial status or educational backgrounds or the styles of clothing we wear.
One day Bonnie approached a woman named Sally, who was born with one arm shorter than the other. Bonnie walked up to Sally and said, “Don’t worry about that arm, honey. When Jesus comes back, he will fix that right up for you!” Bonnie really believes in Emmanuel, God-with-us. She even voiced God’s consolation and joy announced in the prophet Isaiah: “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.”
I thank God for our prophet Bonnie. Even though she washed her glazed donuts in our baptismal font, collected our hymnals in her shopping cart, and took hundreds of our plastic rosaries to wear around her neck, we all recognized that she carried Christ into our midst. She unstuck my notion that Advent is about the purple polyester fabric in the sanctuary or the flattened, artificial greens with faded, purple ribbons posing as the circle of life. She helped me break open the lie that Christmas is for the rich and well-deserving. God desires to be in relationship with all of God’s beloved.
Before Bonnie left our parish, she knelt down in front of the crèche on Christmas Eve. Several parishioners feared her kleptomania as she approached the newborn king. Instead, poised in prayer, she placed a clean, meticulously folded purple blanket in the small stable. It was her cleanest blanket, her source of warmth on the cold Portland streets.
I never realized I would find the birth of Jesus in the center of mental illness, homelessness, and my own insecurity. God gave us the gift of hope years ago in a small stable and continues to grace us with real human beings who teach us that faith is about relationship. I wait patiently for Advent this year to see if our prophetic sister returns. I wait for love again to awaken me.
This article appeared in the December 2008 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 73, No. 12, pages 33-34).
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