Mary Wellcome Chandler in her youth
When she returned from thirteen years of working at a mission school in India, my mother became an elementary school teacher and a deacon in our small church. In India she had worked with orphans and children of the very poor and helped run a “dispensary” where routine medical needs were attended to. Each week she traveled to village homes where birth or death or one of the intervening emergencies required home care. She brought these skill sets, and the habits of mind and heart that went with them, home to the States where needs were not always so visible, but, as she understood, always with us. She often took me along when she visited the indisposed and the elderly, modeling a matter-of-fact kindness and cheerful humility that taught me more about charity in its oldest, richest sense than many of the hours I spent in Sunday School.
I remember, in particular, visits to an old man who lived alone in a house so full of yellowing newspapers and piles of unclean plastic dishes and miscellaneous hardware that we had to forge a path through the rubble to make our way to the small room where he sat or lay under an aging blanket, torn between delight and slight embarrassment at the sight of visitors. I remember the ease and simple pleasure with which Mom made her way to his side, took his hand, and asked simply, “How are you feeling today, Mr. Wilson?” (I can’t remember his real name.) She visited with him for a few minutes as though they were sitting comfortably in a pair of easy chairs in any ordinary living room. Then, rising, she collected the dishes strewn by his bedside and said, “I’m just going to wash up a few of these before I go. I’ll make a little tea while I’m here.”
Even though I remember longing to escape the smells, the distasteful piles of clutter, and what seemed a palpable despair in Mr. Wilson’s lonely household, I also remember admiring my mother’s capacity to find him in the midst of the detritus and offer him warmth, conversation, and even a little laughter without condescension or judgment. She answered my questions afterwards about why one might live that way. She explained hoarding; the fear of scarcity many who grew up in the Depression might still feel; the debilities of age that might make housework overwhelming. But her explanations were without the judgment either of him or of my own instinctive recoil from the filth and squalor.
Finding Space in Other People’s Messes
It’s easy to pass judgment on other people’s messes from a vantage point of what one friend acerbically termed “affordable middle-class morality.” Or it’s easy simply to insulate ourselves from them by taking a polite distance or looking the other way. It’s easy to justify indifference and inaction by convincing ourselves that we ought not “intrude,” so as not to embarrass those who live in deplorable, unhygienic states of disarray or even filth. It’s a little harder to step up, step in, and meet people in the midst of the mess, bringing calm and peace and a spaciousness that doesn’t depend on available square footage.
“It’s easy to pass judgment on other people’s messes from a vantage point of … “affordable middle-class morality.”
I’ve known others who can do this. One was a lovely Hungarian woman of noble lineage who lived in much-reduced conditions in a small London row house and made a bus journey every week to the prison to read to inmates. She adorned her very modest home with a few precious heirlooms she had salvaged in a hasty departure from her homeland, assigning what space she had to each of them with care. Each had a gracious margin around it: though the rooms were abstemiously small, she managed to preserve light and air and breathing space in them. She kept the top of her tiny refrigerator absolutely free of kitchen clutter because, she said, “Even in a small room there needs to be some open space. The spaces we leave open make way for the Spirit.” She was keenly aware of the confinement of the prisoners she read to, and of the way books could offer them, at least in the imagination, a gift of time and space, and perhaps, in the process, awaken spiritual hunger and direct them to where it might be satisfied.
“Hands That Will Dip into Any Water”
Someone whose name I have lost in the mists of memory once described saints as those who had “hands that will dip into any water.” It’s a curious image, but speaks of the practical humility that leads people into prisons, or village huts where women are giving birth, or into clinics where disaster victims and casualties of combat lie bleeding. They work by polluted rivers and in uncomfortable proximity to primitive latrines and too many people with dysentery. We see their pictures on websites like those of Doctors Without Borders or World Vision or Catholic Charities or the Salvation Army or Mercy Corps or the Mennonite Central Committee or the American Friends’ Service Committee. Or any of a host of others. To see the list is to be reassured that there is no dearth of such generosity. Even on those websites, though, we seldom see the backstage buckets and sponges, the disposal challenges, or the makeshift devices that have to make do when supplies are limited and sterility is a luxury. As one relief worker put it simply, “We do what we can with what we’ve got.”
Baptized in Many Waters: The Lakes, Seas, Oceans Around Us
It is my privilege these days to work with groups of medical students who have committed themselves to serving the underserved, who work at a downtown clinic for street people and in large urban hospitals where the uninsured wait in long lines for help. I am struck repeatedly by their unpretentious interest not only in providing adequate care on site, but in the broken social systems that entrap so many in debt—victims of predatory lending and of policies that utterly defeat those who have chronic unaffordable illnesses.
One of those students is writing his thesis on what it takes to develop “structural competence,” meaning awareness of the multiple social, political and conceptual structures people inhabit that inhibit their freedom and opportunity. One kind of squalor he and others are willing to wade into is the morass of bureaucracies where human lives are stalled and entangled indefinitely while spirits sag and shame deepens and hunger remains unabated.
“That love, as Paul reminds us, is patient and kind, not arrogant or rude, not irritable or resentful. It is also sturdy and not easily shocked.”
Those in public defenders’ offices who are willing to navigate pages of obfuscating legalese or technocratic jargon to make a case for the poor; those who sit patiently on bickering committees, watching for an opportunity to speak truth to power or craft a clear sentence to protect the interests of the vulnerable; those who walk into classrooms where textbooks are insufficient and out of date and there aren’t enough desks… these people dip into those waters.
They are waters of a kind of baptism we’re all called to at some point. At some point we will be invited to wade into a pool of suffering where someone is sinking and help them rise from despair into hope. At some point we may find ourselves sinking in that same pool, praying for a hand like the one Jesus stretched out to Peter when his faith faltered.
That helper will need to be someone who is not squeamish: Our own suffering is likely to be just as unsavory or scary as the next person’s. When it comes we will need someone’s capable, willing hands to make us tea on a splattered stove and clean a cup to serve it in.
…At the Impulse of Thy Love
One of my mother’s favorite hymns was “Take My Life and Let It Be.” It included a line that often brings her many small acts of mercy to mind: “Take my hands and let them move / at the impulse of thy love.” That love, as Paul reminds us, is patient and kind, not arrogant or rude, not irritable or resentful. It is also sturdy and not easily shocked. It goes boldly into unbeautiful places, bringing into them, as Mother Teresa put it, something beautiful for God.
Mary Wellcome Chandler (1913-2007)