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About our business while bombs rain down


I wanted this day to be different. My parish was celebrating the Feast of St. Francis by inviting everyone’s pets to join us. I badly needed the lift. My mood, along with everyone else’s, had been somber since Sept. 11. I walked from the parking lot to cross the street where I saw Angel waving hello. This middle-aged woman, a longtime homeless person sick with kidney disease, has become our unofficial greeter. Jumping up from her place on the sidewalk, Angel encircled me with a warm hug. Her nails were dirty, her front teeth missing and her shoulder-length hair bleached into a mass of yellow straw. She called me “dude ” and smiled broadly.

“Dude, I’m so happy to see you. You look beautiful. You must love teaching.” She tried to flatter me. “I don’t look tired, Angel?” I said. She shook her very blond head, then smiled, “Well, maybe a little.” Every Sunday, Angel has a new configuration spread before her on the cement sidewalk: drawings of Jesus and Buddha, Mary and Mahatma, purple and pink geraniums, yellow and white trumpet flowers, little gifts for children, always imaginative and striking in their simple beauty. Today she has made a mandala of orange and yellow nasturtiums surrounding holy cards of Mary and the saints. Angel insisted I choose a holy card to keep. I picked up a laminated Lady of Guadalupe and slipped her into my pocket. I wish I had more money to give Angel.

We talked for a long time before Mass, catching up on local news. Angel had been in the hospital for months having a kidney removed. Or maybe she hadn’t been there at all because I’m never sure she is telling me the truth. She always greets me like a long-lost relative. We are sisters in all the ways that count. We both want a new system and a much kinder world.

Last year, I was employed by an agency to assist homeless women and children. I know the whole scene and so does Angel, so we swap stories like veterans of the same war that never ends. The answer is always the same. The government has limited funds for homeless issues and very little for housing. It used to make my brain ache. Begging off, I walked inside the church making a stop at the reception desk to buy a large candle. I paused for holy water and walked over to the book of intentions, writing Angel’s name and my own. I lit the candle and asked Mary to watch her. She needs a place of her own.

Once again I set my mind toward the Mass. I hoped the liturgy would lighten us all up, and it seemed to be working. Pet owners and strangers seemed happy and mellow, making eye contact and grinning. The interior of the church was overrun with cats and dogs, rabbits and hamsters and snakes in pet carriers. Looking proud, the owners were smiling and accepting compliments about the beauty of their animals.

In the midst of the psalm, “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts,” nervous howling and scared little meows broke through the silent spaces of the prayer. Angel’s voice echoed my own self-recriminations. There was nothing I can do but talk and give her a few bucks. Last winter I tried to get her on the motel voucher list. She filled out the paperwork while I coached her through a paranoid episode. She was never chosen. All the help went to other people. One year later, it’s the same story and I know that cold, rainy weather is on the way in a few short weeks.

The last few weeks our country has become comfortable talking in billions. Forty three billion for this agency, 100 billion to another. Billions. Nine zeros. In the last 10 years, 2,000 homeless people have died on the streets of San Francisco. To make more room in the shelters, homeless people are being made to sleep sitting up in chairs.

After the animals and their owners had joined the priest on the altar for the blessings, the liturgy ended. On my way to my car, I tucked a few dollars into Angel’s hand, giving her a tight hug good-bye. I started my car and turned on the radio. As I drove down University Avenue, Berkeley’s Free Speech Radio, KPFA, was announcing that the bombing of Afghanistan had begun an hour earlier. All this happened while I was in church, with candles glowing, with dogs sprawled across the aisles, while Angel sat on the sidewalk looking for handouts, and while people ate breakfast downtown while reading the Sunday paper.

On the Feast of St. Francis, we went about our business while bombs rained down on a city with women and children, sick people and old people, and angry gun-toting soldiers. I felt like my heart was breaking because one woman was alone and sick and homeless and there didn’t seem to be a solution for one person in trouble, much less the whole world. I thought about the young people flying the planes that are dropping those bombs and how they have mothers and fathers, children and best friends, who are worrying and praying for them. The people in New York are still mourning and covered in ashes. All of us, trying to find our way, we are all caught in this nightmare of violence.

I went home and called everyone I could think of just to be connected to people I love. I lit more candles and prayed. I e-mailed my representatives and the President. The next day I went to a protest. I thought it would make me feel better, but it didn’t. A man sitting next to me on a brick wall, waving a “Peace Now” sign, said in response to a singer’s beautiful old spiritual, “Oh, spare me the religion!” I opened my mouth to reply, but nothing came out.

Janice Wood, a graduate of the Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley, Calif., teaches high school religion in Oakland.

National Catholic Reporter, October 26, 2001