The Word Among Us

November 2014 Issue

Listening from the Last Pew

My journey from homelessness to the Church

By: Lorraine Gardner

Listening from the Last Pew: My journey from homelessness to the Church by Lorraine Gardner

From August 2002 to June 2003, I lived and walked among the faceless people of the streets. I say “faceless” because when you are homeless, the rest of the world does its very best to look past you.

My life began spiraling downward after a very turbulent divorce. Very quickly, I suffered one loss after another: my marriage, home, jobs, income, and even my health, as I experienced debilitating epileptic seizures. I did have one place where I could stay, but since I did not always feel safe there, I went to the streets.

Like many homeless people, I often spent part of the day sheltering in the city’s public library. There, in November 2002, I began reading about the saints and revisiting the Bible stories I had loved as a child. While sitting in that library, it suddenly occurred to me that God was calling me back to the Catholic Church—the spiritual home that I had drifted from long before.

I spent the rest of those winter months pondering what I was reading and thinking about what it would be like to return to the Church. My heart was especially gripped by John Bosco’s determination to become a priest and by Mother Teresa’s clarity of mind as she spoke to bishops about founding the Missionaries of Charity. These two saints—along with many others—helped me stay focused and showed me what I needed to do to get my life back.

By early spring of 2003, I was sitting in the last pew of a nearby Catholic church. Walking into a church for the first time in twenty-one years was an emotional and humbling experience. I had forgotten what the Mass was all about and was embarrassed by my ignorance. I was ashamed to be wearing tattered jeans and a smelly old yellow fleece jacket and could see that the people sitting near me were repelled by my appearance. Uncomfortable with my presence, they did their best to look past me.

I knew I was not like anyone else in that wealthy congregation. But I also knew that the Church is for the poor and that I was definitely one of the poor; physically and spiritually, I was destitute. On the streets, I had begun talking to God, and one of the most important messages I heard from him was that I am his own child. I am made in his image and likeness, and he loves me deeply, no matter what.

As this truth sank in, I developed an insatiable desire to taste and see more of God and his goodness. This hunger and thirst is what drove me to cross the threshold of St. Cecilia#8217;s Church. It kept me coming back despite the discomfort I felt and caused.

Moving Up. One Sunday I met Fr. O’Donovan, the pastor, as he greeted people after Mass. “I’m trying to find my way again,” I explained when he asked who I was. We talked a bit, and then he told me, “Lorraine, just sit and listen.” I grasped his meaning: Sit quietly, and listen to Christ speaking to you through the words of the Mass and the priests. That one piece of advice was exactly what I needed.

Taking Fr. O’Donovan’s words to heart, I continued at my station in the very last pew. With each successive Mass, I began to relearn the faith I had been taught as a child. I took the missalettes with me to read over during the week, using them to reflect on the prayers, responses, and readings in the Mass.

Sometimes it was hard to persevere. Parishioners still acted uneasy around me, and my own demeanor—wary and standoffish from living on the streets—didn’t help. Then one Sunday morning, a man I didn’t know spoke to me at the sign of peace. He shook my hand and said he thought he had seen me on a city square where I sometimes went looking for food. That short contact helped me to keep coming. I wanted to see how things would unfold. Would this man keep talking to me? Would anyone else? He did, and gradually, so did a few other parishioners. With their help and Fr. O’Donovan’s, I began to find my way.

Over the next few months, I established a home address and got started with a new job. My life was changing, and so were my clothes. Slowly, I moved up to the middle pews, where I stayed for quite some time.

From the Inside Out. Then came an emotion-charged Sunday when I found myself singing for the first time in more than two decades. One of the Mass hymns was “I Am the Bread of Life,” and its words spoke to me so deeply that I had to join in. As my voice sounded out, my heart pounded like thunder. I felt elated, fearful, joyful—and perhaps even more surprised than the people around me! They looked at me differently after that; maybe they could sense the intensity of what God was doing in my heart.

I began to inch my way to the front pews, where I could better hear and see what was happening. As I continued to listen and participate, I found myself changing from the inside out. I was rediscovering not only my faith but also the loving, caring side of my personality that had been lost on the streets. While I was looking for God, I was also searching for “me.”

After nearly nine months of listening, I knew I was in a new place with God and with myself. I was ready to talk to Fr. O’Donovan again.

“Just Sit and Listen.” I still tend to be cautious, careful, and distant with new people—a legacy from my time on the streets. But on the positive side, living without money and many possessions taught me how to live simply and appreciate what little I had. Most important, my poverty and homelessness brought me to the point of having an open and listening heart. When all I had was time, that was all I needed to begin listening, praying, and responding to the movement of God in my life. By taking the time to listen to God, I found my home in him.

Like the boy Samuel in the Old Testament (1 Samuel 3:9), I have learned to say, “Speak Lord, for your servant, Lorraine, is listening.” It’s a prayer that anyone can personalize and use for themselves. Anyone can “just sit and listen.” No matter how often we move away from God, he does not move away from us.

So take the time to listen for God’s voice. He will speak to your heart—perhaps in the voice of a child, the words of a book, or the simple kindness of strangers. You may be very surprised by his response!

After she returned from the streets, Lorraine Gardner received a master’s degree in theology from Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon and studied clinical pastoral education at the Mayo Clinic. She works as a hospital pediatric chaplain in Pennsylvania.