“You are the eyes and ears of the neighborhood,” the police chief tells us at the neighborhood watch meeting. “Law enforcement counts on you to report any unusual activity.” He elaborates on gun violence, theft and crime-fighting strategies. Metal signs are placed throughout the area. They say, Welcome. This is a neighborhood watch area.
Our neighborhood is lower middle class. In among houses and apartments are 10 churches, including a Russian Orthodox with gold domes and a Ukrainian with green ones. Two churches ring daily bells over our heads. There are four well-attended pubs, one gym, one laundromat, a public school, two restaurants, a supermarket, a couple of pizza joints, four auto fix-it shops, an Irish dance studio, a library, two funeral homes, a florist long past its heyday and two pawn shops looking for broken gold. In the midst of all this stretches a fine park with a nine-hole golf course and a world-class zoo. Sometimes the monkeys compete with the church bells.
One Christmas Eve a young man watched with great interest the tan house on the corner a half mile from my own. Most in the neighborhood were celebrating Mass in the church down the street or were over at the Irish pub with out-of-town guests. Some were home wrapping last-minute gifts.
That night the eyes and ears of the neighborhood were not watching the one who entered an elderly woman’s kitchen and stabbed her repeatedly while her small pan of soup bubbled on the burner. On the table, five Ritz crackers waited like casino chips on a napkin next to her bowl. The Neighborhood Watch sign nearby never meant to welcome the young man who watched her house for just the right moment.
Now, at the penitentiary, guards watch his every move as they cautiously open the cell to let in Sister Maura, the chaplain, who tries to be the face of God for the young man who sits comatose. The guards clang the bars shut and keep watch. She hears them mumble: What kind of person murders an old woman in her kitchen and then turns off the flame under her pan of soup?
Every Wednesday after the noon Mass, a handful of the neighborhood faithful keep watch with the Blessed Sacrament in the former convent, unaware that it is Christ who keeps watch over them. There are fresh baked cookies, with warm and cold drinks in the kitchen should the watchers begin to nod. And by midafternoon they do. At dusk, a priest takes their place under the church domes. He could be over in the rectory watching a baseball game with his feet up, but no, he is kneeling upright, stalking the Divine. Like those before him, he takes his watching seriously. After all, someone should be waiting to hear should God care to speak. The neighborhood counts on these people, watching on our behalf, praying that God comes not like a thief in the night but like a loving Savior.
The two elderly women in a Sarah Orne Jewett story also keep a night watch. They have washed and laid out their dead friend in her upstairs bedroom. Miss Tempy’s funeral will be in the morrow, but for now her two friends keep watch, reminisce over their friend’s goodness, then slip into self-revelations not feasible in broad daylight. It is a long night punctuated by periodic visits to Miss Tempy upstairs under the sheets, then back down to the kitchen for some of Miss Tempy’s quince preserves on warm bread. Soon enough the watchers nod, as does the priest under the dome and the faithful in the convent chapel. But God neither slumbers nor sleeps. Not now. Not ever.
Throughout the neighborhood, street lights work the night shift. In an upper room I watch the sanctuary lamp in the window of the church across the street. The red light spreads like a stain, signaling the Eucharistic presence housed in the small gold tabernacle box where Christ keeps watch. He sees the kitchen light next door and blesses baby Ruth and her parents, rocking and feeding her during the night. Christ blesses their 93-year-old neighbor, four sheets to the wind, and the nighthawks in the 24-hour laundromat pulling the day’s clothes out of the dryer. He blesses the widow of two years who cannot sleep, who rises at 3 a.m. to read and pray to Him and to her deceased husband. As watchmen wait for the dawn, so do I wait for you, my God. Finally, light dawns over the nearby hills. She dresses and heads for the 7 o’clock Mass, and only Christ knows the extent of the breakage.
Directly from Mass a couple arrive at the gym. They married late in life and perhaps for that reason relish every moment. Side by side on treadmills, she is gray-haired and trim, he is bald and bent, clearly 10 years her senior. She keeps an eye on his heart rate, watching that it not climb too high for his weakened heart. Many a young man strolls the gym, flexing abs and pecs. What they would not give for the sweet smile she gives her husband, luminous, dear, as if there were no one else in the gym, only the two of them, he, the former Father Paul, she, the former Sister Monica.
The poet says that Christ plays in 10,000 places. He also weeps in 10,000 places. For good or ill, we are the hands of the neighborhood as well as its eyes and ears. A man holds a door open for another at the post office, a woman smiles and defers at the stop sign, while down the block a car eases up so the driver can hand a 10 and a jug of cold water to the man living under the bridge. Teens slouch through the neighborhood in colorful displays of underwear. One of them tries to sell a stolen TV at the pawn shop. The corner deli delivers free takeouts at the end of the month, while a man buys an extra meal at the grocery and slips it inside his neighbor’s door. Cars with open windows blast away, a biker takes the hill with no hands, dogs bark, the home for battered women is on lockdown.
Early Sunday morning, Rev. Lucy Barnes-Holdsworth sweeps up the broken glass from the church parking lot. Her sign out front advertises BARG IN — SCHOOL CLOTHES for 25 cents. Of course, we know something more than a letter is missing here, but the clothes are bright and clean and serviceable, and that space invites the Divine into our need.
Soon a rock ’n’ roll service heats up the church, rises to fever pitch and into a glorious, strung-out Amen, telling the whole neighborhood what we sorely need to hear. That the God of mercy and benevolence watches over us with love beyond all reckoning. Always has. Always will.
Joan Sauro, a sister of Saint Joseph of Carondelet, is the author of the children’s book Does God Ever Sleep? (Skylight Paths).