It’s called the House of Charity, a place in Spokane, Washington, “for the homeless, for the hungry, for the hurting, for the naked, for the weary.” I went there right after graduation, having joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) because I wasn’t sure what to do with my life and thought it’d be a challenging experience. It would also mean a journey to the great Northwest.
Early in the morning of my first day at work, I was jeered by a rowdy crowd in the nearby alley. They had recognized fresh prey and wasted no time going in for the kill. Among the many names I was called (most I don’t want to remember) was one that stuck — “Elvis” — because I had long sideburns, I guess. Considering that the other JVC volunteer was nicknamed “Waldo” (from the Where’s Waldo? children’s books) I accepted mine graciously.
That same day I was asked to play guitar at a memorial service for Ken Cloud, a longtime patron of the place who had died a few days before. I soon learned that at a service such as this you never really know who may be inspired to speak, sing or cry, or at what point they may choose to do it. So the tone was to be improvisational.
I also quickly learned that there is no better improvisational speaker than Father Paul Hogarty, who led the service that day. The only downside was that I had no idea what music I might be playing until “the moment” dictated it to Father Paul, who then would ask me to play the tune. I am not a skilled guitar player, and my guitar was badly out of tune, so the recipe for disaster was firmly in place.
It soon seemed clear to me, even between my stints of broken music, that the service was falling apart. Just as Father Paul was on the brink of beginning another Gospel reading, a man stood up and started reading the Gospel from his own program. Father Paul immediately gave way to this man, who either mispronounced or skipped almost every word of significance in the reading. During the homily, when the floor was opened to the gatherers for words of remembrance, a slightly intoxicated man got up to speak. His words were almost inaudible to those around him. The following speaker, hampered by his emotions, couldn’t put his thoughts into coherent words.
Finally, the end of the service at hand, “the moment” arrived, and Father Paul asked me to play Amazing Grace for the closing hymn. As I painfully struggled through the first few measures — the only ones I knew — I felt a brief sense of embarrassment with the way the service had played out. Were we honoring this man’s memory at all?
Then, as my knowledge of the melody ran out, I stopped playing and looked up into the small crowd of mourners. The group, in its entire calamity, was fully engrossed in singing — unaccompanied — Amazing Grace. Virtually every member of the crowd had tears in his eyes. No one noticed that I had stopped playing. No one cared. They were there to pay their respects to an old friend. They were doing so in complete sincerity and harmony. The service, filled with all its flaws and imperfections, was perfect.
My eyes were the naive ones; they had only seen the chaos unveiled. But the service given that day was filled with sorrow, distress, compassion, confusion, humor and intensity. It was filled with moments of all of what life is like on a daily basis for these guys on the streets. It was filled, I learned, with what the House of Charity opens its doors to every day and what it then fills itself with.
Jesuit Volunteer Corps