My friend, Diane, serves lunch at Saint Vincent de Paul. Daily she serves meals to the lines of the homeless and down-and-out. Voluntarily she does so: to anonymously give back to her community as well as to support her spiritual practice. Not everyone there is as civic-minded as Diane. Most of the people working there rotate in and out by written invitation of the court, to work off DUI’s or acts of violence.
Standing next to Diane one day was a young lady in her twenties. A hip-slick and cool chick covered in leathers, tattoos, and rings in every orifice. After a while, Diane wondered how this woman was taking her court appointed duty, so she leans in to hear the following:
“How would you like your rice and beans today? On the side? Together? How would you like your rice? How would you like your beans? How may I serve you today?”
“How may I serve you today?”
What this young lady was doing was giving these nameless, faceless people who had run out of choices, a choice. Diane recounted how the person on the receiving end of the question glowed like a lantern with renewed hope. Through the power of this simple choice, their self-esteem was renewed. They walked away a little taller and with a firmer step for having been witnessed as a person instead of another dirty face.
In our life history, can we recall a moment when we ran out of choices and some wayward angel came and granted us a way out? Another chance, another choice where seemingly there was none?
What comes to mind from my personal history book happened when I was 24. Remember yourself in your 20’s? Young, dumb and bullet proof, maybe? Working as a Senator’s aide in Washington, D.C., I found myself in a domestic violence situation. Like something right out of Charles Dickens, I had to leave immediately, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a rainstorm, onto the cobblestone streets of Alexandria, Virginia. I called all the shelters, as well as the YMCA and the YWCA. All of them were full. I had no family. I had nowhere to go. I began to live out of my car.
My last-ditch effort was to call a shelter for domestic violence. I shared my story with the receptionist. She patched me through to the director who told me, “I’m sorry. We cannot let you in.” Because there was no evidence of physical violence, she said I was “not an acceptable candidate.” I could not gain access. Internally I thought, “Next time I’ll do better job and let the guy thunk me about the head instead!”
Before I could hang up the phone, the receptionist came on and said, “Wait a second. I will take you in. My daughter is away in college. You can have her room.” An unseen, unknown, faceless voice rescued me from the streets. Blessed Rae Thomas gave me a choice when I had none. Today she is 90 and we are still in touch!
Sometimes we run out of choices – so clearly visible as I drive along the street where I live. A recovery center is on the left. A cemetery is on the right. The choice of life or death so crystal clear. As I drive down that road every day, I remember my young nephew who ran out of choices. My nephew was found dead from a hot overdose. He died alone on a stranger’s couch in Missouri, a long, long way from home. Always before him was the choice to recover or the choice to choose death. Before he could choose life one more day, death overtook him.
These stories come to you because we, like my nephew, are running out of choices. Our world is on fire with war and pestilence and starvation. Starvation not even for lack of food so much as lack of spiritual sustenance.
Now is the time to move away from the hard and fast lines of judgment and soften them instead with settlement and understanding. Stick to principles instead of guns. The strongest principle of all human growth lies in the power of choice. When we give each other choice, we give each other hope. When we give each other hope, we can muster the courage to carry on another day. When I speak to you as an audience, you are not a room full of nameless faces. Indeed, you are uniquely characterized with individual eyes to see, ears to hear, and powers with which to serve. Alone we may not be able to save the world. Collectively – I believe we can.
Mother Teresa, when asked how she accomplished such great things in her life, responded, “None of us can do great things on our own, but we can all do a small thing with great love.” Great things can be done with great love.
Thanks to people around the world like Rae, with deep appreciation we stand on their shoulders. With freshened wings, we fly. With greater perception we choose to recall their kindness as one by one, step by step, in big ways and small, we help our fellow travelers find their way.
Our steps may start with something simple as, “How would you like your rice today? How would you like your beans?”