There were plenty of seats available. My usual M.O. is to find a pew all to myself. Even in this temporary venue I had every intention of passing by this tiny black woman who took up three chairs with her stuffed shopping bags. Her little denim hat and giant plastic-rimmed glasses covered her eyes. Her jet-black wig was combed neatly into a bob, and her mismatched outfit appeared clean. She flashed me a shimmering pink-lipsticked smile as I stopped and met her gaze. I smiled back as I slid into her row and took the 4th seat in next to her treasures.
As mass went on, my little homeless neighbor began making odd grunting noises. She even let out a few soft “yeah’s” and an occasional “mmmmm-hmmmmmm”, but not in response to anything Father said. She fidgeted a lot. I tried to concentrate on Mass, feeling her eyes on me, as if she was watching me to see what she was supposed to do when. Clearly she wasn’t Catholic. I knelt down on the hard floor during the consecration. My little neighbor sat at the edge of her chair instead. I stole a quick look at her during the Lord’s Prayer. She prayed with her head back, her eyes closed, and her hands up like high she was being arrested. I giggled to myself, watching my little homeless neighbor trying to blend in with the rest of us.
I knelt down again on the hard floor after the Lamb of God. I think my little neighbor got an inspiration to do the same. With no kneelers or bolted down pews for leverage, though, the poor thing got stuck on the ground. I saw her eyes then, wide with panic, and even though she tried to keep her voice down, we could all still hear her uh-oh's and ohhh my's as she knelt there, stuck. I immediately reached over and grabbed her under her arm. With the help of another attendee, we hoisted her to her feet. I caught her eyes and smiled at her as she straightened out her too-big denim skirt.
She followed me to communion.
“The Body of Christ.”
“Thank you,” she replied. I heard the snap as she broke her host in half. On the way back to my seat I saw her slip a piece into her pocket as she ate the rest. I took a peek inside the top of one of her bags, which contained a couple rolls of toilet paper and some crumpled newspaper, among some other things that I couldn’t get a look at in a quick glance. I dropped to my knees in a sudden wave of emotion as it occurred to me that The Body of Christ was most likely this poor homeless woman’s only food yesterday.
She gathered her bags into one hand just before Mass ended, and as Father sat, she stood up to leave. Instead of leaving, she stood right in front of me and put her empty hand out. I immediately took it in mine. “God bless you,” I said, meaning it like never before. I squeezed her hand with love and looked into her dark, withered face.
Jesus looked right back at me, holding my gaze for a moment before turning away, before limping out of the hall toward the University campus across the street from St. Columba’s Cathedral.