Who Was the Shepherd?
Last night we served dinner at Laytner House, a residential program of Rosehedge Multifaith that provides temporary housing for the HIV/AIDS homeless. Tonight we will be at an HIV/AIDS support group run by BABES, but this time we will be served dinner. We are one of you; you are one of us. I was prepared to serve dinner last night; the cooking part is easy for me. I was unprepared to walk in the door. Facing fragile people living with AIDS terrified me. We were told that there would be 8-10 people. In truth, we served 12-14 including three of us from Mercer Island Presbyterian Church and two Seattle Pacific University students. Most were African American, most were male, most were 30-40 years old, younger than I thought they would be. As we readied dinner, those at the group home were in the dining area participating in a memorial service for someone who had recently died. Facing their mortality. Facing their reality. We were one of them.
I sensed that it would be appropriate to share Steve’s status with them before I said grace and before dinner was served. I caught his eye. He agreed. The Rosehedge/Multifaith Works coordinator had introduced us just as members of MIPC, but somehow after witnessing the memorial service, it seemed even more appropriate to share with them Steve’s status. We are one of you; we do understand; we share your pain. It was the peace that passes understanding. It was a dropping of pretense and barriers. Married 41 years, a sero-discordant couple. There was a small round of applause, a shift of energy in the room. It was not even a subtle shift. You could feel everyone relax. You are one of us; we can trust you. Grace said and unsaid.
Dinner was served: shepherd’s pie, homemade applesauce, green beans, chocolate cake, rolls and butter. It all went on the plate at the same time. I am startled by my choice of shepherd’s pie. To shepherd means to watch over carefully. Who was the Shepherd? Which one of us or none? Clay, Tom, Maleeka, and Nieman. I had feared finding old men dying of AIDS with lice, smelly bodies, and toothless. All day my mind had played tricks on me. I did not find what I expected. I did not expect what I found. Gracious people, a community living with AIDS, courteous of each other and of us, brought together by a virus and a will to survive. Gathered around the large table we ate together and exchanged small talk. I asked the question, How many people were not born in this country? Four hands were raised, all from Africa. One of those hands belonged to my husband, Steve. You should have seen the look on the Resident Advisor’s face when he found out that this old white man was also an African American. We had a good laugh. Two cakes, one left behind for tomorrow. Someone commented that two pieces of cake were glutinous, but I assured them that it wasn’t if you ate the second piece the next day.
People began to move on for other nighttime activities, one to do an intake form with the Rosehedge/Multifaith Works coordinator, some to smoke, and some to wash dishes and clean up. We said our goodbyes, gave hugs where appropriate, and walked out of Laytner House on a journey back to Mercer Island and back into our own lives. I went with trepidation and fear. I came away with a sense of compassion for the residents of Laytner House and myself. Who was really fed? Who was really the Shepherd? We are one of you; you are one of us. It was a note of grace, a blessing for us all, heart-felt and real. Would I do it again? Yes! Would I encourage others to serve dinner? Yes! Fear of the unknown holds us back. The answer to how is yes.
One of the ministers from my old church in Denver, led an 8-week summer sermon series entitled, What I Saw. She led people out on the streets of Denver into the Laytner Houses and the Urban Peaks. She led people out of their own comfort zones to find the Shepherd. The Shepherd is different for each one of us, but once in awhile we catch a glimpse of him in each other and find her in ourselves.