Yesterday several Orthodox communities from surrounding cities gathered together at our home parish for a common “pan-Orthodox” Sunday evening vespers. Such meetings are always a joy because they allow interaction with so many people outside your home parish… people who you can tangibly relate to as fellow-strugglers in the same universal Faith. It always feels like a big family reunion (indeed, that’s exactly what it is).
To fully understand the context of this story, I first need to mention a brief word about our parish:
Our parish is in the middle of the city’s ghetto. Many years ago, our church building had been a central place of drug-dealing/production and satanic rituals, literally. It was known in the city as the “anarchist hangout.” Most anarchist activity in the city (destruction, vandalism, large-scale-riots, etc.) usually stemmed from this location. We have pictures of what the building’s interior used to look like: the walls were covered in absolutely chaotic and horrendous “art.” It took us several months just to pick up all the syringes in the backyard area.
However, when our parish was founded ten years ago, things in the neighborhood began to change. Before our building became a church, it had been the center, the rallying-point for the neighborhood’s ill-willed activity. But now this central location has been transformed into an Orthodox parish that pours and extends God’s grace into the community.
The city’s homeless shelter is only a couple blocks away from the church, and we regularly feed hundreds of homeless people each month during free Saturday breakfasts. Over the years, several people from the shelter have converted to Orthodoxy, or at least attend services regularly. People often come in who haven’t been in the neighborhood for many years… and they always comment over and over about how wonderful it is that our building is now “a place of beauty and peace instead of death and despair.”
As a whole, the neighborhood still has a lot of illegal activity, but much less than ten years ago. It is slowly transitioning from being a “drug neighborhood” to an area of less-expensive/young-family housing.
…So, back to yesterday’s events: After our pan-Orthodox vespers we had a finger-food potluck dinner. Everyone was having a really good time fellowshipping together. Suddenly, the woman who manages our bookstore came up to me and another man from the parish. She handed us a phone and frantically said:
“Someone just said there’s a man passed out on the ground in the parking lot. Please take this phone, go back there, see what happened, and call the police!”
Without a word all of the men at the table got up and began hurrying out the door. We have a large amount of land behind the church, and the parking lot (outside our fence) goes back a couple hundred yards from the street. At the very back of the lot we saw two homeless people frantically waving at us and signaling where the man on the ground was. Two of the men in our group are physicians, and they immediately started CPR. As I looked at the man on the ground, I knew he wasn’t conscious. I immediately pulled out my prayer rope, made the sign of the cross over him and began saying the Jesus Prayer. However, within seconds, I thought:
“There are several priests and deacons inside the church… GO GET THEM!!!”
Without hesitating, I sprinted back into the church faster than I’ve ever ran in my life… found the nearest black robe I could see and gasped:
“WE NEED A PRIEST! A man outside might be dead!”
After alerting all the clergy, I went with them back out into the parking lot. (Most people remained inside praying.) As we came up to the man on the ground, the two physicians were still giving CPR. There was nothing we could do except pray and wait for the ambulance.
At this point, scores of people from the community had gathered around to see what was happening. But then, instead of simply witnessing a tragic event (a kind which is unfortunately a common scene in the neighborhood)… these people also saw, one by one, several men in black robes with large metal crosses coming out and making the sign of the cross over the man on the ground, accompanied by the rest of us “normal-looking” people who stood attentively with prayer ropes, crossing ourselves and quietly praying.
As all the various people from the community continued to gather around… they were absolutely astonished at how “naturally” we were handling the situation. They were witnessing the inherent connection of our Faith with earthly suffering/impermanence… a concept which is virtually lost on most Americans… especially in a city where New-Age-pleasure-oriented “spirituality” is the norm.
The ambulance soon arrived, and the pediatricians proclaimed the man dead from an overdose. However, they were just as equally impressed by the scene as the neighborhood bystanders. These ambulance workers were calloused to physical death, but they were completely shocked to witness a community reacting in such a healthy way to death (both physically and spiritually)… especially when the deceased was a complete stranger.
A young Hispanic man, most likely from a Roman Catholic background, slowly approached us. Our city doesn’t have many Hispanics or Catholics. Therefore, both culturally and religiously, he was in a very “foreign land.” However, as he approached all of us fairly “light-skinned” folk and saw our bearded black-robed clergy with large metal crosses, long-sleeved men, scarf-covered women, prayer ropes, everyone making numerous signs of the cross… at this point he looked at all of us with an expression that said: “Wow, as incredible as it seems, I actually understand you guys. I didn’t know any of you Americans actually respect tradition. Maybe I should come visit this church soon.”
Once the pediatricians had pulled the sheet over the deceased, we all went back inside and assembled in the church for an abbreviated funeral service for non-Orthodox. During the last few months a man and woman from the homeless shelter have been regularly attending services throughout the week. The two of them were present at today’s Liturgy and Vespers... and I later saw them both in the funeral service as the man told the woman the name of the deceased (it turns out they both knew him). Both of them lit candles for the deceased and wept quietly. Indeed, many of us shed tears as we prayed for the soul of God’s servant, whom we only know as: Roy
+Lord have mercy