Before I tell you about Carl, it helps to know a little about Barb Cordell. She was first described to me, very accurately, as a cross between Loretta Lynn and Mother Teresa. The former, because she wore her hair in a beehive, chain smoked, and wore large, dangling earrings; the latter, because she lived for the poor. I met her, back in the eighties, when I directed pastoral formation for college seminarians. Barb was running a homemade hospice for men, all of whom were unemployed, most of whom were dying from AIDS. She had gotten into the work when she had helped an unemployed man find a job. He stayed in her home while he searched for work, and, within a few years, she was operating a shelter in downtown Columbus.
We were sending college seminarians there, once a week, to help with tasks like shelf-stocking and cleaning. Some of the seminarians had expressed reservations about serving men with AIDS. At that time, many people still didn’t understand how the disease was spread, and those who contracted it bore the additional burden of moral opprobrium. The seminarians were rather blunt. Why should they serve those who are public sinners? Doesn’t that condone the sin? Weren’t there more virtuous poor whom they could serve?
My notion of supervising was to do whatever the college seminarians were asked to do. Given their objections, I simply did more of it as this site. We cleaned some really dirty houses for Barb, but on one visit she asked me to do something else. She wanted me to go upstairs and visit with Carl, a young black man who was confined to bed. “He doesn’t have long to live, and I think he could use a visit from a priest.”
Carl was very sick but quite amiable. As he smoked a cigarette, he filled me on his story. He had contracted HIV through intravenous drug usage. At this point in his life, he was certainly sorry about that, but it was the past. He had a more pressing concern. “Father, this is the first time in my life that I’ve lived under a roof with people who love me. Miss Barb’s an angel, and the rest of the men here treat me with respect and love.”
“That’s wonderful, Carl.”
“Yeah, but it bothers me.”
“It bothers you. Why?”
“Because everyone here sweeps the floor or peels potatoes, and I’m stuck in this bed. I can’t do nothing for these other men. They love me and they help me, and, for the first time in my life, I want to do that in return. But I can’t.”
The problem with pastoring is producing answers when the question is asked. You don’t have time to prepare them. All I could proffer was, “You can pray for them, Carl. That’s something that you can do for them.”
“Pray for them?" Carl took a difficult drag on his cigarette. “I don’t think you understand. I got AIDS because I was a drug dealer, someone who sold on school yards. I didn’t just use the stuff. Can’t imagine the Good Lord would listen to the prayers of someone like me.”
We were back on my ground. “Carl, are you baptized?”
“Baptized? Yes, I was baptized, a long time ago, in Detroit.”
“Carl, if you were baptized, then, when you pray, the only voice the Father hears is that of his Beloved Son. In fact, he can’t tell the difference between Jesus’ voice and your own. That’s how close you’ve come to God in your baptism. You can pray for these men, Carl, and God will hear your prayer.”
“You really believe that?”
“Yes, I do. No sin cancels our baptism. To pray for others is a work that you took on in the sacrament, and it’s just as valid today as on the day you were baptized.”
“Huh! Then that’s what I’m going to do for these other men. I’m going to pray for them. That’s how I’m going to pay them back for their kindness. I’ll pray.”
Two weeks later, Carl was dead.
Jesus expected his nascent church to take up his work in the world. That’s why the Twelve, who were devoted to the Word and prayer, knew that others were needed to feed the poor. To pray and to proclaim the Word was a work of the Lord. So was tending to those who needed charity.
What we might call “turning to the Lord” and “turning to the world” are integral parts of what it means to be a Christian. Neither one means all that much without the other. It’s true that in the church today, as in the time of the apostles, tasks are divided among us, but the work is Christ’s, which means that no one of us can neglect any part of it.
For the first time in his life—sadly at the close of it—Carl understood what had happened at his baptism. He had been inserted into Christ. He finally knew that love surrounded him, and he wanted to respond in kind. He wanted to care for others who were poor.
I didn’t bump Carl up, in assigning him the work of prayer. I simply pointed his love in the only direction left to it. At the end, Carl understood the work, which every Christian must do, but he also knew that the most important task had already been accomplished in Christ Jesus. He had a savior, someone who had drawn him into a family, given him voice to pray. Someone who guaranteed that all our work in this world would be productive, because it is built upon the living stone who is Christ.
Acts 6: 1-7 1 Peter 2: 4-9 John 14: 1-12