Switching from parochial school teaching in upstate New York to ministering to people with AIDS in a poor neighborhood of New York City is a very big leap indeed. But that radical switch is precisely the one made by Maureen O’Neill, who for almost seven years has served as a Redemptorist lay missionary at Rivington House, a medical facility on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for those living with AIDS. Summing up the heart of the journey that brought her there, she said during a visit, “I couldn’t have imagined it in my wildest dreams.”
The journey began years ago, when Ms. O’Neill left teaching to go to work in her family’s restaurant business in Rochester. An accident, however, left her unable to deal with the more physical aspects of her job. While subsequently taking counseling courses at the state university at Brockport, she felt that “something major had been missing from my life”—namely, a faith component. At a friend’s suggestion, she enrolled in a theology program at St. Bernard’s Institute, a graduate school of theology in the Diocese of Rochester, N.Y. For a person who had been away from the church, it was a considerable step to take. “As a woman, I’d felt left out, because I believe God calls us all,” she said. But then God did call her, though in a totally unexpected direction.
Even before receiving her master’s degree in divinity, she began working at a parish in Rochester. In addition to basic parish work, Maureen periodically had the opportunity to preach, and the themes she chose tended to focus on social justice. “I kept asking myself, what should I be doing for social justice?” A partial answer came during a weekend retreat. One of the retreat directors was a Redemptorist priest named Arthur Wendel, who spoke to her of his vision of lay people living and working together in a Redemptorist community. That vision, in fact, was already in the early stages of fulfillment, because the groundwork was being laid in the early 1990’s for the establishment in the United States of a Redemptorist lay missionaries program. A program of this kind already existed in several other parts of the world.
After much discernment at the provincial level, Maureen, together with another lay woman and Father Wendel, was invited to move to a Redemptorist community in Lower Manhattan with a view toward serving together at the nearby Rivington House. “We had seen an ad Rivington House put in The National Catholic Reporter,” she said, “and when we applied to work there as a pastoral care team of three, they accepted us. They hadn’t had a chaplain for nine months.” The other lay missionary moved on after a year, and Father Wendel himself left this past summer. But Maureen, though now alone as pastoral care coordinator in a facility with some 200 residents, has remained—sustained in no small measure by her life as a full member of the East Third Street Redemptorist community of priests and brothers. “Besides sharing meals together,” she said, “we gather for prayer twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, using the Liturgy of the Hours and building in time for private meditation.” Over the years, the atmosphere of mutual support has proven a bulwark against the danger of burnout connected with her daily work at the facility.
The Redemptorist spirituality has in itself been a source of support. Maureen spoke of being attracted to a primary aspect of the thinking of the order’s founder, St. Alphonsus Liguori. “He emphasized what he called the crazy love of God,” she observed, “a love that has no bounds.” This same “crazy” love, she went on to say, lies behind the congregation’s charism to go out to the most abandoned in society. “These are the themes that drew me to the Redemptorists in the first place,” she said. And she has found that ministering to men and women with AIDS meshes with these same themes.
Much of Maureen’s day-to-day work involves moving about through Rivington House’s five floors. “Most of what I do is simply being present and listening to what the residents have to say; and they often have a lot to say”—especially in times of sadness, when the burden of their illness weighs upon them with special heaviness. “But others don’t want to talk because they’re afraid. They’ve been so bruised by where they’ve come from, places like homeless shelters and prisons or the streets. Still others,” she continued, “don’t want to talk because the sight of a chaplain makes them think they’re dying, which usually they’re not, at least not in any immediate sense.” Women residents frequently have backgrounds of emotional or sexual abuse, and some had worked as prostitutes. A few of the residents, both male and female, are well educated and had good jobs; but, Maureen noted, “they’ve lost everything to the disease.”
The disease’s ravages are such that new arrivals generally come through the doors severely debilitated, weighing under 100 pounds—either from what Maureen referred to as “the wasting syndrome,” or the various infections that frequently accompany AIDS. But she explained that with the medications now available, most put on weight, regain some of their strength and in many cases develop an interest in the rehabilitative opportunities that Rivington House offers. During a tour of the building, for example, Maureen pointed out paintings along the hallways done by residents, impressive in their use of color and form.
Although Rivington House operates on an ecumenical basis—Maureen arranges for an imam to make regular visits, and ministers of other denominations are welcomed—she herself leads a Scripture service in the ground-floor chapel, with occasional assistance from a priest if one is available. “When we have our sharing of reflections on the readings, the residents reveal the depth of their understanding about God and at the same time how they view life,” she said. She added that it is through them that “I myself have learned the most about God, and I see Jesus in their faces, faces marked by a lot of suffering.”
Many of the residents come from strong Baptist backgrounds. “They pray for one another and watch out for one another,” Maureen said. Prayer can take place anywhere, including the middle of the hallways. Because of an accident in the 1980’s, Maureen generally uses a bright-red scooter to move about the building. In this way, she observed, when she meets a resident in a wheelchair, “we can talk and pray together eyeball to eyeball.” Encounters of this kind energize her, she added, partly because they represent something one of her professors at St. Bernard’s spoke of in class, namely, the sacrament of the present moment. He meant, she explained, that God is present in the unexpected moments of our history—moments that may include chance encounters of this kind in the hallways of an AIDS facility, as well as on the streets of the city.
The scooter, in fact, takes her not only through the building but also to and from Rivington House and her Redemptorist community 10 blocks away—and, indeed, around the city. “I terrorize the Lower East Side,” she said jokingly. Given the nature of her work, this light side of her manner is important in itself as a balancing factor, and extends to her appearance. Although dressed in a conservative suit the day of my visit, the suit was highlighted by sparkling costume jewelry. The residents respond to personal details of this kind and frequently comment on them. “They love my spiked hair too,” she added.
Although often in pain, she maintains a seven-day-a-week on-call schedule. Her schedule includes two weekly days off, but these go by the board when pre-empted by residents’ and families’ needs. If, for instance, a call comes in the middle of the night saying that family members have come to be with a resident, then “in situations like those,” she said, “I come right over, because family support, as well as support for the residents, is an important part of pastoral care.” For many, however, family contact no longer exists. Sometimes the resident is the last survivor of a whole family wiped out by AIDS. Other residents have burned their bridges, often because of drug- and alcohol-related issues.
With financial help made available for rent and other expenses, 70 percent of the residents gain sufficient strength to be able to move from Rivington House to an apartment. Some even recover sufficient strength to hold jobs. Once they are in the community, local clinics and support groups provide ongoing care. How much longer they live outside depends, Maureen said, on how well they take care of themselves and how their bodies react to the drugs, which can have toxic side effects. “Some come back within a few months and die here at Rivington House,” she said. Because residents might remain for years, the staff grieves too when deaths occur, so strong have the patient-caregiver bonds grown over the passage of time that may be measurable in years.
As for AIDS itself, Maureen pointed out that not only is the epidemic far from over in the United States, but also that 45,000 new H.I.V. infections occur annually. “AIDS is less visible now, because the new medications allow many to live fairly normal lives,” she said, “and therefore some fall into a false sense of security.” Many young people today barely remember the ravages brought about by AIDS in the 1980’s, and consequently they fall easily into high-risk types of behavior. “We had one person here who was only 18,” she noted, though most residents are in their 30’s and 40’s.
The tour that followed our conversation included a stop on the roof, a garden-like area used for recreational activities in warm weather. That afternoon, the sky was clearing after a day of rain. A mile or so to the north, lights were just beginning to appear in the windows of the Empire State Building and its companion skyscraper, the Chrysler Building. “This is where I come when there’s something I need to think over,” Maureen said. Does she have any plans for moving on after nearly seven years in a difficult apostolate? “If God wants me to do something else,” she answered, “I will. But I’m happy in what I’m doing, because it’s here in this work among people with AIDS that I find a God who assures us of a love that lasts no matter what.”