by Tom Kluger.
It has been a few months since I arrived at Marian Centre Regina, my first mission house as a member of Madonna House. My first impression is easy to remember: here comes love!
I could probably stop here, but I suppose I should expand on it a little.
As I got off the plane at the Regina airport and was coming down the stairway to the arrivals area, I saw Nancy, Sandra, Maria, and Paul waiting for me carrying big winter boots and a parka. I had told Nancy, the director, that I would need some winter clothing when I got there.
And there all the staff were, down there waiting for me, with winter gear and open arms and big smiles. Here comes love!
My first impression of the city itself was very good: from the airport to Marian Centre was only a ten-minute drive. In Toronto, where I was born and raised, it takes ten minutes just to find your way out of the airport!
But then when we got closer to my new home, something else hit me. The area looked rough. Many of the houses were rundown, and debris and litter were scattered everywhere. The fact that it was nighttime increased my foreboding.
Then someone casually informed me that the red brick house across the street from the center is a crack house. Indeed, the police paid a visit to the house later that very night! It sure seemed a long, long way from the rural quiet of St. Ben’s Farm in Combermere.
But once I entered the center, my apprehensions about the neighborhood were relieved, as I was immediately cheered by the bright expanse inside. The ceiling is high in the dining room of the soup kitchen, and there are lots of large windows to let in the sunshine.
The next morning was busy. Paul Moore, the other man staff worker, showed me around and explained to me the different things I would be doing.
The highlight of the morning was when we opened at 10:00 a.m. to let the poor of the streets, whom we call the "Brothers Christophers," in for coffee and sweets. Just before Paul unlocked the door, I could see the crowd gathered outside. My palms got a little sweaty and my heartbeat quickened.
Here I was, about to serve the Brothers Christophers, and I felt quite exposed and vulnerable. I had never been around the poor when I was growing up in the suburbs, and my last experience of working with them, five and a half years earlier, had not on the whole been a good one.
Not the least of the reasons why had been my unwillingness to own up to my own inner poverty. Surely, the men would see through my façade in an instant.
As they walked in, Paul said to them, "Here’s Tom, the new guy." Most of them gave me big smiles and shook my hand. Most already had heard about me, and where I came from, and they wished me well in coping with the Regina winter. Here comes love, again!
Then I saw a picture of myself taped to a sheet of paper on one of the pillars in the dining room. It had been taken by one of Marian Centre’s regular volunteers, Dave Helmerson, who had visited Madonna House Combermere just before I left for Regina. Under the photo were the words: "Tom, the new guy, has arrived!"
Paul showed me what to do and gave me some guidance on how to move with the men. First he heated the muffins and cake in the oven so that they would have a warm treat when they came in from the cold. Then he handed each man a napkin as he came in, said hello to him, and asked him how he was doing.
Personally handing out the napkins was not just a way of saving on napkins. It was, Paul told me, a way of relating personally with each man.
That morning I was also told that I was going to be the maintenance man of sorts. I, who could not be described as mechanically gifted by even the most charitable stretch of the imagination, was going to descend into the depths of my mechanical incompetence and try not to ruin Marian Centre in the process.
Sometimes it literally is a descent into the depths, such as when I have to try to figure out how that blessed boiler, which God kindly sent for my sanctification, works!
Fortunately we have a large contact list of volunteers who are gifted in different areas and who are willing and able to help us out when necessary.
On one occasion, the ventilation fan over the stove failed to work. With the fan not working, it would be illegal for us to operate the stove. Hence we would be unable to cook.
Dave Helmerson, one of our regular volunteers, came in right away and, with skilled hands and a big smile, fixed it.
Another time, another volunteer, Murray MacKay, helped to get us a new hand washing sink. "Tom," he said to me, "we’ll make a plumber out of you yet." And I, knowing how much grief it would cause him to turn me into a plumber, replied, "Yes, and I’ll make a saint out of you!" Here comes love again.
Of course serving the meals and keeping things running is not all that we’re about. I saw a glimpse of what is beyond that when X came to the center for a visit.
Usually he phones us every day, just to have someone to talk with. A few times I have sung him a few lines from a Beatles song over the phone.
This day when he arrived, he was particularly down. Nancy Topping talked with him about how God will always help us. He frowned and replied, "You don’t need to talk to me about God. I already see him in you people."
Love came again, God’s love, the source of all love.
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