Tender Mercies of Love: A Day of Street Ministry with the PoorMARY LYMAN JACKSON
My own young daughter, Kemper, was in agony from lupus, a disease ravaging her body, and I worried about leaving her to visit Washington's poor. But I had promised to share my time with a small child in one of the poorest housing projects of our nation's capital, so I had to keep my word. This visit was part of the ongoing Catholic ministry of Exodus Youth Services, Inc. (Exodus) that my husband and I had founded in 1985.
This prayer pierced my heart as I drove toward a grimly isolated neighborhood in northeast Washington, DC. My children and I had begun the day with those words, believing that God's grace is always available to us. That simple prayer, which is engraved on my husband's tombstone, has given us hope of the tender mercies of Jesus' love. We are confident that Christ has made available His promise of glory.
I had plannd to spend the day with Annie, a teeny five-year-old who had spent her life caged in a large wheelchair. My own young daughter, Kemper, was in agony from lupus, a disease ravaging her body, and I worried about leaving her to visit Washington's poor. Kemper's joint pain was torture, her inability to continue as a star athlete was devastating, and her cries for help in the dark of the night were unbearable.
But I had promised to share my time with a small child in one of the poorest housing projects of our nation's capital, so I had to keep my word. This visit was part of the ongoing Catholic ministry of Exodus Youth Services, Inc. (Exodus) that my husband and I had founded in 1985. As president of the ministry after the death of my husband, Logan, from Lou Gehrig's disease in 1993, I wanted to honor the responsibilities placed on me in God's call for the continuation of this vast work of evangelization, catechesis, prayer, and social outreach.
The sun was peekin out from behind the clouds when I arrived to see Annie. Her neighborhood had a unique pattern of streets resembling a square box that gave a false feeling of security. There were a few old oak trees scattered about, but most of the landscape consisted of marred old brick and cracked sidewalks littered with glass.
The smell of uncollected garbage hit me as I opened my door to a growing crowd of people. The bony men with addictions etched in their faces lined up as if at a Sunday buffet. Moms holding tiny babies on their hips joined them. The growing line of needy people greeted me with enthusiastic affection and cheer as I stepped out of my car. I had been gone a week while caring for my daughter, and the community buzzed with talk of my visit. Many tugged on me as they gathered to hear news of my family.
My arrival signified the return of Exodus' outreach program. Streetside, Exodus' street mission, uses a 40-foot recreational vehicle as a community center on wheels, whih offers relief in neighborhoods all over DC. Exodus offers prayer, Scripture study, food, art, crafts, music, games, clothing, household furniture and, most importantly, a weekly curriculum that teaches the truths of the Catholic Church. Many of the poor assembled in anticipation-my appearance meant that their needs for the day would be met.
Annie was a beautiful child with a head of thick, black curls and large, almost charcoal eyes. She greeted me with a smile as wide as her face. I have never known a child who smiled as much as Annie. Unlike other five-year-olds, Annie could not run or jump or play hopscotch. Instead, she sat and looked, unable to move. It was hard to fathom Annie's suffering. Her childhood entailed a limited life of tedious days full of disappointments. I simply had nothing heroic to share and was quiet when I was with her. Annie patiently waited in the corner and watched the shadows play on the sidewalk as I finished prayer with a menagerie of folk who beged for God's compassion.
As I prayed with each person, I focused on what I could say as a word of encouragement. I remembered the healing of my young son, Mercer.
A year after my dear husband had left us bound for heaven, Mercer and two of his best friends experienced a horrible tragedy. As they drove to a dance, a driver going 40-miles-per hour over the speed limit crashed into their car, crushing the three boys. Mercer tried to keep one friend awake so he would not die. Mercer screamed for the paramedics and a priest as he watched one of his buddies bleed to death. When I arrived at the hospital, I didn't recognize Mercer. This fine athlete, who was scouted for college ball in eighth grade, was now crippled and might never run again.
The accident crushed Mercer's eye, broke his jaw, cheek, arm, and ribs, and severely damaged his leg. He underwent many surgeries, but never regained normal use of his leg. He walked with great difficulty, dragging his right foot i an effort to get around.
Two years later, an enormous blizzard blanketed our city. I was a daily communicant, and the thought of going without the Eucharist was extremely painful for me. But there was no way the roads would be cleared for services the next day. The next morning, however, I received a call inviting me to Mass in an adjacent neighborhood, where a priest was snowed in. I grabbed my boots and headed for the door. Mercer met me and together we trudged through the deep snow. As I watched Mercer drag his broken body to receive Jesus, in the quiet of my heart I knew that God would heal him.
Several months later I received a phone call from a neighbor asking me to come home. I pulled into my driveway and saw Mercer dashing up and down the street. I stepped out of the vehicle and realized that it had been three years since I had seen him run. Mercer was sprinting like Forrest Gump-back and forth, just running and running. I sat on the curb and sobbed with deep gratitudefor our Lord's faithfulness in healing my son.
I carried these memories with me as I ministered to the poor and suffering. After I prayed with and offered encouragement to the needy crowd, I embraced my patient little Annie. I was amazed by Annie's resourcefulness. She was trying to catch the shadows leaping on the pavement in front of her wheelchair. Annie's face showed such delight that everyone around her could not help but smile. She giggled and stretched toward the shadows. As I released Annie's brakes and wheeled her down the sidewalk, dodging holes and giant ravines in the concrete, I thought about Mercer and his healing, and I quietly prayed for mydaughter Kemper's suffering to end.
The crowds dispersed and the neighborhood returned to its usual rhythm. Adults lounged in lawn chairs on rickety porches. Little children darted in the streets, catapulting balls in spirited afternoon games. The sun beamed on Annie as we strolled up and down the block, stopping occasionally to observe the frolicking of little girls and boys.
Annie clapped to show her appreciation for many of the kids pausing to wave. We stopped at the corner where the sunlight spun its magic around Annie, inventing an army of fairies who jumped on the grooves and crevices of this place. Annie leaned over as far as she could and kissed the shadows. She glanced over her head and laughed while I joined her in the absurd game she had begun.
Suddenly she stopped and motioned to me. I leaned down while she whispered: "I thank Jesus for today, a fun day. And for every day. And I thank Jesus for you, Mary. He loves us both, yes He does." Tears rolled downmy cheeks. I thanked the Lord for Annie, His sweet grace in my life.
Annie died of a weak heart soon after our visit. I prayed for her soul, and was reminded of God's charity in bringing her into my life. Her joy in spite of her suffering has greatly encouraged me in my ministry to my family and the poor.
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever" (Ps. 23:6).
That day on the streets I met Jesus in Annie. I witnessed the Lord's goodness and mercy that followed Annie all the days of her brief life. And she blessed us all by her tender gift of love.
Mary Lyman Jackson. "Tender Mercies of Love: A Day of Street Ministry with the Poor." Lay Witness (March/April 2002).
This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. LayWitness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.
Mary Lyman Jackson, cofounder and president of Exodus Youth Services, Inc., a Catholic ministry to the poorest of the poor on the streets of our nation's capital, writes from her farm in Culpepper, VA. To contact Mary, write: Exodus Youth Services, Inc., 8150 Leesburg Pike, Suite 220, Vienna, VA 22182; or call (703) 748-2356, or email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.exodusyouth.org.
© 2002 LayWitness
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