Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A stint at the convent

Last month I called up the Missionaries of Charity convent in the LA area and asked them if they needed volunteers. I thought perhaps they'd invite me to help them pass out lunches to the homeless folks, or put me to work in their soup kitchen. Instead, I was told they needed someone to spend four hours at the convent on Thursdays answering the phone and the door so the sisters won't be interrupted on their weekly day of prayer.

This sounded less exciting than feeding the poor, and so much the better. So every Thursday off I go to the convent, which doubles as a home for pregnant women and their young children. It's in a very poor neighborhood, but is sandwiched between a lovely old Catholic church and a big Catholic school. There are about 14 women and six kids living there, besides the six nuns. I sit in a front room with a phone and take all the calls ("I don't know... It's the sisters' day of prayer so they've got a volunteer answering the phone and I'm not sure what they'd say; would you be able to call back tomorrow?") and get the door. In the kitchen is a button that can be pressed to summon one of the sisters in an emergency. If some calls from another Missionaries of Charity convent, that qualifies. :) Here follows a blow-by-blow description of one recent day:

-- Right after I arrived the bathroom upstairs flooded. I made a command decision to press the emergency button. The youngest sister answered and dealt with the situation. She's white, but not American. I've been informed that 1 in 12 American women who try to join the Missionaries of Charity don't make it to first profession of vows. Apparently it's a very hard lifestyle and rich girls can't hack it.

-- A social worker came by to talk to one of the pregnant residents who had just arrived on Wednesday. The two of them stood right outside the open door of the room where I was sitting and had a conversation about her situation that included much personal detail. I didn't *try* to overhear....

-- A 4-year-old boy I'd seen before came to visit me. He wanted to know why I have "bumps" on my arms. He meant my freckles-- he's black and I don't think he's seen freckles up close before. It reminds me of the kids I met in Swaziland last summer, who had the same frank curiosity about physical differences. "Does she paint her hair?" they asked when they saw me.

-- One of the residents came by, looking upset and softly asking for a sister. I reminded her they were at prayer. She said with tears in her voice that she was bleeding and feared she was having a miscarriage! Second use of the emergency bell. We waited together in the front room while she sobbed and sobbed and I tried in vain to think of comforting words that wouldn't sound hollow. The youngest sister showed up again and drove her to the hospital. I started praying the Rosary, hard.

-- The mother of the resident who'd arrived on Wednesday called, wanting to speak to a sister about her daughter. I said apologetically that the sisters weren't available on Thursdays, and she began to vent a bit to me about the situation, giving all the personal detail from her side of story! I feel I know that family now; hope everything works out for them. :)

-- The 4-year-old returned and applied himself to the clasp of my watch. Eventually he managed to open and close it with his own little fingers. He probably spent twenty minutes working on the problem; quite a focused and determined child.

-- The doorbell rang. It was the woman who'd gone to the hospital! "How are you?" I gasped, and she said she was all right; it wasn't a miscarriage and she'd been sent right home. Thank God! In Latin for nerdy Catholics: Deo gratias!

-- The 4-year-old showed up yet again. "What?" he asked when he saw me smiling. "I'm just happy about something," I said.

-- After four hours a sister came to relieve me. I gave her some tapes I'd made from EWTN commemorating Mother Teresa on the 10th anniversary of her death. She looked happy. The nuns don't have a TV but they can borrow one from the school next door. Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity, so of course they're quite devoted to her memory. They still call her "Mother"; the woman who's now in charge of the order wouldn't take that title and is known simply as Sister Nirmala.

-- Driving home I prayed a Rosary in thanksgiving for the life of the not-miscarried child. The next week when I saw the mother she showed me a new ultrasound picture of her healthy baby. :)

I did not expect my little stab at volunteer work to be so interesting! (And I won't really mind if it's never so interesting again...)

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