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Serving the Sacraments of Salvation

By: Sarah Burger, Contributor

Originally Published February 27, 2024 

I wish I had held her hands or given her a hug when she told me the story of being hit by a car, but I was too nervous. The woman looked at me with sad brown eyes, her short hair clinging to her head in matted clumps. What could I say? I was used to receiving the hearts of my friends at school, I just had to try and apply those skills now.

“I’m so sorry” I said, “that sounds really scary.”

“It was terrifying!” she lamented.

“You’re so strong.”

“No, I’m not…”

She told me that her mother had died, and that she had not been a very good person. She concluded by telling me that she never felt the need to enact vengeance, because she knew God would take vengeance for her. Her statement reminded me of the cursing psalms. “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (Psalm 137:9).

No mincing of words, simply raw emotion.

I thought of telling her about God’s mercy but prudently decided better of it. Instead, I offered her hot chocolate and said “Well, God does love you so much!”

“He loves you!” she replied.

“I know!” I exclaimed.

We both laughed.

I had never really served people experiencing homelessness like this before now. In high school I had done some service hours in a soup kitchen, but walking around the streets of Baltimore on a chilly November evening and handing out sandwiches and hot chocolate with the Sisters Poor of Jesus Christ was completely different.

It was different because of the reason for their service. As I spent the day with them praying, making bracelets to sell, and running errands, all before going out to serve people experiencing homelessness, they emphasized the fact that they were not a “social services” organization. They were not simply an institution, but brides of Christ who have given their whole lives to the poor in gratitude to God.  

Over a lunch of spaghetti and baked chicken, the sisters told me that they used their service to console the Heart of Jesus by caring for those who have been rejected, as Jesus Himself was rejected by His friends during His passion. Sr. Samaritan told me about her work with prostitutes in El Salvador, and how she and the other sisters would share the Gospel with them whenever they were not working. They even worked with an organization that would help these women find different jobs so they could survive without having to sell their bodies. Sr. Samaritan explained how these women had been rejected, but most people had no idea what they had gone through to get them to the point of prostitution.

Sr. Giovanna told me how she had thought of leaving religious life when she had first joined the Poor of Jesus Christ in Brazil at the young age of sixteen. However, she had gone on a service mission and met a grumpy couple who were hesitant to speak with her and the brother and sister accompanying her. After speaking and praying with the couple, Sr. Giovanna took the woman’s hands, and the woman, who had not said a word the entire time, told her that she had been planning on killing herself that day, but did not want to anymore. After that, Sr. Giovanna knew she wanted to spend the rest of her life loving and serving those rejected by others.

“[The poor] are the ones who teach us.” A sister who was only twenty-one named Sr. Dalva explained.

But even more than that, the sisters told me how the poor are a “sacrament of salvation”. The sisters revealed how the poor will be the ones who open the doors of Heaven for them. They did not have to tell me how much of a gift the poor were to them. I could see it. I could see it in the way Sr. Dalva clapped along as one woman we served sang a song she had written. I could see it in the way Sr. Mary Clare had quiet and familiar conversations with the people experiencing homelessness. I could see it in the way all of the sisters remembered people’s names and invited them to a Thanksgiving lunch they were providing the next day.

“I really hope you can make it!” they would say, handing out cards with the time and address. The world may have seen these people as a burden, but the sisters saw them as a gift.

They also embraced the gift of one another. When asked what their favorite part of being a religious sister was (besides “being married to Jesus” as Sr. Samaritan laughingly answered when I asked. Well duh.) they all talked about community life. They discussed their complementary talents, and how they were able to build up and encourage one another. I could tell how much the sisters loved one another as I learned about each sister from the others. Sr. Mary Clare loved cats, Sr. Samaritan used to ride a motorcycle, Sr. Giovanna took all the other sisters to the inner harbor to ride electric scooters for her birthday…

They also talked about the stability and safety that comes from living in community. When one sister was experiencing spiritual difficulties, she knew the other sisters were praying for her. There is also the physical protection that comes from serving in numbers. In a 2023 study, Baltimore was ranked number four on a list of the most dangerous cities in the United States (World Population Review). This meant that the sisters had to constantly be checking their surroundings and looking out for one another.

When I first told my parents I wanted to go help the sisters in Baltimore, they were extremely wary. I considered telling them that if I was killed, I would be a martyr, but I didn’t think that would go over very well.

When the sisters and I went out into the city, I hovered around them like a timid puppy, waiting for them to ask me to hand them a sandwich or fill up a cup of hot chocolate. The sisters themselves, however, were fearless. Their brown habits and veils may as well have been invincible armor as they walked from person to person with large smiles on their faces. Sr. Giovanna told me laughingly that recently there had been comments on an EWTN video about the sisters expressing how dangerous their work is.

Sr. Giovanna understood why people would feel this way, saying “Without Jesus, my life doesn’t make sense”.

With Jesus however, giving up marriage, children, and material possessions and putting themselves in danger every day is a beautiful life. It is a life of consoling the Heart of Jesus who suffers because of the suffering of the ones He loves.

Sr. Giovanna shared the lyrics of a Brazilian song, “Who is the God who can be hurt when we hurt others?”

She told me that “when you give yourself to the Lord, everything is for Him.”

This means that when she is doing less extreme work like vacuuming the house for instance, she is still serving God. In fact, such chores help her feel the wifehood and motherhood that are a part of her vocation.

Such a mindset also helps when her ministry work becomes difficult. She explained how it can be discouraging to see people entrenched in such need day after day and feel like the sisters’ work of handing out food a few times a week isn’t making much of a difference. For instance, in 2022, volunteers helping with homelessness in Baltimore counted 1,600 people living on the streets in the city (WYPR). However, she continues to trust that she is doing God’s will, and He has placed her where she needs to be. We can never truly understand the mystery of how God uses us.

The sisters also emphasized the importance of prayer in their lives. They explained how all that we are given comes from God, and that without prayer, our work would be empty. When the sisters become tired or discouraged, they turn to prayer, relying on love Himself, Jesus Christ. Each sister takes a Holy Hour in adoration every day as a part of her daily routine.

I joined Sr. Giovanna for her holy hour that afternoon. I watched as the beautiful young sister knelt on hard tile floor for the entire hour, gazing at her beloved spouse in the open tabernacle. These sisters had found the love that many people spend their entire lives seeking. I asked Jesus for aid in discovering my vocation too.

As we continued walking around Baltimore, I grew in confidence, encouraged by the sisters. I became comfortable enough to talk to people on my own, but I loved watching the sisters to see how they would respond to the people they served.

One man we served named Jamal was extremely surprised to see the sisters. He told us how impressed he was because the city could be so dangerous.

“What can I do for y’all in return?” he asked.

I looked at Sr. Dalva who stood beside me.

“You can pray for us!” Sr. Dalva replied.

Jamal agreed to pray for us, and also walked with us for a little while to make sure we stayed safe. When we were washing dishes after returning to the sisters’ house, I told Sr. Dalva how impressed I was by the kindness of the people experiencing homelessness. She told me that the people experiencing homelessness were very polite and kind, they just didn’t think that about themselves.

Shortly after returning to the sisters’ house, my dad came to pick me up and as we drove through the city, he lamented its current state and told me how nice it used to be. I do not know know what Baltimore used to be like, or really how to fix its current problems, but I know that if one by one we could begin to love and serve like the Sisters Poor of Jesus Christ, many lives, and the world itself—would change.

Editor Note: The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely the author’s. Publishing of any opinion piece does not represent endorsement of the piece by The Review staff or Saint Vincent College.

 

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