by Susan Scharfman
The essence of the rose is known only to those who become roses.
– Tibetan Buddhist
While living in Washington, DC I heard about a homeless women’s shelter run by Carmelite nuns. I was familiar with this Roman Catholic order from my previous foreign service assignment to Kenya. At that time I took a holiday to visit an American lay couple living in a remote backwater, along a winding river, deep inside a dense tropical forest—far from the pleasant highlands of Nairobi.
Africa Early 1960s – When Exotica Beat Robotica
The three boatmen in my small motorized craft belonged to the East African Luo tribe. The helmsman had a deep baritone voice, a shiny black face and a smile that showcased pointy white teeth, which he routinely sharpened with his razor-edged black-handled warrior knife. As with counterpoint call and response of traditional Blues, every few minutes the helmsman belted out an aria to signal our approach along the river where another opera star in some distant part of the jungle picked up the message and sang it forward, all to the beat of drums and the strings of the Nyatiti. It was 1962. It was the jungle internet before the digital internet and a lot more exotic!
With ample news of my arrival across the jungle telegraph, missionaries Edward and Teresa were ready to welcome me to their comfortable bungalow. Surrounded by a sea of tropical flowers and exotic plants, a separate school room stood behind the house, with an open shower nearby. A refuge for primates and other small animals, I soon found myself showering in full view of a vociferous troop of colobus monkeys. With their constant chatter and finger pointing, it was like being naked at the Improv.
A young Friar was also visiting the missionaries and together we feasted on roasted chicken, yams, local green vegetables and freshly baked bread and cinnamon carrot cake. Thanks to an electric generator, Teresa served cold lemonade. Edward played piano, the Friar had a fine tenor voice and we all enjoyed Simon and Garfunkel’s latest hits. Since Edward and Teresa were both nurses, the next day I met some of the local people who wandered in for medical attention. Their children came to learn English and Bible stories. I had traveled a great distance in a foreign land to have an American experience!
Fast Forward – 1980s Washington, D.C.
The District of Columbia has one of the highest homeless rates in the country. Each day as the sun set on some of the meanest streets of the nation’s capital, scores of homeless women lined up at the D.C. Carmelite shelter. Women of all ages, backgrounds and degrading levels of destitution were welcomed for supper and a clean, safe place to sleep. Under extreme levels of stress, the young nuns who ran the shelter were physically strong, mentally tough and compassionate. Usually a more contemplative order, sisters Margaret and Evangeline were high-spirited jokesters and unceasingly happy. I wanted to know what was the secret to that happiness. They were living the Buddhist teaching so often quoted by Joseph Campbell: “joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.” I wanted to feel that same joy.
The Lady’s Not For Burning
When I volunteered my services sister Margaret gave me the task of interviewing each arrival and completing a brief written profile. One elderly woman arrived clinging to all her possessions including multiple layers of dirty clothes and the lice in her hair. She said her name was Alice. I remember thinking she was about the same age as my own mother. When I told her she had to relinquish all her clothes, she panicked, flew at me with long dirty fingernails and a stream of expletives. When she tried to run away screaming, “don’t burn me, don’t burn me,” both nuns caught her, pulled off her clothes and threw them into an incinerator. After delousing and a haircut, they scrubbed Alice under a steaming hot shower, which she loudly resisted to the end. Finally, after a nourishing meal and clean bed Alice settled down. When I applied some Vaseline over her chapped face and peeling lips she whispered, “Ah, tonight I’m off the streets. Who the hell are you?”
Obviously Alice had mental problems and I never saw her again. But I returned often to that shelter to wash windows, mop floors and do whatever the nuns asked of me. In my “real life” I had a great job. But volunteering at the shelter opened my heart.
Getting High On The Self – “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”
In subsequent years I volunteered at various soup kitchens and homeless shelters. As a TM teacher, I taught transcendental meditation to veterans with PTSD. Each experience gave me a natural high. After retiring to my present location I discovered a narrow strip of land sandwiched between upscale Florida retirees and the beach fronts of billionaires. This area was occupied by poor elderly black people with no means of support other than Catholic and Jewish charities that delivered their meals.
Invisible to the affluent world around them, housebound oldsters inhabited a ramshackle rabbit warren of tiny one room dwellings that looked a lot like places I’d encountered in less developed countries. Some seniors were blind, others deaf. Often they had no relatives. Their attitude was gratitude. They regarded each day as a blessing and they never complained. They loved a good joke, a friendly chat. They were cheerful, grateful citizens overlooked by the wealthiest society on earth, except for the charities that cared for them. While hopping on and off those minivans with hot food and a warm hello, I was rewarded tenfold by the pure love they reflected back to me. A Washington, D.C. homeless shelter; a south Florida economic backwater. I had traveled a short distance in my own country to have a Third World experience!
At this time in human history, there is an incredible abundance of wealth in the pockets of a few. Donating to a favorite charity is always appreciated. Seeing the Self in others is the Grace that connects us to our own Divinity. The 18 inches from the head to the heart is the most fulfilling voyage of discovery a human being can make.
About the author:
Susan Scharfman is the author of The Sword & The Chrysanthemum, Journey of the Heart. Her professional life began as a production assistant at CBS News, New York. After five years in broadcast news as a writer and producer, she joined the diplomatic service of the U.S. State Department as a foreign service officer.
She has always worked in media communications. Some of her foreign service assignments include Holland, Belgium, Czech Republic, Vietnam, Japan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Morocco, Nepal. On assignments in the Washington press office, she wrote and produced educational documentaries for the Agency For International Development. She studied languages at the Foreign Service Institute; and advanced television production at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs. She is presently working on her second novel.