A Place at the Table

by Helen Cepero

When I began as a volunteer at the Center for AIDS Services, I knew little about it except that it had been started by Mother Teresa’s Missions of Charity community on a visit to Oakland, Calif.—a part of her North American mission to care for the dying. This was several years before retroviral medications were available; a diagnosis of full-blown AIDS meant you could measure your life in days and weeks instead of years. I was assigned to the kitchen, putting food on plates for the guests eating lunch at the center. Having just come through a season of conflict as an associate pastor, I was content with this simple task and glad to spend the day away from other concerns.

After I had volunteered for a few weeks, Sister Jacinta, the center’s director, looked at me curiously and asked, “Why are you staying in the kitchen?” At her urging, I began to not just serve the meal but also enjoy it with those gathered around the table, talking, eating, and laughing with them and listening to them.

At first I felt awkward. After all, I was healthy, while all the people at the center were HIV-positive or had AIDS. I was straight, while many of the people at the center were gay. I was white and middle-class, while many of the people at the center were members of minority groups and poor. The communities of gay people in the Bay Area were and are remarkable at caring for their own. But these men and women had mostly been rejected by their communities because they were transgendered or from ethnic-minority communities and both gay and sick, sometimes homeless.

Here I was the other. But the community also felt other to me.

It wasn’t long before I realized that the awkwardness belonged to me; it was not shared by the community of people there. They simply made a place for me at the table. We ate together and told our stories. I was only there once a week, but every Thursday I was both welcomed and remembered at the table.

Sister Jacinta had attended more wakes and funeral masses and memorial services than she could number. But she never forgot anyone she met, and she carried their stories within her. Even though there was grief and loss, Sister Jacinta’s stories kept the dead alive and remembered. And these people within her and around her were her joy. I’m sure she felt sadness, but what I noticed most about her is the way she celebrated the life of everyone around her, those who had died and those still living—including me. As director of the center, she trained her mostly volunteer staff by telling these stories. As I listened, I remembered reading about the desert mothers and fathers who instructed their followers with stories and aphorisms.

Sister Jacinta was an amma, a desert mother instructing her disciples. Her desert was not a landscape of sand and rock but a landscape of people and the wilderness of the AIDS epidemic. Hers was a radical hospitality that reached out to anyone who came across her path, including me. Sometimes she would take the train from the East Bay to San Francisco where she found a place to sit on the steps of the Civic Center with a sandwich cut in half, waiting to see who would sit beside her. Whoever took that sandwich half became her honored companion for the afternoon, and she their listening friend.

The clients at the Center for AIDS Services offered to me just what Sister Jacinta offered to the person who sat next to her on the steps of the Civic Center. They cut their sandwiches in half and gave me a share, and I had a place at their table—the center’s guests were my hosts. I knew I belonged when one day during a rummage sale a transgendered woman and I ended up bickering over the same skirt. Finally she threw up her hands and gave it to me. “You want it that bad, girl, you take it home,” she said.

As I returned each week, I recognized that I experienced at the center a truer sense of belonging than I found in my own faith community. These men and women knew how to receive one another without judgment. The sick, sometimes dying community of outsiders at the center knew about welcoming; they understood hospitality. They knew about celebrating one another’s stories even when that story was one of illness and death.

What I wanted was a break from my own conflicted community. What I found was a doorway into welcome and sharing in this richer life lived among those who were poor—in health, in finances, in family. What I found was a place at the table. An encounter with “the other” in the Scriptures is also surprisingly often a place of meeting God’s Spirit, the presence of the holy.

Helen Cepero trains spiritual directors at the C. John Weborg Center for Spiritual Direction at North Park Seminary and is executive director of the Spiritual Direction Formation Program at the Journey Center in Santa Rosa, Calif. This article is an excerpt from Christ-Shaped Character by Helen Cepero (InterVarsity Press, 2014). It appears here by kind permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515 (IVPress.com).

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