Lunch with Mother Maria


by Bev Cooke

Sandwich Saturday in downtown Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Sandwich Saturday in downtown Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

It's time for lunch! Deacon Kevin grabs a sack of sandwiches. The rest of us grab the table and boxes of drinks, granola bars and fresh fruit, then truck them over to the tree on Harris Green. People start moving toward us even before we've set up the table. I see Anthony weaving his way down the street. His ultimate aim is the table, but it may take a while. His eyes are glassy and he probably hasn't slept in a couple of days. There's Donald, neat, thin and always polite. When panhandling, he introduces himself and offers a handshake. He'll stick around for talk. He knows Edward and me. Others approach whom I recognize but whose names I don't yet know.

We grab peanut butter sandwiches, fruit and juice and stuff them into paper lunch bags as fast as we can. The first five or ten bags are handed out right away, along with a soupçon of conversation.

Once they get their lunches, they scatter. It's quiet so we concentrate on packing more bags. People come up in ones and twos, talk for a bit and often ask for an extra bag "for a friend" or their wife or husband. Sometimes it's for later. That's okay Monday, when the soup kitchens open, is almost 48 hours away.

Someone wants another juice box no problem. Someone else wants to know if they can have a banana instead of an apple no teeth. That's a problem because we don't have any bananas today. How about an extra sweet roll? Fine. Someone else wants to exchange their granola bar. He doesn't like almond flavor. Okay, what about the blue package? That's okay.

Part of me resists. We're giving them food. Take it and be grateful! But then again why shouldn't our guests get what they want, my more-baptized self asks? If someone doesn't like almond granola bars, best he has what he likes.

I scan the area while giving out lunches. Mama D isn't here yet. She doesn't come every week and I look forward to seeing her. I know nothing about her, except what I see  a tiny woman, age indeterminate. She looks older than me, except her hair isn't gray. It's a lovely soft black, done up neatly in a bun. She's bent double with a disability, and speaks in a voice so soft I can hardly hear her. I have to bend double myself just to get my ear close to her mouth, and even then I miss most of what she says. But something about her went straight to my heart the first time I saw her, and I love her  it's that simple.

More people come up for the lunches. We talk among ourselves or with someone who likes to discuss theology.

A man I call the "God shouter" comes up. He declines a lunch bag because, he says, we are the dupes and lackeys of authority, and to do so would ... I'm not sure what. He gets incoherent at that point. He lives in a reality of which I have no idea, and his intersects ours only by chance. God told him that we are the lackeys. Apparently God is angry at us. He quotes God - God walks right beside him, along with a host of invisible-to-us beings. This makes conversation hard. We're never sure if he's talking to us or one of his companions. He scares me because he is so angry and violence seems so close. But Deacon Kevin is somehow able to connect. Our visitor wanders off with a juice box.

A couple come up and accept a lunch. My divided self pipes up again: Obviously they aren't homeless or poor, not with that gem on her finger. Surely they have a place to sleep. Why are they taking food not meant for them? My other half answers: If they want one of our peanut butter sandwiches, then they have a need. It's just not as visible as Anthony's or Mama D's. Appearances can be misleading. Anyway, it's not for us to decide who "needs" a bag lunch.

I check my watch. I have to be going. I have an appointment in half an hour, and I need to decompress. Being here touches me deeply, too deeply for me to see how it touches me. Being here changes the way I see the world. Being here touches me in ways I suspect are going to change me profoundly, forever.

We've been doing Sandwich Saturdays for half a year. A bakery gives us their leftovers. On Friday night, we gather at the Saint Maria Skobtsova Center to make sandwiches. Then on Saturday afternoon, we gather at "the tree" on Harris Green in downtown Victoria, British Columbia. We set up a table and put the sandwich bags together to give to the homeless and needy who come by.

The Center and Sandwich Saturday are the brainchildren of three men and one saint; Father John Hainsworth and Deacon Kevin Miller, respectively the rector and the deacon of All Saints of Alaska Orthodox Church, and Edward Seraphim, one of our parishioners. I harbor deep suspicions that Saint Maria Skobtsova had long been lying in wait for these three to meet.

Edward lived on the streets for years  a homeless addict before getting clean and returning to God seven or so years ago. When Edward was given credit at a local Catholic bookstore in exchange for doing a computer repair, he chose the Orthodox Study Bible. "It has more books in it than any other Bible I'd ever seen," he jokes. He was amazed by the Study Bible's contents. He began e-mail correspondence with two Orthodox priests who advised him to get in touch with a local priest, Father John, and he did.

The two met for coffee and talked. And talked. Then Edward met Deacon Kevin and the three of them got together, talked, and talked some more. Both the Saint Maria Center and Sandwich Saturdays came out of those talks. Another consequence was that Edward was baptized into the Orthodox faith.

Both Father John and Edward have a deep interest in society's poor and homeless. "I always wanted to do something for the streets," Father John explains. "That all began in 2003, but it was also around then that I started turning all my energies into the parish." What he doesn't mention is that, besides starting a new parish (All Saints) in 2002, he also began a university chaplaincy, and a province-wide, pan-Orthodox youth summer camp. That left scant time to begin outreach to the poor. But he didn't forget it. "That was always in my mind and we started handing out bags of things to homeless people after the liturgy on Saint Nicholas day. That was really a good thing to do, but very small."

Edward knew the streets, and could teach Father John and Deacon Kevin about the level and depth of need that existed. With Edward acting as guide, the three were able to navigate the established aid organizations as well as meet some of the people using them.

Once they met him, street people began to flock to Father John for prayer and counseling. When asked what they needed, they said food on Saturdays. Most soup kitchens close on the weekend. A secular activist group (Food not Bombs) hands out food on Sundays but that left Saturday. "They especially wanted food you can take away and eat in the middle of the night," Edward explained.

Thus was Sandwich Saturday born, something small and manageable "that could be kept going for decades," says Father John.

At about the same time a downtown physical space for outreach became a reality. The parish had been, for several months in an "ebb situation." The parish council decided to fight the ebb with its own flow and the deacon was delegated to research ideas.

One idea was to emulate the model of a small, suburban church, similar to ours, which had set up a bookstore and outreach center in a downtown area of another city in order to enhance their visibility. But the idea "hung in the background" until Edward arrived. Deacon Kevin remembered the downtown bookstore and outreach center, but dismissed the idea as All Saints had no money. Yet he thought, "there's gotta be somewhere in Victoria where there's a little nook." The intent gradually became a resolve. "And we're not only going to have books and a chapel," Deacon Kevin recalls, "but also get involved in the community downtown. Outreach to the homeless would be part of it."

Then came the inspiring example of St. Maria Skobtsova of Paris and the house of hospitality she founded in Paris in 1932. Our idea evolved from helping the disadvantaged to following her example by creating a pan-Orthodox gathering place, an Orthodox presence downtown.

The search began. We found space on the second floor of an old livery stable. The owner agreed to a rent so far below market value that it felt like a miracle. (Another miracle is that the rent for fourteen months has since been guaranteed by an anonymous donor.) Spiros Spanos, a member of the Greek Orthodox community and a general contractor, gave many hours of labor to renovate the space into a chapel, office, kitchen and sitting area with bookshelves. Thanks to a building demolition next door, we inherited enough electrical supplies to rewire and light the space, a set of slate floor tiles and good flooring. Paint was donated by another member of the Greek Orthodox community. To cap the entire thing, a gifted mosaic artist has agreed to donate a mosaic for the chapel floor.

Because of the pan-Orthodox interest in the center, a board of directors has been set up, with representation drawn from four parishes: Ukrainian, Greek, Orthodox Church in America, and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

So how does Saint Maria figure into this?

Father John was the first to stumble across her. "I first encountered Saint Maria in 1997 when I moved to Scotland and began encountering the wider Orthodox world," he says. She stayed pretty much in the background until two years ago when he found a copy of her book, Essential Writings. "Matushka Jenny and I were totally taken by her and her life and what she went through."

Deacon Kevin found her through Jim Forest's children's book, Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria and the Trash Can Rescue. He bought the book two years ago and read it to his children. "I thought it was cool that we had someone who did something so brave during the Nazi occupation. I was awed." A year later, he attended a lecture Jim gave in Victoria, then went home and re-read the book.

I was introduced to her through my godson, Matthew Christopher Davidson, a poet and musician. He'd been doing some reading about beauty and worship and had found some of Saint Maria's essays on line.

He forwarded the link in January 2008 and I was amazed at her words: "The most terrible thing is that it may well be that the guardians of beauty ... will not comprehend Christ's beauty, and will not let him into the church because behind him there will follow a crowd of people deformed by sin, by ugliness, drunkenness, depravity and hate. Then their chant will fade away in the air ... and Someone will say to them: 'I was hungry and you gave me no food. I was thirsty and you gave me no drink. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me'."

Later Matthew said, "at the time I was trying to exegete and defend beauty at all costs in worship. I was really challenged by what Saint Maria said, a warning not to become so lost in the beauty of the Liturgy that you lose Christ and love. She talks about how the poor are broken and just need God and love but are ignored by people who see beauty only in church services."

Saint Maria wrote: "Love is a very dangerous thing. At times it must reach down into the fathomless lower levels of the human spirit, it must expose itself to ugliness, to the violation of harmony. There is no room for it where beauty, when once discovered and sanctioned, reigns forever."

Edward was introduced to her by Father John. Of all of us, he had read the least about her, yet in many ways, he captures her vision of work with the poor and the disadvantaged most closely. "The reason they are where they are is that nobody gives a shit," he says. "If you feed somebody, they're hungry tomorrow. If you clothe them, the clothes wear out. But if you give them a sense of self-worth, if even for a second they can experience unconditional love, God's love, you've added something they can carry with them for ever. But nobody wants to look at them. For the most part people are there because they have nobody to go home to. Not that they don't have a home to go to, but that they don't have anyone at home. Nobody wants them, not even their families. What good is a lonely, miserable apartment? They need people to treat them as an equal."

Saint Maria said, "Each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world." She insisted that we need "to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God" in those we meet, even if they are wearing unwashed, slept-in clothing and need a shower.

We don't know where we're going. Even the coming year is clouded for us. We don't have an agenda. We aren't going to become a "major player" in the downtown aid community. We aren't out to make ourselves famous. We don't have any new theories about how to help people. The center needs furnishings. At present we have no income other than the donation that covers rent.

Perhaps Edward captures the feeling best: "Sandwich Saturday is a first step. The next step is up to God, and he hasn't told us yet. For me, personally, as long as we're going in the right direction, God will guide us to the center. God will make sure we stay on the road as long as we're moving forward."

All we can do is try to love those whom most people try to avoid, to love them as Christ loves us all, to venerate them as bearers of the image of Christ  even the "God shouter" who still scares me and try to give them what they say they need, which right now is a bag lunch, a smile, and, in the case of Mama D, a big hug whenever we see each other.

I have a feeling that they are helping us as much as we are helping them, and maybe more. ❖

Bev Cooke is a Canadian author whose books include Royal Monastic and Keeper of the Light, both from Conciliar Press, and Feral (Orca Book Publishers). Her home is in Victoria, British Columbia. She is on the board of directors for the Saint Maria Center: .
Winter Issue IC 55 2010