GUEST WORDS--Mother Teresa’s Gift of Love House was located in a beautiful Victorian home in a quiet residential neighborhood of San Francisco. These kinds of Victorian homes are called Painted Ladies.
Sister Sylvia, whom I had spoken to on the phone, greeted me at the door. She was a short, round sister whose laughter was infectious. She said, “It is so nice to meet you, Joy. Please follow me, and I’ll introduce you to the other Sisters and the young men that are staying here. We are always very grateful for volunteers.”
A CLOROX WOMAN
A deep voice in the back of the room shouted at me: “My mother was a Clorox Woman, how about you?” It was a man holding a mop and bucket in his hand. Laughing, he walked up to me and said, “My name is Thomas. What’s yours?”
“Joy. It’s nice to meet you, Thomas.”
Thomas handed me the mop and bucket saying, “Have fun sweetheart. After all, you are in the notorious city called San Francisco where anything can happen — and often does.”
Mother Teresa’s Gift of Love House was a home in San Francisco that provided love, housing and hospice care for homeless men dying of AIDS. Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity sisters set up some of the very first homes for homeless men dying of AIDS.
In the Bay Area, they began offering loving care to men suffering from AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s. Most of the men were under 25 years of age and there were ten men living in the house at any given time. Mother Teresa didn’t care about the number of people. She believed in doing small things with great love.
BEAUTY NEVER DIES
A young man in the bed on the other side of the room motioned for me to come over to him. I put the mop and bucket down and pulled up a chair next to David’s bedside. He began to tell me the story of his life. He was only 28 years old and would die within two weeks of our first meeting.
David’s laughter rang out through the whole house, in between quick trips to the open window, where smoke billowed from his mouth to the streets below. Since he was no longer able to physically make it down the stairs to smoke outside, he found a way to sneak a puff without being caught by the sisters!
“My lovers have all died from AIDS,” David told me, “plus I’ve seen 28 of my friends pass away from it. Hideous thing, this disease.” Then David asked me, “How bad do I look, Joy?” His face looked like an eight-year-old child asking his mother for reassurance.
“You are absolutely gorgeous, my dear friend,” I told him.
After all of his suffering, all that remained was his soul’s pure essence, whose beauty never dies.
“Please be honest, Joy. Look at the sores all over my arms. Do you think I’ll ever date again? Who would want me?”
“Me!” I answered.
“But you are a woman!” he screamed.
A sister wearing a blue-and-white apron walked up to David and placed a tray of food on his nightstand.
“Oh no, look at these pancakes,” David yelled. “Sister Sylvia, the worst cook in the house, is at it again. Why they let her near a stove, I’ll never know. Watch this!”
David took one of the pancakes and threw it on the floor.
“It’s as heavy as a rock and almost dented the linoleum,” he said. “And Sister Sylvia expects us to eat these? Please, if you are going to volunteer here, see to it she is fired, OK? I don’t want to die with a stomach full of bricks made of pure lard.”
“David, how did you find Mother Teresa’s Gift of Love House?” I asked.
“I was in the hospital and the nurses called the sisters to ask if they would take me in. When you are close to death and homeless, they either find you shelter or put you on the streets to die. Mother’s sisters came to the hospital and brought me here. If you can make it past Sister Sylvia’s cooking, you can survive AIDS!”
He laughed. I fell in love with David and took him on as my adopted brother.
‘BUT MOTHER, I’M A JEW’
“I hate you!” screamed a voice from behind me. Quickly turning around, I saw a young novitiate standing at the door, her eyes widening. The man in the next bed had thrown a Bible at her.
“Take your religion and shove it. Do you hear me Sister, shove it!” he yelled.
If I were suffering as few of us can even imagine, had no home or family, and was barely 20 years old, I am certain I would be extremely frightened and even angrier.
“Don’t mind John. He is always screaming at me too,” said the man in the bed next to David. There was a picture of Mother Teresa on the wall above his head. She is smiling. “My name is Simon, by the way. I just turned 20 last week.”
“Happy Birthday,” I told Simon.
“I’m a Jew,” Simon continued, “and when Mother Teresa was here at Christmas time, she asked me to carry the baby Jesus during the ceremony. I explained to her, ‘But Mother, I’m a Jew.’ ‘Doesn’t matter. We are all the same,’ Mother said to me with a big smile.”
“I thought it would be a big statue of Jesus, but guess what, Joy?” he said. Holding out his hand and pointing to his palm, he said, “He fit right here, in the palm of my hand. Jesus was no bigger than two fingers. Where they dug that statue up, I’ll never know!” We both burst out laughing.
Simon’s short life would be over in one week from the day we met, but the love he showered on the rest of the homeless men in the Gift of Love House will endure forever. He magically made their pain disappear for a few moments, except for their bellies which were sore from laughing too hard at the jokes he told every second. I will never forget “Simon the Jew, Angel of Laughter!”
ANGELS COME IN ALL SIZES
“Who wants to go to Mass?” Sister Helen asked the men in the hospital beds lining the rooms and halls.
On Sundays, the sisters rolled back the partitions between the rooms so all the men that wanted to, could take part in the ceremony without leaving their beds.
The priest was a heavy-set man whose stomach jiggled when he laughed. “Good morning my friends. I welcome you to the table whose bounty is plentiful and where you are forever welcome,” he said, not realizing that this would be the last Mass two of the men would ever attend. They would die before the next service.
“I am blessed to not only have come from a large family, but to have been given an even bigger one with all of you as my brothers,” the priest continued.
“Fried chicken is ready. Get it while it’s hot,” shouted Christie as soon as Mass ended. Christie was a local radio DJ who did the volunteer cooking on Sundays, and even David, the cook critic, gave her a “thumbs up!”
She took home with her the men who had only a few days left to live and were suffering the most, and tenderly cared for them around the clock. I am certain some of the people I was meeting were angels, whose job was to make certain no soul died alone and unloved.
HAROLD IS ABOUT TO DIE
“Come,” Sister Grace said. “Harold is dying. Will you please sit by his bedside?”
Harold was from another country and spoke little English, but oh, those eyes… They poured out his whole life to me.
Sitting down next to his bed, I held his hand. It burned with fever. He died exactly ten minutes later. Harold accepted his fate and died at peace, with a beautiful smile on his face.
As I was leaving the room, another volunteer came in. The perfect order of the universe was unfolding before my eyes. When one of us leaves, another soul comes to take our place.
MY NEW FAMILY
One day, it was time for me to leave and Sister Sylvia carried my bag to the front door, thanking me for coming.
She said, “You are welcome to visit the Gift of Love House in Washington, D.C., if you are ever there. It’s for women and men who are homeless and dying of AIDS. They love volunteers, Joy!”
We hugged each other and I knew my new family was truly a galactic one, which included everyone on earth and the planets beyond.
(Longtime Street Spirit writer Judy Joy Jones has worked in several remarkable programs offering compassionate care for homeless people in the United States, France and Holland. Her story of volunteering with Mother Wright of Oakland appeared in the September 2017 Street Spirit. In this issue, she describes volunteering with Mother Teresa’s homes for homeless people with AIDS in the late 1980s and mid-1990s in San Francisco and in Washington, D.C. Posted first at Street Spirit.)