I should be a better person than I am, given family and friends that surround me. One of my favorite relatives was one of my great aunts. My grandfather’s sister was a sister. I know people like to tell stories of ruler wielding nuns, but my aunt was a generous soul with a great sense of humor. During her 90th birthday party, she returned from the restroom appearing a little perturbed. “I have all this family and not a single one of you told me my wig was crooked.” Then she laughed at her own joke. (She’s also the one who told my grandmother that by marrying into the family, she was now 100% Irish.) She devoted her life to serving others.
Then there’s Father Roche, a priest from Ireland who came to my hometown one summer to raise money for his mission in Kenya. He became an instant friend to my family. He loved to sing. I think that’s the only time my family was ever quiet. (Thirty plus years of his singing and my dad only learned four words of one song, “Delaney had a donkey,” which he’d repeat over and over. He may know more, but as kids we thought it was funny he knew only the four words.) For four decades, Father Roche served his mission in Kenya, building schools and health centers. He led a simple life, but had boundless generosity.
And then there’s my parents, who have always volunteered their time and still do. When I was growing up, I didn’t realize what they were doing was volunteering their time and talents. I just thought they were busy. One of my nieces had to do a community service project in junior high school, and then continued to volunteer on her own into her senior year of high school. It was her idea to continue. The list goes on. All these role models and yet it never dawned on me to give my time freely.
I was in town for the summer with a coveted internship and a great gig house sitting – a three-story house in Cambridge, just a short walk from Harvard Square and a block from the Charles. No rent, I only had to take care of a few plants (I was a little concerned when I saw that they were orchids). It was a summer of catching up with old friends, pizza and travels.
As I was kayaking, it hit me how lucky I was.
Then it hit me that the universe would want to get paid.
I wish I could claim some better motivation than paying off a cosmic debt, but that’s what finally got me to at least mimic my family and friends.
I currently volunteer a couple days a week at St. André Bessette’s in downtown Portland. St. André’s offers meals six mornings and two evenings a week. Plus, haircuts (by professionals), clothes and help navigating resources. But most of all, St. André’s tries to offer hospitality, a place to be welcomed. I’m assigned easy jobs of washing dishes, serving food or distributing clothes.
Every Wednesday, St. André’s also offers “foot care.” A few retired nurses, joined by local nursing students, wash, massage and care for the feet of our guests. Many of the guests are homeless or have diabetes or spend their day invisible. I’ve stepped in puddles and complained about my wet feet. The closest I ever came to washing someone else’s feet was as an altar server in grade school on Holy Thursday, but I just carried the towel. I didn’t have to touch feet. These nurses come back each week to wash feet. If my fear of a cosmic debt is true, I’m only paying off the interest.