His Grateful Face

THE FACE OF MERCY: Stories and Reflections from the streets of New York

“Jesus Christ reveals the face of the Father’s mercy.” (Pope Francis)

Of You my heart has spoken: Seek His Face.” (Psalm 27)

February 3, 2016

James* lives in a hospital in Harlem. He is one of the first residents I met there, and one of the few Catholics. In his slightly slurred speech, James will readily inform you why he is here.

“Do you know why I’m here? Heart-attack. You know why? My mom committed suicide. Suicide. My dad died. Cancer. My mom got depressed and she committed suicide.”

James is frank and open. He also has very poor short-term memory. Every week we have the same conversation – several times in a row. He will tell me that he used drugs and drugs are bad. He wants to know what time it is – every two minutes. He wants to know what channel I like to watch on TV at home.

Me: “Well, James, I don’t really watch TV.”

James: “Never?!”

Me: “Well…no, not really.”

James: “What about music? Do you like music?”

Me: “Yeah, I like music.” (“What kind of music?”)

James: “What kind of music?”

Me: “Oh, all different kinds.” (“Michael Jackson?”)

James: “Michael Jackson?”

Me: “Sure, I like some Michael Jackson.” (“Do you know what I like? Donna Summers. And disco music.”)

James: “Do you know who I like?”

Me: “Who?”

James: “Donna Summers. I like Donna Summers and Michael Jackson. And disco music. Dancing music.”

Our redundant conversation continues and repeats itself. And as the months pass, our routine Friday afternoon visit becomes strangely enjoyable.

“I need you to call the nurse. I pooped. I pooped.”

“Okay, let’s pray first and then you can call the nurse. Who do you want to pray for?”

(I already know the answer but this is my favorite part of our routine.)

“Linda, my wife. Jimmy, my son. And Donald, my godfather.”

“Okay, three Hail Mary’s. And one more for you. For James.”

James smiles and watches me and struggles to make an uncoordinated sign of the cross with his stiff muscles. I am always amazed that he remembers how to pray the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be.

That is a typical visit with James. But one particular Friday stands out.

I walked into James’s room and was startled to see him actually dressed and sitting in his wheelchair, eating lunch. Little flecks of cooked carrot decorated his stubbly chin. And he wanted to go to church.

James often asks me to go to church. It’s part of our weekly script, and I always explain to him (somewhat apologetically, somewhat guiltily, somewhat relieved) that “church” is over for that day and he’s still in bed and not dressed. Maybe someone can take him to church on Sunday?

I’ve been told that the nurses typically find it difficult to get James ready. I’m not sure of the whole story, but I don’t press the issue. The unfortunate result is that James does not often get to visit the chapel. But today, watching James clumsily transport peas and carrots to his mouth, I have a strange rush of affection.

“James, I am so sorry that it’s too late to go to church. But if the nurse says it’s okay, after lunch, do you want to go down and just visit Jesus in the chapel?”

“Yes! I’m finished with lunch! I want to go!”

I check things out with the nurse, who says there’s no problem, but warns me that James might yell in the chapel. I don’t have a problem with that. Right?

I wheel James into the elevator and then to the small hospital chapel. I smile at his excitement and wonder when James last got out of bed and left his room. I feel like we’re going on a field trip! When we slip into the chapel, Father is actually in the middle of celebrating a private Mass. We are the only two visitors. I park James’ wheelchair next to me.

James is silent and attentive. Every few minutes he leans over and respectfully and loudly whispers, “Pssst…thank you. Thank you for bringing me. Thank you so much.” Because we missed most of the Mass, we don’t receive Holy Communion. But after the final prayer, Father approaches James and asks him if he would like to go to confession. James eagerly replies yes, and I barely exit the chapel before he begins confidently proclaiming his sins.

When the two are finished, I pray next to James while he receives Jesus in Holy Communion. I am humbled by our Lord’s patience with my resistance, and by James’ gratitude to be in His Presence.

As we ride the elevator back upstairs, James is exuberant. “Today was a great day. I went to church. And got the Bread. And went to confession and I told Father that I swore and…”

“That’s okay, James! You don’t have to tell me what you told Father. And I’m so glad we could go to church today too.”

“Thank you. Thank you so much. This is a great day. What’s your name again? Thank you so much. When are you coming back? Next week? What day? What time? What time is church? Will you check if I can go back to church? Thank you again. Today was a great day. See you next week! How do you get home? The subway? How’s the subway? Dirty? Does it still have spray paint? Do me a favor. Get home safe.”

– LAMP Missionary Kirsten Goza