At my downtown urban parish it's not unusual to see homeless men and women come and go or spend time sleeping in the back pew. One man in particular is always very moving to watch as he makes his way to the front of church during Sunday Mass to leave a donation of stuffed animals for the local food pantry. Occasionally, the homeless patrons of the church ask those in the pews for money before or after Mass, but most of the time they just sit quietly in the presence of the Lord.
This past Sunday morning, during the sign of peace, on old, African American man that I had never seen before moved past the three young adults that were sitting in front of my family. He stopped in front of the young woman who was sitting farthest inside of the pew and hugged her tightly and then asked her what her name was. I could sense her cringing in discomfort as she moved her purse to her other side. Following Mass, he stopped another woman, beamed at her and held her arms tightly as he spoke with her. There's something about moving into another person's personal space that makes us nervous, doesn't it?
Later that morning, Paul and I were in the parish center waiting to assemble sandwiches for a local meal program with the other parents of the Religious Education program. Here came that man again, this time with a red geranium in his hand that had obviously been picked from the garden outside of church. He had a huge smile on his face as he took a seat along the wall, but was soon escorted out by a parish staff member.
He came back again for the daily Mass for All Soul's Day. He walked into church during the homily and sat in the pew directly across from me. I noticed that he was holding a spray of pink and white flowers in his hand. He held those flowers up high in front of him during the remainder of Mass and had a huge smile on his face that wouldn't quit. The way he held those flowers I couldn't help but think that he resembled the Archangel Gabriel in the Annunciation painting above the high altar, although instead of a white gown, he was dressed in khaki pants and a flannel shirt.
Then John left the pew and moved toward a side altar at the front of the church where a man was lighting a votive candle. When the other man left, John proceeded to light every remaining votive candle until a woman came and asked him to leave some candles unlit for others to light, so he quietly moved back to a pew and sat for a while.
Finally, he stood up and walked to the altar where he made a profound and reverent bow. I became nervous as I saw him walk up the altar steps and stop at the altar. He placed a piece of paper on the altar, and the morning's altar server, who was still inside the sacristy, came out and told him that he couldn't leave anything on the altar, explaining that it was a sacred space. He then walked to the back of the church, made a loud splash at the holy water font and left the church.
I'm certain that John most likely suffers from some mental illness and is one of the ranks of the many homeless people who live downtown, but this morning, watching his smile, noting the sweetness with which he held that bouquet of flowers, again, most likely plucked from the parish garden, and seeing his reverence at the altar, I couldn't help but think that this man was truly a heaven-sent angel. And his message through his compliments and his gift of flowers? God's deep and abiding love for me. And his message through his innocent actions of lighting all the candles and attempting to leave a message at the altar? God's deep and abiding love for him. John's smile was contagious and I can't seem to stop smiling myself as I ponder the little taste of heaven that I experienced on All Soul's Day through the gentleness of the innocent and child-like actions of a stranger.