The horror of seeing someone you love, a face you know better than you know your own, in a hospital, comatose, with a ventilator in the mouth and tubes running all over: that’s about how I felt when I saw the cheery Friendship Room with safety signs and plexiglass all over it.
It was snowing so hard that I could not see the cliffs across the river. I could barely see the river itself through the driving snow, as I walked down the concrete staircase from Labelle to downtown Steubenville, to bring some gloves and hand-warmers to the Friendship Room.
The Friendship Room is a house of hospitality, after the heart of Servant of God Dorothy Day. It’s a brick house with a bright blue door in a poor part of downtown Steubenville. Urban missionaries stay there and run the house. They provide meals, clothing, shelter, and company for the poor and the homeless. They throw neighborhood parties on holidays and a big feast on Thanksgiving. They’re open as an air conditioning shelter during Steubenville’s intensely humid summers and a warming center in the dead of winter.
That’s how it usually works.
COVID-19 changed everything. People are often packed like sardines into the Friendship Room to keep from freezing this time of year. Now only one guest can come to the door at a time and that guest must be wearing a mask.
Covid-19 changed everything. People are often packed like sardines into the Friendship Room to keep from freezing this time of year, but now it’s illegal and dangerous to have a crowd indoors. The capacity limits for small buildings are very strict. The missionaries pass out to-go plates of hot food and bags of groceries instead of letting people inside for meals.
There are signs all over the house warning that only one guest can come to the door at a time and that guest must be wearing a mask. There’s a plywood box on one side that people can grab a blanket and a coat out of without coming to the door to ask for one, so as to reduce crowding. And they’ve bolted plywood and plexiglass to the porch to make a windbreak, a place where homeless people can take shelter at night while still, technically, being outdoors.
It’s not that they weren’t trying to make it look pleasant. The Friendship Room is determined to do everything pleasantly. They got big donations of beautiful Christmas lights, and they’re displaying all of them. They’d arranged lights outlining every window, and cascades of twinkling plastic icicles over the plexiglass as well. There was a life-sized Santa Claus figurine on the porch, wearing a red face mask. There was a novelty upside-down Christmas tree on the porch roof, flanked by another plastic Santa and one reindeer.
“Because 2020 feels like such an upside-down year,” one of the missionaries had explained earlier that week.
And all this glittering razzmatazz was covered in a blanket of fresh clean snow.
There was a forest of artificial trees in front of the plexiglass porch, between the little free library cupboard and the little free grocery cupboard the missionaries keep stocked for the poor to loot. In the middle was a luminous plastic creche set. That faded, mass-produced, Caucasian-looking Middle Eastern refugee couple knelt around a manger that was currently empty except for a thick mound of snow. The baby Jesus will be deposited there on Christmas Eve, if we last that long.
The missionary at the door took my bag of hand warmers gratefully. I stood behind the plexiglass wind break, watching the white flakes fall, until I got warm enough to walk home. The temperature was higher than on the street, but not by much. I didn’t even want to think about the people who would have to sleep on this porch under donated blankets during a pandemic.
The missionary at the door took my bag of hand warmers gratefully. Across the street from the Friendship Room stands a big Catholic church that used to have signs at every entrance telling parishioners to call the police rather than give panhandlers money.
Across the street from the Friendship Room stands the great big Catholic church, the church where the important people go. Aesthetically speaking it’s the opposite of the Friendship Room: a Baroque-style church as big as a cathedral. The church is so massive, and the street that runs between them so narrow, that standing on the Friendship Room’s porch I would have had to lean back to be able to see its roof.
They used to have signs at every entrance to that church, right next to the signs demanding modest attire, cautioning parishioners to call the police rather than give panhandlers money. Once Michael got told by an usher that he couldn’t sit down, when he showed up on Assumption day in his shabby coat and hat. You could fit a lot of homeless people, carefully socially distanced, in that church.
The first Catholic church to be built on that spot was begun in 1830, then was razed and built again bigger in the 1850s. Both buildings were constructed with the labor and funds of the working class children of Irish and German immigrants, despite great hardship and even a literal mob of bigots who tried to start a riot to stop the building’s construction. The Germans and the Irish were victims of prejudice and hate, as despised and reviled as the Holy Family who could find no shelter in all of Bethlehem.
Their descendants have achieved the American Dream: they don’t have to live downtown anymore. They only come here for Mass. This is the normal ebb and flow of the tide of American cities. We come here as riffraff, live downtown in squalor, build a church, and eventually our descendants become people who want nothing to do with the squalid riffraff that live downtown.
The Son of David returns again and again to the City of David, and finds nowhere to lay His head.
Before going home I knelt on the wet sidewalk, to sing to the invisible Child in the empty crib.
“Sing, choirs of angels!
Sing in exaltation!
Sing all ye citizens of Heaven above!
Gloria, Gloria, in Excelsis Deo!
O come let us adore Him,
O come let us adore Him,
O come let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord!”
The snow hid the church and the Friendship Room from sight as I made my way back to LaBelle.
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