Dining with the least of my brothers and sisters

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One night when we were building our church in Magadan, Russia, in 2000, I woke up after a terrible nightmare. I had seen the church finished but it was empty and cold. No people. I woke up in sweats and literally fell to my knees and begged God to not let this happen. I wanted a church full of activity and people of all kinds.

Later that day during the morning office, in response to the nightmare of a locked up empty church, I made a decision. I read in Psalm 84: “How blessed are those who dwell in your house. They are ever praising you.” I decided not to look for an apartment to live in like a rectory situation but to live in the church. I frustrated the church builders. We rearranged a storage room to make a small monk’s cell, enlarged a hallway to make a small kitchen and installed a small bathroom. Some walls had to be torn down that were already built.

The construction crew and the plumbers all scratched their heads. “What is he doing?” they asked. I answered, “I want to be blessed so I am going to live in the House of the Lord all the days of my life.”

We have tried to keep the parish open to any activity so the church would be full. We have Alcoholics Anonymous meet twice a week. We have a kids club on Saturdays. Kids come from all over Magadan just to enjoy a lovely lunch, some God-talk and some English lessons. We have some kids from our native population who come from our “Moms and Kids” pro-life program. Saturdays are full, especially with our youth and adult evening gathering by our student Catholic missionaries. Then there’s life discussion and English lessons and another group of “non–churchy” folks who find a home in the church.

But recently I took another step. We had an attic room above the sacristy, which is now home to a woman who was raised in Soviet orphanages and a youth home — somewhat akin to detention centers in the US. She is studying to be a nurse but has little money despite working.

I saw in her a deep contemplative love for prayer. I invited her to live in the church to be a poustinik (Russian for “one who is dedicated to prayer”). She doesn’t have to work to pay rent and can now study and go to school more easily. She would join me in regular prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. She agreed.

What I didn’t initially realize is that she has an uncanny ability to draw in the poor. She is helping them get their documents in order so they can get financial help if needed but mostly she just shows them support and love. So she invited some of our neighbors living on the streets to pray with us during adoration in the evenings. These people now shovel snow and some even are promising to attend AA meetings. This woman and our Sisters of Charity are responsible for our “Shower of Mercy” that we built from a tool room in our garage. Now some of these folks can have a shower once a week.

The last inspiration came as we were praying about the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. I realized I had little actual contact with her new friends. We have a Thursday night dinner after Mass — our little community night. Why not invite one of her friends to dinner each Thursday so we can get know them. Of course, the one rule is that they come to the meal sober.

Our first dinner was in November and I think we can do this as a parish regularly. Invite the elderly, those struggling with life for all kinds of reasons, and have a simple dinner together — dinner with the least of my brothers and sisters.

So, Lord, fill up this building we call the church with all kinds of folks who need to know of your love and your mercy and be healed so they can see their dignity as your sons and daughters. Amen.

The writer is pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Magadan, Russia.

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