Service in the Streets of New York: What to do with a childless mother?
Service in the Streets of New York
What to do with a childless mother?
by Rev. Chelsea MacMillan
It’s Christmas Eve. Leo and I leave the house around 7 pm. It’s an unseasonably warm evening, muggy and gray. As we walk past the gigantic storage facilities and warehouse grocery stores in our Brooklyn neighborhood, this urban setting seems particularly harsh for a night that’s supposed to be festive and magical.
The day has already been an especially full one. I woke up with my senses on fire, and still everything seems more vibrant, more fragile, more beautiful, and, simultaneously, sadder and dirtier. My heart seemed more tender and sensitive than usual, imprinted upon by every sigh heard, every smile glimpsed. I found myself tearing up at the moments of raw humanity I witnessed throughout the day on the subway, on the sidewalk, and even at the office. On my way home, I read Mirabai Starr’s memoir, most of which revolves around the death of her daughter, and my heart finally broke open as I wept openly on the train.
I cannot, nor do I attempt to, claim to understand what it’s like to lose a child. The grief exposed by simply reading her book is an ounce of what I imagine it must feel like. But something inside of me is touched, a deep knowing of motherhood without having a child of my own. I can’t explain it (and even as these words flow out, they feel awfully inadequate), but I feel like a mother of the world. I look at people—everyone from strangers to acquaintances to close friends—and often see the child still living, or struggling to live, within. I look at refugees swimming to the shores of Greece, and I long to give them care. I look at the suffering of so many in the world, and my heart shatters as I feel a mother’s might. I feel like I know what it’s like to be a mother who can only stand by and watch her child endure one of life’s more difficult lessons, like a mother who can merely stroke her child’s forehead with soft fingers as she says, “I know, sweetie, I know,” or “show me where it hurts, honey.” I am no one’s mother, and yet I am everyone’s; my heart constantly breaks open and flows forth with love.
Leo and I make our way into midtown where we gather with a few friends in a small office-turned-sacred-space for an evening of prayer and street outreach. This is Hab, a prayer and sacred activism group formed by my friend Adam Bucko. We first make sandwiches for our homeless friends—a poor Christmas dinner to be sure, but one full of love—and then come together in a circle on the floor, our faces lit only by soft candlelight. The five of us breathe in the silence and pray together. We bless the food we have made and quietly take to the streets.
It’s hard to tell what plagues each. Some are sluggish and slur their words. Alcohol or heroin, perhaps. The light has disappeared from their eyes. In others, it’s as though the dial is turned to the highest setting. They’re jittery and their eyes, though glassy, are fiery. Of course, not all street people are addicts. Some have merely fallen on hard times. I wonder, how does one become homeless? It seems like such a thin line between “us” and “them.” I know people of all races and socioeconomic situations who deal with addiction and mental illness. People everywhere have cruel parents or spouses.
Near St. Francis, a church where so many street people congregate, I meet Denise, a husky-voiced woman who looks much older than she probably is. She is crying. Her 16-year-old daughter called her Denise instead of Mom. I think of my own sweet mother who would have had a similar reaction if I had done the same (which I probably did) in my high school years. I try to reassure her that all teenagers go through rough patches like this. I ask Denise what she was like when she was 16. That was her first year on the street, she told me, where she’s been ever since her father raped her. How can you reassure someone who has endured many lifetimes’ worth of trauma and abuse in just a few short decades? I can’t even bring myself to say Merry Christmas. All I can do is try to reflect the love I see shining in her large hazel eyes.
With our sandwiches distributed, our crew wends through the bustling Times Square crowds to the Church of St. Mary the Virgin for a midnight Mass. I am moved by the story of God being birthed as a human child on this earth. It matters little to me whether the story is myth or factual. I can still feel the immensity of what it might mean to bear witness to the mystery of God shrouded in human form, to be able to touch It and see It. This explains the elaborate decorations and bombastic music of the night as we, mere humans, attempt to come close to the majesty and glory of the Divine. And yet I can’t help but wonder: what would Jesus do if he saw this pompous celebration of his own birth? I imagine him walking into this grand place, rolling his eyes, and walking right back out to hang out with his friends in the streets.
Never having previously given much thought to Mother Mary on this day dedicated to Jesus, I suddenly feel so close to her—a childless mother in her own way, long before Jesus’s crucifixion. How did she feel as she gave birth to a child who belonged more to the world than to herself? I think of Denise and my other friends on the street. I begin to understand what it means to give birth to and to mother Christ in my consciousness and my action. I’ve often thought of Christ consciousness as an high ideal to aim for, something distant and unattainable. But I realize now that I can give birth to this in the womb of my being and nurture its growth. In every moment, on the subway, on the street, I can serve my human family, loving and celebrating everyone as a divine Son and Daughter. We are all meant to be mothers of God. §
Rev. Chelsea MacMillan is an interspiritual minister, ordained by One Spirit Interfaith Seminary. She currently works for One Spirit as the Community Engagement Coordinator and One Spirit in Action Liaison. For the Reciprocity Foundation, a contemplative organization serving the homeless youth of NYC, she serves as a Program Leader. Chelsea aims to create more peaceful and just communities through music, creative expression, conscious communication, and sacred activism.