“I’m pretty much Buddhist,” Dean told me the first day we worked together at the St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen in downtown Oakland. “I was a therapist before I retired, and in the service before then, but now I mostly garden and read.”
We chatted as we faced each other on the serving line. Dean is a tall, thin, white man, in his late 50’s or early 60’s, I’m guessing, and he indeed looks like he would’ve been a therapist, possibly of the touchy feely Berkeley variety, or perhaps a junior college professor. In any case, he is soft spoken and has an easygoing, gentle manner, and curly gray sideburns.
“I had some free time, and a friend told me about this place. So far so good.”
Dean was on the kitchen side, slopping salad onto the compartmentalized plastic trays, and I was on the dining room side, putting pepper packets onto the trays before handing them out to our “customers.”
It’s an odd choice of word – customer – but that’s what everyone who works here calls our diners. The food is free, so I hesitate to use the word “customer”; I don’t want to call them “homeless” or “street people,” either, because some of them are, and some of them aren’t. “Patrons,” maybe? I’m not sure.
Did I mention how beloved Sister Ann was?
Before we start serving lunch at 10:45, Eduardo Vaires, a Salvadoran man who has worked at the soup kitchen for 30 years, and still has a thick accent, rings a brass bell to gather us for prayer.
“The pray,” he announces, “is optionality. You can stay here, you can have a coffee, whatever you want to do.”
Most of us stick around – peer pressure for some, genuine faith for others, a sense of community and common purpose for most of us, I suspect – and Eduardo continues, making gentle fists and rolling them toward us.
“This place is running from your power. Without you we can not be here.”
He once asked me how old I thought he was. “Sixty?” I guessed. “Sixty-seven,” he answered, taking off his St. VdeP baseball cap and leaning toward me. “I paint my hair, so I look youngful.” I looked closely and could see he had gray roots.
“You look good, Eduardo.”
We stand in a circle, in our disposable plastic aprons and hair nets, in front of a small wooden altar that some volunteer probably made twenty years ago. On it is a candle, a small figure of Mary, and the brass bell which Eduardo uses to call us to prayer.
After welcoming any new volunteers (in summer, especially, we get a lot of youth groups from all parts of the globe – Orange County, Idaho, Japan), Eduardo nods to me.
I forget when, but at some point Eduardo asked me to be the one to read the gospel during the prayer circle – it can’t be because of my faith – I’m 90% atheist, and the other 10% of me is agnostic, but I do have a decent speaking voice, and I can usually remember to read s…l…o…w…l…y.
So that’s my little job: I read the day’s gospel.
And then one day Dean approached me as the prayer circle broke up, while we were putting on our latex gloves.
“Next time would you mind showing me the reading ahead of time?” he asked tentatively.
“Sure,” I replied (I don’t read from an actual Bible, I just have a sheet of paper printed with that day’s gospel, something I grab off the printer on my way out the door).
“Sometimes I feel uncomfortable with the implied anti-Semitism in there,” he explained. “There’s a lot of scape goating of the Jews, and I just don’t think it helps.”
In next week’s passage from Matthew, Dean, after telling me about a great lecture he had attended by an important Rinpoche from Indonesia, pointed to some lines about “the hypocrites in the synagogue.”
“See – calling out synagogues – this makes it sound like he’s singling out Jews as hypocrites.”
Dean then told me that while he was more or less Buddhist now, he was raised as a Jew, and was always very uncomfortable with how the Jews were blamed for every evil in the New Testament from being hypocrites to being toadies for the Romans to killing Jesus.
“Well, that’s an easy fix,” I replied, the screenwriter in me kicking in.
I went to the main office, found a Sharpie, and crossed out the lines about the synagogue.
I read the newly edited version at the prayer circle, and no one noticed, or if they did, they said nothing. And we do have a few very devout older ladies who I’m fairly certain know the Good Book word for word.
As the circle broke up and we headed for our positions on the line, Dean thanked me and said, “I thought that sounded much better.”
I told him I thought it was fine.
What had I done? Had I just decided that I had the right to edit the Bible? What gave me the authority to change words which had stood for 2000 years? Words which are considered absolutely sacred by billions of people on this planet? Words which had started and ended wars?
Well, nothing, of course, gave me that right. Yet I didn’t feel pompous or overreaching or hubristic, either. I went to a Jesuit high school, and in my introductory theology class, taught by a wonderful priest called Father Joseph Fice (we called him Father Elvis because he looked like Elvis Costello – he wore thick framed black glasses, was thin, kept his hair short, and if we begged long and hard enough, would stand with his knees together and air guitar for a few seconds).
(and by the way, the answer is, yes, I still have my freshman year yearbook from which the photo of Father Fice was taken).
It was Father Fice who told us that the Bible as we know it was written by at least four separate human authors. There was no lecture as to how this book was the inviolable Word of God, written by the Big Man himself and dropped into our puny human laps to try to figure out. No, this was a great theological and poetic and sublime and indeed holy work, and guided Father Fice’s life to an intimate extent, but it was, he said, penned by at least four people, who lived, worked, ate, slept, and died, just like the rest of us.
The following week I again showed Dean the gospel reading in advance. It was a passage from John, and it featured lots of criticism of the descendants of Abraham – the Jews.
Dean looked troubled.
“See, all this stuff about Abraham,” he said, “again, it’s just, we don’t need any more strife out there, and this just riles people up.” There was stuff in there about killing and fornication and what not.
Again I grabbed the Sharpie, looked it over, and felt the reading was just as powerful cut in half. So I crossed out the second half.
It now ended on a hopeful, uplifting note about the truth setting you free.
Again I read it aloud, and again no one seemed to mind.
“That was great,” said Dean afterward. “You read that really well.”
“I have to make pitches some times, so I’ve learned to fake it pretty well.”
“Well, it sounded good to me,” he said.
It was time to open the doors and hand out six or seven hundred meals over the next two hours.
I can’t say for sure, but I have a feeling Father Elvis would be perfectly okay with my biblical tweaks. Maybe even Sister Ann, too. And if the Big Man does exist, I can’t imagine he would be so petty as to care.
Either way, it’s good enough for me.