Saturday, April 3, 2021

Something lovely for Easter

(I may have posted this before, but it deserves being re-read and is, in it's way, an Easter story of 'new life' and 'possibility".)


        Most people call her Margaret but, over the years, I came to shorten it first to Maggie and then to 'Mags'. She is one of the true Wonders of the World—a lovely and dear woman with, as Tennessee Ernie Ford said of 'Big John', “one first or iron and the other of steel. If the right one don't get you then the left one will.” Energetic, overly scrupulous, bright and sometimes verging on 'perky', Mags can charm people out of remarkable donations to the Soup Kitchen she runs, make each volunteer feel like the most important person in Margaret's world or any other and stare down a 250 pound, drunk rowdy in two seconds flat. I've seen her do all that and more—much more. She is a marvel. If she didn't exist, the Greater Waterbury Interfaith Ministry would have to invent her—she's that vital to the serving of 300 people lunch each day and handing out shopping bags of food to another 200 a week.

        When Mags came, the whole thing was in doubt. The previous Soup Kitchen Coordinator was in jail. He had been arrested in Danbury—40 miles away or so—for beating up his girlfriend on the street. Then the Danbury police discovered he was selling whole chickens out of the back of the Soup Kitchen Van. He was a bad dude—came in, when he was out on parole—and confronted the Verger and me in the sanctuary of St. John's with his finger (I pray it was his finger!) in the pocket of his jacket and told me he knew where I lived. I never figured out why he thought it was me that had caused him to lose his job. Mostly it was assault and robbery that did that. I did go tell the police in the town where I lived and in Waterbury that I had been threatened. It's the only time I'd ever done that, though I had been threatened before. I just believed Amos more than I believed anyone else.

        (An aside: after Amos was sent to jail, two detectives from the Waterbury Police Department visited me. They told me that Amos, during the questioning, had told them I had tried to sexually proposition him.

        “What did he say I did?” I asked.

        The Italian detective, very embarrassed to be talking to a priest—even an Episcopal priest—about such a thing said, “he said he was in his van in the parking lot and you asked him for oral sex for money.”

        I thought for a moment about that. Then I asked, “did he say I wanted him to perform oral sex on me or that I wanted to pay him to let me perform oral sex on him?”

        The Irish detective—most all police detectives in Waterbury are Irish or Italian—turned a bright red and replied: “He said you wanted to perform oral sex on him....”

        I smiled. “Then it isn't true,” I said.

        One of them, Italian or Irish, said, “Father, this isn't a joking matter....” And I suddenly realized it wasn't, not at all. My problem is, most everything is initially a 'joking matter' until it isn't.)

        I helped interview the applicants for the Soup Kitchen job—someone who would rid us of the stench of Amos and put us on the right track of feeding people. Since the Soup Kitchen was at St. John's, I was obviously involved. We needed someone I could get along with.

        Certainly, I could get along with Mags. She was charming and witty and self-effacing and smart...most of the things I like in another person. But I knew something none of the others on the committee—smitten with her charm, wit and intellegence—I knew she could not be...not ever...supervised. This was a woman who was so at home in her own skin and so clever and charming that there would be no way to rein her in. She would do whatever the hell she wanted to do and either charm you into thinking it was your idea or back you down with force of will to agree.

        “Margret,” I told her in the interview, “I don't believe you can be supervised.”

        She objected with all her charm, with, self-effacement and guile.

        I held up my hand and stopped her. I knew she would do a remarkable job but simply would not, could not be supervised.

        “You know I'm right about that,” I said.

        She wrinkled her nose and smiled her remarkable smile and said, softly, “yes, you're right....”

        She was unanimously hired—I didn't vote, thinking that supervising her was the Director's problem, not mine. Little did I know that for most of the next decade I would mostly be the one who couldn't supervise her, that little wrinkled nose and smile would convince me a hundred times that she was right and I was wrong and she should do whatever she wanted to do.

        Unsupervisable. That for sure. And a marvel, a wonder, someone to write home about, the best—very best and more—person to do that job and do it just the way she wanted.

        Over the years, full of more drama than I need to tell you or you need to know, Mags went from being the Soup Kitchen Coordinator to being the Director of the whole agency and its over a quarter of a million dollar budget. She battled directors, refused to be supervised, did the right thing over and over until, having exhausted the Board and everyone around her—did I mention her 'energy', charm, commitment?--we finally just did the right thing, the thing she knew was right all along, and put her in charge of everything. Good for us, we did the right thing. (It was all Mag's idea all along....)

        It was with the guests that she shined most brightly. It was her idea to call them 'guests' rather than 'clients'--the social worker vernacular for people who came for services and food. Over the years, Mags developed a treasure trove of 'connections'--medical personnel, social workers, housing specialists, businesses and groups who brought in food and services just to see Mags smile at them and tell them they were the best, the very best. Most often she would tell them they were 'Awesome, simply awesome!' And through the alchemy of her enthusiasm they were turned from flesh and blood, full of uncertainties and self-doubt into, that's right, 'simply awesome' heroes. So people went out of their way and beyond what was expected to make sure Mags' 'guests' had flu shots, health tests, alcohol and drug counseling, job training, help with housing issues, legal advice, guest chefs (everyone from church youth groups to political figures) and respect from the larger society than they expected or perhaps deserved. Mags' people were loved by all, sometimes against their better judgment, because she loved them.

        An urban soup kitchen, open to everyone and anyone, is not always a calm and peaceful place. Sometimes, under other coordinators, it was not a safe place to be. Street people and the urban poor are just like every other group of people, which means some of them are rough and angry and violent. Before Mags, there were a couple of 911 calls a week for drunk and drugged up folks and for fights. Once she arrived it took only a while before the only 911 calls were when she was genuinely concerned about the health and welfare of a guest. It didn't hurt that she was married to a policeman and the beat cop for the Green area was her cousin. Nothing calms things down so quickly as having someone with a huge gun and a stick you could destroy a skull with hanging around. Behavior and temperaments improve greatly when cops are around. But mostly it was Mags. She is short and petite and has long blond hair and dresses very well. She is usually soft spoken and a bit shy. But more than once I've seen her step between to brutes about the throttle each other and, waving her arms, say something like, “Beautiful people, this can't happen at our lovely Soup Kitchen....”

        It's not just 'music' that soothes the savage beast—Mags could do that too.

        She also had just the right touch with volunteers. I heard someone describe the volunteers as 'do-gooders and criminals'. Which was accurate since roughly half the people who worked for her were doing court ordered community service. They never wanted to be there but she would somehow cajole and persuade and baffle them into working hard and halfway enjoying it. Something about her appealed to everyone's better angel. And in all that, she didn't suffer fools lightly.

        Over time I came to refer more and more of the people who 'dropped in' to ask for help from the church to Mags. First of all, she was usually better able to actually 'help' them than I was. Secondly, she had an unerring bull-sh*t detector and could ferret out those who were pulling a con in a few sentences. She actually would take me to task when I gave people money without asking her. She would shake her blond head and 'tisk' and tell me I just threw that money into the Naugatuck River.




convincing people to contribute

the Christmas parties and care for children

how calm it became—cops involved

her commitment, her love


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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.