Monday, October 19, 2009

19. Dinner with the Homeless

Situated at 8335 feet above sea level, the beautiful city of Cuenca, about half-a-million strong, lies in the midst of the Andes in Southern Ecuador. Arriving by air, one peers out the plane window over miles and miles of red tile roofs. The intellectual center of this part of the country, Cuenca has for centuries been the birthplace of writers, artists, poets and philosophers. After being in crowded, polluted Quito it is a relief to breathe clean air and to be free of the heartwrenching child beggars tugging on your sleeve.

The old part of the city oozes charm and history and the cobblestone streets are lined with one small quaint shop after another- hatmaker, silversmith, dentist, grocer. Many of the people still dress in indegenous clothing, including Panama hats and colorful ponchos. I had the feeling that the 21st century had not quite made it in the door. The Tomebamba River winds its way through the city and on sunny days one can watch women and children washing their clothes here and then laying them on the banks to dry.

In the middle of the city is a large, traditional market containing dozens of stalls overflowing with fresh produce, meat and fish. Huge baskets of fresh blackberries, potatoes of every kind, slabs of meat hanging from the ceiling and cattle hooves artfully arranged are just a few of the market's offerings. Of course we gringos were afraid to sample much, but the place was hopping with regular customers on a weekday morning. In the midst of the crowds and hustle bustle I saw a young mother sitting on a staircase cradling her child, around eight years old, in her lap. The boy was handicapped, unable to hold up his head or focus his eyes, and near the mother was a beggar's cup. This scene stopped me dead in my tracks and I was frozen in place, seemingly incapable of either following my group or placing money in her cup. Finally, for fear of getting lost in the crowd, I turned to catch up with the others and to this day I do not understand why I did not give the woman a twenty dollar bill, or more. I regret it deeply.

For me, the high point of the choir tour to Ecuador was the time spent at La Iglesia de San Fransisco in Cuenca. A few years ago our conductor Ray and his partner David befriended the priest at this church, Padre Rigoberto Jara. At that time the church was falling into disrepair and struggling to keep its congregation together. Padre Rigoberto, a young dynamo, has brought the church back to life. The roofs are repaired, work has begun on the interior and there is a large, enthusiastic congregation. And he has begun an important mission for the area, a much-needed homeless shelter.

The day of our concert at La Iglesia, which was to be a benefit for the shelter, Ray, David and I went to the church a couple of hours early to check out the performance situation (specifically the keyboard!). There we met Hugo, a generous and enthusiastic young man, who was loaning us his keyboard for the concert. He had recently graduated from the university in Cuenca, where he studied music. Hugo was eager to demonstrate the possibilities of the keyboard and I asked him to play something for us: to my surprise he launched into a passionate, virtuosic performance of a Chopin etude.

Ray, David and I were then invited by the priest to his private quarters for tea and cookies. The four of us sat around a plain table, struggling to communicate across a significant language barrier. Padre Rigoberto's gratitude was palpable and I was touched at his offering of hospitality, a true example of where two or three are gathered...

And then it was time for dinner. The choir had arrived and I'm not sure if any of us knew that the meal was to be at the homeless shelter, adjacent to the church. We climbed a rickety metal staircase to the dining area, where I witnessed innumerable acts of mercy and kindness. A tiny old man, shuffling up the stairs, was afraid of our presence and tried to turn around and leave. One of the workers gently took his arm and guided him back into the room, refusing to let him go away hungry. The servers and the homeless were often on a first-name basis and there was genuine concern that everyone was getting enough to eat and would have a safe place to sleep that night.

Yes, it was awkward and uncomfortable, sitting in the midst of these homeless men and women. Even if we'd spoken the same language, what does one say in this situation? Some were gregarious and others would not even make eye contact. As the simple but nutritious meal was served Ray rose from his chair and asked the choir to sing a blessing- Peter Lutkin's The Lord Bless You and Keep You, which they had learned in Spanish. This is a beautiful, traditional benediction with a glorious, extended Amen that even under "normal" circumstances can bring listeners to tears. But it was so much more in this setting- a rare and extraordinary bridge between strangers and across borders, an affirmation of the human spirit.

How does one perform after an experience like this? Somehow we did- the church was packed and some of our dinner companions even came to listen. When we performed the songs from Ecuador the audience members joined in, singing at the top of their lungs, swaying, clapping. Padre Rigoberto was ecstatic and even Hugo came up to me afterwards and said Hey! You're not too bad!

This city and these people are thousands of miles from Maine. Many lack the basics of sufficient food, adequate housing and medical care. The choir did raise some much needed cash for the shelter at concerts in Brunswick and Cuenca, and we brought blankets and towels from the US. That is important; it is critical. But there is more: with our music we fed their spirits, their souls, and that is important, too.