Suzanne Bossert

In ancient classical thought, it was believed that life was built upon four basic elements: earth, wind, fire, and water. I recently learned that there was a fifth element, aether, which described everything beyond the material world....

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In ancient classical thought, it was believed that life was built upon four basic elements: earth, wind, fire, and water. I recently learned that there was a fifth element, aether, which described everything beyond the material world. Sometimes I like to imagine categorizing ‘aether’ as a periodic table, naming the elements of spirituality such as faith, hope, and love. Perhaps we could name the dark elements too: greed, hate, judgment, fear. Like it or not, they are principalities oozing also at the center of the heart.

Of all the darker elements of ‘aether,’ I believe fear is the most powerful, in no small part perhaps because it is often the most insidious. Fear gets up underneath the fingernails of things, a splinter lodged deep. Certainly fear provides a function when dosed manageably–beware the hot stove–but left alone, it is emotional kudzu.

I should know. My family tree, if placed in an arboretum, would likely have an identifier species plaque that would say something like “This is the myrtaceae anxietās, a southern tree known for its lovely leaves that tremble in the slightest breeze.” Anxiety is embossed upon my DNA; I am a hypervigilant from a long line of worrier-warriors, such that I have a kind of ‘night vision’ acuity for spotting subtle, mostly theoretical risks in daily life. Sometimes microscopic cells of fear lurk dormant before bursting. I hit a patch this past week that surprised me.

On Friday, my therapy dog Maestro and I were invited into a new ministry created by my good friend, Rev. Kate Layzer, at First Church Cambridge… a homeless hospitality outreach called “The Friday Cafe.” The Friday Cafe welcomes homeless women and men with an afternoon off the streets, via radiator warmth, great food, hot coffee, companionship, liturgy/communion, communal art, and clean socks & winter coats to-go. There will be many things to say about this fledgling ministry as it grows in luminous ways, but let me start with just this wee confession.

I was a little apprehensive going in.

Even though I am an ordained minister, and even though I work regularly at the edgy Boston Medical Center downtown, by sheer happenstance my contact with the homeless population in Boston has been abbreviated. I don’t think I realized until The Friday Cafe just how impacted I’ve been by cultural, media-fed ignorance. Let me say, I felt very clear in understanding my own humble solidarity with a homeless person, and I felt only yearning to be in close quarters on a human level. Yet, although in my hospital work I have come to know the smells, sounds, and visuals of humans with heartbreakingly meager supplies, I did worry suddenly if safety would be an issue at the Cafe. What if it got crowded or unruly, what if an unmedicated schizophrenic ignited in rage? Friday Cafe’s Rev. Kate and her partner Rev. Tom Hathaway had need experience in “holding the space” with this population of folks, but there would be no security guards or police officers around. It would be just us.

When the first homeless guests arrived, I thought they were more volunteers. Throughout the afternoon, it became a common pattern. I was surprised time and time again as guests came in, whether it was by their neat appearance, undaunted friendliness, zesty intelligence or hilarious wit. Boundaries dissolved. My ignorance was chipped away simply by sitting with people who lived in a world I could barely grasp. There was no volunteer-do-gooder-ministering-to- a-needy-person. We were simply all God’s children, needy in our own ways, gathered around circular tables, sipping coffee and petting Maestro and telling stories. It felt like there was a hearth in our midst, lit by a crackling, holy fire. 

In the end, it was a microcosm of God’s vision for this world. Everyone had a place at the table, because we were all one family. And that, of course, is the foundational element of the entire human periodic table.  Aether’s baseline song is love.

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