6/26/2014 Florence - St. James Episcopal Church, Via dei Rucellai
We have been in Italy for two weeks and only now are we experiencing a few welcome showers to cool off a torrid Florence (know as Italy’s “frying pan.”) This is also the day I started my volunteer work at St. James Episcopal Church, one of only three such churches in Italy (the others are in Rome and Bologna.)
I have had a little experience working with the homeless through my past association with Travelers Aid (now Crossroads Rhode Island.) I have never forgetter former Director Marion Avarista’s reminder that we are all only one paycheck away from homelessness.
The church itself is magnificent - a classic gothic house of worship today decorated for a bride expected later in the day.
The clothing bank at St. James is held every Thursday morning starting at 10. Small bags of food are also distributed (today a can of cannellini beans, cheese, saltines, juice and a piece of fresh fruit will barely take the edge off the hunger of the homeless in a country known for its gourmet food.
But the dignity and even the surprising elegance of the homeless here is amazing to see. Yes, some need a bath and a haircut, but, in general, they manage to carry that great Italian grace in their bones and in their rags. The African women especially-- still preferring their native costumes-- are amazingly beautiful and even regal. They are polite and handle the used clothing delicately. Finding nothing that will culturally accommodate their chosen dress, they thank us and leave with only a small bag of food. We agree to look for each other next Thursday when hopefully some items like long scarves or shawls will be on the table ready to be turned into wraparounds or turbans these women can use.
Carla, the main overseer of the clothing table, knows many of these people by name (and shoe or waist size.) She saves items she knows certain men and women have been looking for and— to their delight— runs to her stash to bring out a saved pair or sneakers one woman has been looking for for weeks, in almost her perfect size. Later she tells me she finally gave a new radio from her own home to a man here today who had no TV or radio to listen to all day and night.
Carla is driven by the contagious realization that what we see in these people at the table could easily be us or people we love. I can already sense she will be my friend here, and the person who will personify the St. James experience in my memory for years to come. I am proud to call myself her colleague.
I think my Dad would have been proud of my work here today, in the country he never stopped loving.