The angel is in a hurry. She is tense with urgency and lacks the dignity generally attributed to angels. Caught mid-stride, she leans forward, as if straining against the wind. Her gown whips about her ankles. Her right arm is extended; in her hand is a burning candle, thrusting light into darkness.
The small figure-about 8 inches high-is flat, a silhouette, cut from a thin piece of pine. This angel has become the symbol of Raphael House, a shelter for homeless families located on the edge of the Tenderloin district in San Francisco.
Every evening, after the children have been bathed and readied for bed, they come together with the parents for story time. Seated on children's chairs or sprawled on the large, floppy floor pillows, children and parents settle in to hear a volunteer tell a story. The storyteller suffers patiently the interruptions of giggles, gasps, and applause.
When the story is finished, the storyteller takes the candleholder shaped like a running angel. She lights the candle and begins to sing, "See the little candle burning bright." Children and parents join in, "How I love to see its light." The storyteller, candle in hand, leads children and parents in a rag-tag procession toward their bedrooms. The procession stops at the door of the first room and a mother and three children enter. The procession continues: "See the little candle burning bright." In this way families are escorted to their rooms each night.
Like the angel, the procession lacks polish and dignity. While some children sing, others whine and complain about going to bed, or some sneak out of line and hide in the bathroom. Nevertheless, despiteor perhaps because ofits raggedness, the ritual speaks of the heart of Raphael House. Women, men, and children whose days are haunted by uncertainty, pain, anger, and despair come together to close the day in an atmosphere of love, nurture, security, and peace.
ONCE A WEEK, for several months, I met with a group of adult residents of Raphael House for creative writing after the children had been tucked into bed. The group varied in number from three to six, and the composition of the group changed as families moved into and out from the shelter.
These gatherings became a sacred space for me, and, I think, for most of the participants. They looked into themselves, found words to express what they saw, and then read aloud what they had written. Occasionally someone translated her feelings into song. Imperceptibly, the dynamic moved from writing and reading to sharing.
The women and, occasionally, men shared the pain of walking the streets looking for shelter, of addiction, of abuse, of guilt in seeing their children's questioning eyes. They shared their experience of comfort from unexpected sources, of love for their children, of religious hope.
For them Raphael House is not a shelter, it is a home. Most of the residents had spent nights in the mass shelters, sleeping on a cot with their children next to them and a stranger on the other side; sleeping with their possessions within reach; sleeping through fear and waking early to be sent out to the streets. How could they have imagined life at Raphael House?
At Raphael House, formerly a hospital, they found a room, nutritious meals, and creative activities for themselves and their children. And at Raphael House, both parents and children found discipline and boundaries. Sometimes they chafed at the absence of radio and television and at the strict house rules. And they know that their welcome included the expectation that they seek permanent shelter and independent financial support, that they actively treat chemical dependence, and that they do routine housekeeping. The residents I listened to, however, accepted the restrictions as integral to the commitment of Raphael House to their growth.
Raphael House is run by a community of Eastern Orthodox Christians with an auxiliary staff of live-in volunteers. While no religion or religious practice is required of residents, a deeply Christian spirit prevails in the often chaotic environment. A visitor recognizes it not only in the many beautiful Eastern icons, but more especially in the unfailing respect given to and demanded from every person in the house.
When this article appeared, Patricia Chaffee was an educator and writer living in Racine, Wisconsin. For more information on Raphael House, contact Father David Lowell, Raphael House, 1065 Sutter, San Francisco, CA 94109; (415) 474-4621.