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Seattle Priest Offers a Refuge for the Rootless

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Rev. Susan O’Shea tends a flock of 1,200--one of the larger Episcopal congregations in the nation. But her parishioners--mostly Hispanic men--come and go.

Her base is the Chapel of St. Martha and St. Mary of Bethany, upstairs from the fishmongers and farm-fresh produce of the Pike Place Market.

Her mission is to provide a sanctuary for day workers, a place where the men can “experience themselves as holy, as God’s image, as valuable to heaven.”

It all began in 1991, when the diocese assigned her to minister to “whatever happens in the market.” Almost immediately, visitors started drifting in from a job-pickup site nearby, looking for the chapel so central to markets in many Hispanic countries.

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“They’ll get contracts on the boats, then they’ll go do orchard crops,” O’Shea says. “Sometimes they’ll work construction; sometimes they do second-shift restaurant work.”

The men come from 21 countries, and she calls them “very entrepreneurial and very, very independent-minded.” Sixty percent have no conventional housing. But they do have families in Latin America, and they send their earnings home.

“Yet they give me money,” O’Shea says. “They’ll come off those fishing boats and tithe. How many people have folks living in the bushes that tithe?”

To better communicate, the priest took a crash course in Spanish and set to work. Her task can be daunting.

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“In their first experience with white culture, somebody has them work all day and then won’t give them a paycheck. Or somebody wants to buy drugs from them. Or somebody wants them to have sex with his wife while he photographs them.

“It can steal your soul.”

The Rev. Gerald W. Porter, provost for the church’s Olympia diocese, frets about burnout. But not O’Shea, an outspoken redhead: “All I do is be myself and have fun.”

Once, she handed out hammers for interior demolition after a crowded Thanksgiving feast. The chapel’s 1,100 square feet are airy now.

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It isn’t a soup kitchen, though a communal meal after Mass on Sundays or at the private home of a volunteer can draw 60 visitors.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with calories or with food,” the priest says. “It has to do with their idea of reclaiming their own humanity, which they lose on the streets.”

Volunteers also come and go. They come from other congregations, even other faiths, helping some 300 hours each month with cleanup and counseling, even grant-writing.

Now two volunteers--"Nacho” (Efren Ignacio Victor Guerrero Villafuerte) and Victor “Gordillo” Gomez--are putting chairs back in rows for tomorrow’s prayer service.

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“I suspect these two are saints or angels or some such,” O’Shea writes in her monthly newsletter. “They take so little and give so much.”

Nacho serves as a lay leader at the chapel. As O’Shea explains, he “looks like hell. He doesn’t speak English. He can hardly speak Spanish. But, by God, the people follow him.”

Weekdays, after noon prayers each day, the space that he keeps so tidy can draw up to 200 visitors. “I go by the number of coffee cups,” O’Shea says.

Many write letters, call for jobs or watch Spanish-language newscasts that the priest videotapes. She directs the newcomers to those who are more street-savvy. Sometimes there are questions of faith or confusion, and she offers counsel.

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That’s when O’Shea prays what she calls “the priest’s prayer”: that God be glorified, that her congregation experience themselves as holy. In return, they prayed for help with her myasthenia gravis, a disease that had crippled her for nearly two decades but now, when she’s 55, appears to be in remission.

In 1988, O’Shea earned a master’s in divinity at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. After that, she served as chaplain at a medium-security state prison and on the staff at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle.

Now “she’s helping people who could easily fall through the cracks,” says Marlys Erickson, head of the Market Foundation, which raises money for the market’s centers of charity.

Like this waif who wanders in.

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“I’m standing in the need of prayer,” says Nicki, a 40-something blond in castoff clothing. Her eyes are wild, her voice is cracked and hesitant.

O’Shea comforts and blesses her.

“Thank you, Jesus,” Nicki says, radiant with relief.

She thanks O’Shea too.

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