“I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.” – Pope Francis

In the desert outside L.A. for several weeks recently, I went almost every morning to Mass. Because the sanctuary is expensive to air condition, during the searing summer months Mass is held in the parish hall.

One morning near the end of my visit, I was crossing the street from my car to go in when I saw a man who looked to be in his late 30s, early 40s, walking down the sidewalk. He was slight, with blond shoulder-length hair, rectangular glasses, a white headband, a large white over-the-shoulder purse, flip-flops, and a white mini-skirt. The skirt was dingy, with dirt stains as if he’d slept outside in it. He looked like he might have been out all night turning tricks.

Accurately or inaccurately, I sized him up: “One of us,” as we say in recovery, meaning one without a perfect childhood, one with neuroses, one whose family background includes addiction, sexual abuse, abandonment, rejection, and/or general weirdness. One on the fringes. A misfit.

So when he turned into the parish hall just in front of me to go into Mass, I was thrilled. I was even more thrilled when I saw he wasn’t just there for the A/C or a place to rest for half an hour like some of the homeless and mentally fragile who occasionally also showed up for the 7:30 a.m., and welcome.

He had nothing of the in-your-face drag queen about him, though his mannerisms were feminine. He sat near the front. He was quiet, attentive. In fact, he seemed to hang on every word.

I don’t know what it was about this guy. For all I knew, he had a partner, a circle of family and friends. But, like me, he’d come alone.

So maybe what moved my heart was the loneliness, the hunger.

Maybe what moved my heart was just that any man who comes to church dressed as a woman has suffered.

Maybe what moved me was that in his dingy white mini-skirt, he spoke volumes more than all the ink that’s been spilled about sexual politics. On the one hand, the doomsdayers shriek that the world is coming to an end. On the other, the rights-obsessed have appointed themselves thought police.

A single human being—hungering, thirsting, seeking—renders all the rhetoric irrelevant.

I tried to catch his eye at the Sign of Peace but he didn’t look my way.

He reverently took the Eucharist.

He reverently drank from the chalice.

He was still sitting quietly, gazing at the altar, when I left.

Maybe what moved my heart was just that any man who comes to church dressed as a woman has suffered.

He was there again the next morning, this time in a pair of skin-tight gray stretch shorts and a purple T-shirt advertising a gay bar.

His presence hyper-focused my attention. I wasn’t trying to experience the Mass through his eyes—that was between him and God. But it was as if my whole nineteen years in the Church had been preparing me to participate in, to share in, the Eucharist with this one possible lost sheep.

I saw in a whole new way, for example, that in the Penitential Rite—after making the sign of the cross, the first thing we do at Mass—we’re establishing why we’ve come. We’re sinners. We’re broken. The burden of being human—the knowledge that we’ll die, our yearning to love and be loved—is too much for us to bear alone

We’re admitting this not just to ourselves and to God but to the people around us: “I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters”

I’d never noticed before that morning that at the end of the Rite—which is, after all, quite short—we call upon our fellows a second time: “Therefore I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.”

We’re in this together, in other words. Hello and Help.

God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34),” emphasized St. Bonaventure. “He does not take account of nobility of birth, length of time in his service, or the number of our good works. What counts with God is a devout soul’s increased fervor and more ardent love.”

At the Eucharist, I glanced up at a statue of Jesus, blood dripping from the wounds in his hands and feet, that hung on the wall above my folding chair. It is real, I thought. All of it. The tranvestite’s suffering brings alive the Body and Blood of Christ. So does my suffering, your suffering, the suffering of everyone here and around the world. But it’s always personal before it’s collective. Our suffering makes the Body and Blood real.

That afternoon, talking to a priest friend on the phone, I tried to describe how deeply I’d been affected by the man in the skirt. I said, “I’m not even sure what my point is. Just that my heart opened to him. Just that I’m glad to be there to welcome him and that he was there to, in his way, welcome me. More than ever, I see that our tiny unseen acts count: our trudging anonymously to Mass, our silent good wishes.”

“But I don’t want to impose my story—or any story—on him,” I wound up.

“No,” Fr. Steve agreed. “We just want him to hang around long enough so he can tell us his story.”

Our job is to believe with all our hearts that Jesus is who he said he was, and to live that out: in charity, in humility, in love.

The third day, he was clutching a red plastic rosary.

Eight hundred years ago the German mystic Meister Eckhart observed: “God is greater than God.”

I wonder if we are only now beginning to understand what that might mean. I wonder if he might not have meant something like this: Christ cares more that a drunk experiences the joy and freedom of recovery—that the drunk stays sober and helps another alcoholic get sober—than that the drunk becomes a Christian. Christ cares more that you have a child-like heart and are kind to one another than that you don’t have gay sex. You don’t have to choose. If you really seek, you’ll find him. If your heart becomes truly child-like, you’ll offer up your mind, memory, will, and body for God to use as He will.

Here’s the real scandal of the Cross: Becoming more child-like doesn’t mean becoming softer or more permissive or self-indulgent or sentimental. The more child-like we become, the more we discover that, as Dostoevsky noted, “Love in reality is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” We won’t police other people’s thoughts; we’ll purify our own. We won’t prophesy doom; we’ll participate in the reign of love established in the Resurrection by quietly laying down our lives for our friends.

Child-like doesn’t mean living ever more in a fairy tale; it means cultivating ever more contact with reality. The more child-like we become, the more we realize, “He must increase; I must decrease” [John 3:30].

The more we realize that we don’t convert anyone: Christ does. We don’t evangelize: Christ does.

Our job is to keep suiting up and showing up.

Our job is to welcome.

Our job is to believe with all our hearts that Jesus is who he said he was, and to live that out: in charity, in humility, in love.

“For truly I say to you…not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished” [Matthew 5:18].

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” [Matthew 24:35].

“And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” [Matthew 28:20].

After Mass I went to the ladies’ room. On a card table at the back of the parish hall was a large open Bible.

When I came out, the man in the gay bar T-shirt had pulled up a chair.

He was sitting rapt before the Bible.

He was poring over that Bible, rosary in hand, as if his life depended on it.

©Copyright 2015, Heather King. All rights reserved.