Jo Buchanan draws strength from her connections of compassion and love
Eighteen months ago I started working at Father Bob's soup kitchen situated at the back of his church in Dorcas Street, South Melbourne. This, for me, was one of life's many amazing co-incidents because in the 1940s, when I was a child, my parents ran a similar mission from the Presbyterian Church a few doors down in the same street. Back in those days, South Melbourne was a slum area and many families were also without fathers, husbands and brothers who were away at war. My parents worked hard at obtaining donations of food and clothing from Melbourne businesses all year round and every Christmas, Mum sewed a beautiful frock for every little girl who attended the end of year Christmas party. Sometimes they would invite a child home to stay for a couple of nights. I remember being shocked at the reaction of one girl on discovering that she could turn on a tap and instantly receive hot water. I knew I was blessed to have a roof over my head, food on the table and loving parents.
So it felt as if I had come full circle, working at Father Bob's soup kitchen, helping the other volunteers to feed the homeless. I was filled with a strange feeling of 'coming home'.
One of the homeless, who in fact had been provided with a home by Father Bob in the form of a small flat attached to his own parish residence, reminded me of my nephew, Joel. Costas had been living on the streets since he was twelve. Father Bob took him in when he was sixteen. Costas battled with schizophrenia. Loud, flamboyant, a gifted artist, he was forever getting himself in and out of trouble. My nephew Joel had been artistic, highly intelligent, and he, too, lived with schizophrenia. He and Costas even looked alike, physically - dark hair, penetrating eyes, swarthy complexion, infectious smiles. I developed a friendship with Costas, despite the heartache it produced at times when I'd drive home thinking of Joel. I had looked after my nephew as if he were my son but at the age of 20 he succumbed to the voices in his head that promised World Peace if he were to take his life. To save the world, my nephew lay down on a railway track and was decapitated. I had never really come to terms with it but bonding with Costas all these years later took on a form of healing for me.
And Costas and I shared another bond. This was our mutual love of Egypt. Father Bob had kindly allowed Costas to have a dog. The dog, whose name was Rosie, looked like the old Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh dogs with her long thin snout and pricked upright ears. Her head was identical to the jackal head of Anubis, God of the Underworld, who assisted souls to the after life at the time of physical death. I printed pictures of the Pharaoh dogs for Costas, which he loved.
Some nights Costas wasn't well enough to engage in conversation but other nights we talked for ages about Egypt and its history. Even when Costas was unwell, he was always kind to me, urging me to hide my handbag inside Father Bob's fridge to keep it safe and leaving bars of Cherry Ripe for me to collect from the freezer. He often gave me presents, bits and pieces he'd picked up cheap in op shops. I am wearing one of his brooches as I type.
Last year I was preparing to take a group to Egypt in November. I promised Costas I'd bring him back a gift. He was worried about his future because Father Bob was being forced into retirement by the 'powers that be' at Head Office. The community of South Melbourne signed petitions to keep him on but it was beginning to look like he would soon be leaving the residence and church where he'd lived and worked for almost 40 years. If Father Bob were to leave, where would Costas go? The only other life he had known was on the streets.
During the period I was in Egypt, Father Bob was given a date. He was to be out on February 1, 2012. It was November 2011. Head Office insisted that at the age of 77, he was too old to continue, despite the fact that he worked harder than most men 20 years his junior and that he was personally responsible for the soup kitchen, daily food parcels, and mobile vans taking food to the streets on top of his varied parish duties. The plan was that he would shift into a shop nearby that had been a real estate office. The shop front area would become the office for his charity, the Bob Maguire Foundation and he would live in rooms at the rear.
Back in Cairo, I decided on a large brass ankh for Costas. The ankh was the cross of ancient Egyptians, representing the Key to Eternal Life - New Life - Rebirth. I knew he'd love it.
On my return to Australia, I packed the brass ankh into my handbag and headed for the soup kitchen. On arrival, I was greeted by shocked volunteers with the news that Costas had died the day before. Father Bob had discovered his body, guarded by Rosie, the dog. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It felt like Joel all over again. Father Bob led me into Costas's flat. We sat on the floor among the junk that Costas had collected in life. Father Bob was now not only grieving the loss of his home and workplace of 40 years but also the loss of someone he'd looked after for decades.
Suddenly I remembered the ankh and its now poignant significance. I handed it to Bob. Then we left, closing the door behind us.
Some days later, during a memorial service in the old stone church, Father Bob mentioned the ankh and its meaning. He looked directly at me as he spoke. I nodded back before turning my head to hide my tears.
Driving home afterwards, I felt sad and empty. Maybe in some strange way I had imagined Costas as being Joel returning to my life. I don't know. Then a thought hit me from left field. What if the meaning of the ankh was not about Costas, but about Father Bob? The Catholic Church had just put an end to his life of 40 years. Maybe the symbolism of 'New Life' was for him. He'd stated, while we sat inside Costas's flat the day after he died, that, "Maybe Costas has not moved out. Maybe he has moved further in", meaning now he was in spirit, he'd be free to get closer to others, no longer bound by the restraints of a serious mental illness.
I suddenly wondered if those same words might apply to Father Bob himself.
Maybe Bob, you too have not 'moved out'. Maybe you are moving further in. Into the lives of those who benefit so much from your selfless giving and never ending compassion. You now have possession of the Ankh. The key to your life is in your hands now, no longer handcuffed to Head Office.
Who knows what lies ahead as you develop your dream of building a 'Church without Borders'? And what's the bet Costas is at your side, cheering you on every inch of the way.