By Theo Tigno
Try telling someone you're the only man living in a house with 15 women--over half of them pregnant--and several babies. It was a good exercise. Most of the time, eyes would open wide, and when I was lucky, a jaw would drop.
The initial shock would soon be followed by conversations such as, "That's crazy!" or "Why would you do something like that?" If the situation was right, it was a great way to begin talking about how good God was, is and will be.
While on staff at Maggie's Place, His abundant blessings were evident to me every day. It may have seemed crazy from an outside perspective, but it was an incomparable growth experience from within. And it was a time of great joy. I developed easy and authentic relationships with the mothers. I was never conscious of this and it took no deliberate effort on my part--God just equipped me with the gift. Being a man, I thought it was a strange strength to bring to the community.
The staff members offered frequent enough affirmation of these straightforward relationships; however, I began to recognize this gift, also. It was my joy to play chess with Lydia, talk about wrestling with Monica, discuss cooking theories with Aliyah and find the gifts of each mother who came to the house--the blessing was mine.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Life in this community helped to surface abilities in me that I never imagined I had or could have guessed would be useful. I became an expert lock opener after Teresa locked her keys in her car, learned the guitar well enough to play songs for the neighborhood reflection on the Friday following September 11, and swallowed Kathy's too-spicy eggs as an act of love.
After a banjo was donated, I provided entertainment to the house with an oft-repeated rendition of Violent Femmes; it was the only song I knew.
My physical strength was also a gift--a source of intimidation on a handful of occasions, but more often as a tool for getting something from one place to another. On one memorable occasion, Christy and I transferred a mountain of loose insulation that had been donated from the parking lot into a vacant apartment, rescuing it from the rain, just in the nick of time.
I sometimes encountered difficult times with the moms. After an angry mom left the house late one night, I found myself, a rather large, Filipino man, chasing after her through the streets. She was in her night clothes, running down Van Buren Boulevard--a local street notorious for prostitution. Although I was trying to tone down the situation and protect her from harm, I can only imagine how it must have looked to bystanders who witnessed the scene.
Another time, my heart was broken to the point of tears when I had to ask Elena to leave the house. Just a few weeks earlier, she had told her infant son, Daniel, to be like me--that I was the man he should emulate. The one who had given me the greatest compliment of my life also provided the greatest dagger; it cut my heart the day I looked directly into her eyes and said, "You need to leave the house." When it was over, I shaved off all my hair. Biblically, growing your hair out could be considered a fast. Looking back, cutting it off, for me, was a purging.
When the difficult moments came, seemingly in a rapid series, I began to reconsider my service at Maggie's Place. Staff members were supportive, but I couldn't help but call into question my own gifts. I'd like to say that there was a particularly profound flash of lightning that made me stay, but that wasn't the case. The reality was that leaving was not an option. A sense of duty to the commitment I had made challenged me to stay. Life at Maggie's Place--with all of its joys, challenges, miracles and heartaches--opened my heart to God's goodness.
The Question of Worthiness
The staff members at Maggie's Place were great at accepting me, first, as a broken person and, second, with the gifts I offered. They accepted my oblivious conga-playing at 11:30 p.m., dirty socks perpetually lying on the office floor, and having their clothes ruined because of my laundry mistakes (sorry, Christy).
Sometimes I feel as if I cheated. I brought a lot of brokenness to the table. Ask Carrie how I feel about following policies after neighbors steal items out of Teresa's truck and then scratch it as they drive away. Ask Mary and JoAnne how I drive after someone refuses to accept help.
I was working very hard and giving all that I had to give, but in the end, success wasn't mine to claim. It was His. As I launched into service with Maggie's Place, I often asked myself, "Who am I to be a member of this house of saints?" Well, I quickly found out that the saints, too, were still in their formation period.
For a long time, my life had been wrapped up in the life of the house. It's amazing to think about how that home was built out of love through so many hands. It truly was a home--a concept that I never gave much thought to.
In your home, you feel safe and comfortable, and that's what we all needed. Most of the mothers in the house had struggled for a long time to find a place they could call a home, and knowing that Maggie's Place was the home they were seeking made the sacrifices worthwhile. Besides, it was my home too.
To me, that is the mission of Maggie's Place: to provide a home where all are welcome and where life, especially the life of the most vulnerable, is defended and nurtured.--excerpts from a forthcoming book on the founding and first years of Maggie's Place.
Theo Tigno is one of the first community staff members of Maggie's Place and a professional website designer.