I wish I could say that it was divine love pouring from my heart, expressed as selfless service, that led me to take pictures of the people at the Grace Friday Night Gathering.  But it was a little more complicated than that. I don’t think I ever do anything for just one reason; it’s usually a consensus of “voices” in my Head that leads me from one decision to another. Only in retrospect do I see the hand of God behind it.

This project was no different.

I had heard that a significant number of people with a variety of life challenges, homelessness among them, gathered every Friday evening at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Asylum Hill neighborhood where I live. Working as a part-time community organizer, I felt it important to get to know this group as they are largely under-represented in community planning. This, coupled with my curiosity, took me to the gathering that first Friday night. There were more than 50 people, mostly care-seekers, and a very few caregivers. I realized that this would be a really good opportunity for me to connect with people who are otherwise difficult to connect with, and, maybe, just maybe, I might have an opportunity to work my photographic passion into it.

This wasn’t just any ordinary soup kitchen. Dinner was served using china plates and metal flatware. There were even cloth napkins that got laundered each week. Volunteers prepared the food fresh in the Church kitchen. They took turns each week, being the “Head Chef”. Our guests looked forward to this evening. They would start showing up from 4:30 PM for the dinner that was served at 6 PM. They received much more than fine dining here. One woman, a professional hairdresser and a Christian Scientist gave free haircut with silent prayers for anyone who needed it. There were also a number of musicians looking for an audience, rotating in to play their music. So when I asked to take photos and share prints with the people photographed, I wasn’t breaking any new ground; the people were used to a variety of services and were comfortable with it.

For more than a year, I did just that. I would take candid close-ups, usually from across the room in existing light, print any that I thought were interesting and share or give them away to the subjects. For people largely unaccustomed to the luxury of social graces, I was well accepted. As I began accumulating a small collection of interesting prints, the subjects began to enjoy and even looked forward to being surprised with what I brought in. At first, when I suggested that we might find a way to display them on the wall, there was hesitation. It took a new Pastor, with the vision to get the right committee of the church to allow it, but it happened. This prompted me to go to the next level and bring in from my attic an old backdrop and flash system to offer more professional grade portraits. By that time, I’d become enough of a known quantity that there were no real objections, and, of course, it was always voluntary.

There were, of course, the usual joke about breaking the camera, but mostly without saying anything, people were pleased with the results. One person was moved enough by his photo that he asked for a digital copy and then finally joined Facebook (something his friends were trying to get him to do) so he could use it as his profile picture.

As for me, I began this process believing that I was a practicing Sai Devotee of a guru whose teachings emphasize service as an integral part of sincere spiritual seeking. I was also, at that time, a regional Service Coordinator in His organization. As  someone who knew the challenges of the poor and dispossessed, I didn’t have to know them by their names to understand their challenges. However, I did have the opportunity to hear a few of their stories. I have been given this privilege, I believe by SAI, my spiritual Master, to look deeply into their faces and into their eyes and see more than what eyes can merely see. I now have a deeper appreciation for the words “Embodiments of Divine Love”, that Sai Baba used to address His followers.  I have, with HIS Grace, begun to disassociate the qualities that make us useful to society and to one another, from the ESSENCE that makes us all EMBODIMENTS OF DIVINE LOVE.  This has been truly a transforming experience and I’m confident this new level of awareness will continue to blossom. I am very grateful and will not forget the Grace that has been bestowed upon me.

Bernie Michel

Sathya Sai Center of Farmington, CT