Back when I was a kid, the first Sunday of Lent marked my annual descent into 40 days of agonizing self-deprivation.

One year, in keeping with my Roman Catholic obligation to show pre-Easter penitence between Ash Wednesday and Holy Thursday, I gave up bubble gum.

Another year, it was comic books.

Then there was the year I announced, with all the righteousness I could muster, that I was giving up dessert. And I did — at least until that night my dear brothers and sisters waved Mom’s still-warm fudge brownies under my nose and, flawed Christian that I am, I caved.

In short, Lent was no fun. So imagine my surprise when I learned last week that there is, at long last, another route to Easter Sunday.

“Lent is often understood as a season of sacrifice and discipline and reflection,” said the Rev. Timothy Boggs, rector of St. Albans Episcopal Church in Cape Elizabeth, in an interview last week. “But all of that seems very solitary to me. It seems as if those concepts sort of draw people away from each other a bit.”

Not so, starting today, for Boggs’ flock.

It’s called the Compassion Cross — and before you dismiss this as one of those not-for-me religion stories, take a closer look.

The cross stands just inside the entrance to St. Albans.

Taped to it are dozens of colored index cards, each bearing the name of a social service agency somewhere in southern Maine.

And below each agency’s name is a “wish list” of items and services — from simple toothbrushes to someone with a few hours and a car — needed by each organization to help hold up its end of the social safety net.

“I can’t recall a time when someone has called and said, ‘What’s your wish list?’ ” said Rebecca Howes, manager of development and public relations for Day One, which helps rescue teenagers from alcohol and drug abuse.

That someone was Marjorie Manning Vaughan, a member of St. Albans’ congregation who compiled the list of agencies and then called each one to ask, with no strings attached, what they need.

Day One’s grateful response: hot chocolate and paper cups for the group sessions at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, along with a blender, framed art, 15 pedometers and a croquet set for the agency’s residential facility in Hollis.

Boggs, a senior vice president for Time Warner for 20 years before being ordained four years ago and recently taking over at St. Albans, said inspiration for the Compassion Cross came from two places.

One is “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life,” a new book by religion writer Karen Armstrong now being digested by much of the St. Albans congregation.

In one chapter, titled “How Little We Know,” Armstrong writes about how “opinionated” Western society has become, albeit with precious little knowledge on which to base those opinions.

“Our airwaves are clogged with talk shows, phone-ins, and debates in which people are encouraged to express their views on a wide variety of subjects,” Armstrong notes. “This freedom of speech is precious, of course, but do we always know what we are talking about?”

The second catalyst is what Boggs calls “a hunger in this community to connect with our neighbors” at a time when that’s easier said than done.

“Even in our automobiles, it’s so easy just to roll up the window and listen to the tune you want to and ignore everything you’re driving right by,” Boggs said. “But if you help people connect, they are thrilled by it. Sometimes we need an invitation, sometimes we need a nudge, but often what we simply need is some help in acting.”

Which brings us back to all those index cards.

The Maine Veterans Home in Scarborough needs magazine subscriptions.

The Family Crisis Hotline can use dental services, car repairs, bedding, household and kitchen items and clothing.

Camp Sunshine in Casco, which serves kids with life-threatening illnesses and their families, is on the lookout for a weed whacker, batteries, a wet/dry vacuum, a microwave and a 60-quart, single-phase mixer, a lawn mower …

Amistad, a Portland-based haven for people with mental health problems, needs winter clothing, hats, gloves, new socks and underwear, blankets, supplies for its knitting group and personal hygiene items.

“I think it’s very unique what (the folks at St. Albans) are doing,” said Hanna Sturtevant, program coordinator for Amistad. “I’m impressed and I hope it goes very well – not just for us, but for the other agencies they’re trying to help.”

Then there’s Casey Family Services, which responded to the call from St. Albans with a whopper — a client in York County who, above all else, wants to go to work.

“They wanted to know if there was any way we had the ability to help him look for a job,” said organizer Manning Vaughan.

Where all of this goes will be up to the St. Albans faithful. Boggs said the plan is for families to select a card from the Compassion Cross, connect with their chosen agency and then report back to the rest of the congregation on what happened.

But the true goal here goes far beyond the more commonplace approach to charity whereby one writes a check, tosses it in the mail and gets on with the day.

Rather, it’s to connect face-to-face with providers who now more than ever need all the help they can get. And with needy Mainers who, in these not-so-charitable times, often find themselves blamed for their own misfortune.

“The whole idea is to be in a relationship,” Boggs said. “You’re not in a relationship if you just lick a stamp and put it in the mail.”

Nor, as they prepare for Easter, are the good people of St. Albans giving something up. Instead, they’re just giving.

“The recipient is changed by your gift, but you are changed as well.” Boggs said. “And it’s in that transaction, that human connection, that the world is changed.”

So welcome to another Lent.

I think I’ll make someone a batch of brownies.

Bill Nemitz — 791-6323

[email protected]


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