Two years ago, a man was riding a subway at night in New York City. He was struggling not to fall asleep, knowing from experience that if he dropped off, a passerby on the subway would kindly relieve him of the contents of his pockets. These constituting the majority of his possessions, he was inclined to keep vigil. He was also familiar with the experience of having his pants slashed open by a less agile thief. Since he only had one pair, this was very embarrassing. As a result, he slept very little, sporadically nodding off through the merciless nights. I do not know how long life had been this way for him.
He had been to see the doctor. He received a note saying that he was suffering “the effects of chronic homelessness” and recommending him to a homeless shelter. Unfortunately, city homeless shelters tend to be worse than jails, according to men with experience in both types of institutions. Perhaps he would get lucky and find a private shelter, where he could achieve some security and maybe even get a good night’s sleep. One afternoon he came to the door of one such shelter, St. Anthony’s, run by the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.
He came to the front door asking for a bed. It was there that I first met him. I told him we had no room. He showed me his note, but a note does not create a bed. At the very least, I invited him in and gave him a bit of food. He was so childlike, I could not believe it. Despite the crushing destitution of his life, he was very understanding. I told him to keep coming back; a bed could open up any day. I was used to turning away men when we could not spare any room. Some were harder to turn away than others.
To my elation, he came a few days later when a room had opened up. We ran him through the customary drug and alcohol tests and gave him a place to live. Over the next few months, I had the great privilege of getting to know him. Despite his childlike manner, he was quite articulate in two languages and surprisingly well read. He loved to discuss matters of the faith and was earnest during Bible studies. He liked to read the lives of the saints. He was always happy to show up for Mass and prayers. He was generous to the other guests in the shelter but discreet about it, because, as he explained to me, he did not do good deeds to be seen by others. There was no guile in this man, but he was not naive either.
He seemed to know that God was his only possession, and that was enough for him. I do not know how else a man such as him could live for years on the streets of New York and still be so happy. God’s providence accomplishes the most beautiful things in the strangest places.
Our shelter was full of men who had lived lives as difficult, or in many cases much worse. Some completely shut out God and the world. Some opened up a little bit in our shelter; some appeared to flourish. Some left and went right back to drugs. A few men came into the Church. I saw a kind of faith there that I am not sure I have seen since. The harvest is plentiful.
I still have that image in my mind, of a man trying desperately not to fall asleep, biding his nights on the subway, praying quietly. Confidentiality standards prevent me from telling you his name, but I wish I could. As Fr. Benedict Groeschel, one of the founders of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, said, “There are no throwaway people.” Everyone has a name, from the Wall Street executive to the Harlem beggar, even if only God knows it. And the South Bronx is full of names.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Statue of Liberty (used with permission)