In early December, thirty men in the diaconal formation program from the Diocese of Austin went on a three day street retreat based on the scripture “He commanded them that they should take nothing for their journey, except a staff only: no bread, no wallet, no money in their purse” (Mark 6:8). The men were only allowed to take medications, a blanket/sleeping bag, change of clothes, a photocopy of their driver’s license, and toiletries – only what they could carry in their back pack through the streets!
This retreat is put on by Alan Graham of Mobile Loaves and Fishes. It greatly benefits our men in formation because they encounter Christ and it helps them identify with the poorest of the poor so that when they are ordained they too can serve the poor with compassion and understanding. In the words of Pope Francis, “The Church cannot ignore their cry. We must go there! Go out to encounter God who dwells in the city and in the poor; to go out to meet them and listen, to bless and to walk with the people and to facilitate the encounter with the Lord.”
Each time we got on a bus, we had a beautiful encounter with someone thirsting to share their pain or joy. For example a man with his red headed four year old joyously shared that he had been sober for 5 months. In another bus ride a man asked for prayer because he had not worked in two years after injuring his hand, but in the process had become an alcoholic. One bus driver, thinking we were homeless, was rude to one of our men when he fumbled putting the ticket into the machine even though he sees and talks to him when he rides this bus route to work daily. Our man was visibly hurt. We had become invisible, faceless, and unrecognizable in less than 24 hours.
We met many beautiful homeless people and other poor people in the bus but the most memorable one was a young homeless man, in his twenties or thirties with spina bifida, who was born blind, and could barely speak, that we met on Sunday morning. We were under I-35, where 300 – 400 homeless people gather to hear live music, get food and clothing, pray, and hear the gospel. As he walked with his guiding stick, he looked like something out of the gospel. It was a cold morning, and his hands were freezing and he had very little clothing. By the time he arrived, the food and drinks had run out so we got him a hot drink and a turkey sandwich at a convenience store across the street. He had all sorts of jerky movements in his head, arms, legs, and torso, but when he blessed his food his whole body became still. It was the most reverential prayer, I have ever seen in my entire life.
When the men in formation saw how much he was suffering from the weather, one of them took off his gloves and placed them on his trembling hands one of which was contracted from birth. Another man took off his jacket and put it on him. Another man took off his sweat shirt and replaced the blind person’s raggedy one. You could see that our men were close to tears and very emotional with this encounter. He said he had a head ache so one of them gave him an aspirin. His care taker was also without enough clothing so our men continued striping themselves until one of our men had no shoes or jacket. I couldn’t bear to part with him; but the retreat was coming to an end as we were notified that two vans would be picking us up. I thought to myself, “who will take care of him when we leave?” I thought of taking him home as I sat next to him and put my arm around him one last time. By the time we loaded on the van, he was gone. I hope and pray I encounter him one more time.
This Article was originally posted in the Spring issue of Reflections Newsletter from the Stewardship and Development Office.