Thursday, December 20, 2018

Merry Christmas!

I can think of no better way to say "Merry Christmas" than to share this story of hope and grace.  It's a story of Patrick, a local man, who was once living on the streets up by NE 82nd.  We played a small part in the story, thanks be to God. The first few times we saw Patrick on 82nd he just eyed Chris and I and continued on his bike. Then one day he stopped and declared, "I'm done with the streets. I've had enough." I knew that he meant it, and the next time we saw him I said to Meagan, "He won't be on the streets very long." Little did I know that God would use a medical emergency to get the job done. Please read Patrick's story. I pray that his story will be widely circulated. It will bring hope to many families who have sons and daughters on the streets.

Patrick, our friend.      Photo by The Catholic Sentinel

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

A Collage of Recent Photos

A Recent Adventure

Since the heady days of the great and fun Catholic blogs is basically over, we've reluctantly moved over to Facebook.  I posted this account on Facebook yesterday:

We had a wild and tumultuous weekend on the streets. At one point I turned to Shawn and observed, "We've seen a lot of reality in the last 24 hours." It started Saturday evening, when we walked NE 82nd in honor of the feast day of our spiritual patron, Blessed Charles de Foucauld. Our first "customer" was Thomas "Weedman". He came came running after us full of enthusiasm. He remembered us from months before, and was on hard times. He gratefully accepted wool socks, hand warmers, some food and drink, and asked for a rosary and prayer cards. Then he launched into a spiritual examination of his past, and told us of how he had gone down the wrong path by making his estranged wife his "idol" rather than God. He had clearly been raised a devout Christian, and was now gracing us with his testimony. It was a blessing to meet Thomas. 

Next we met Jessica who was juggling a heroin syringe as we loaded her with gifts. She apologized in embarrassment, and we promised to return soon with burgers from Burgervile. We had done a head-count of the homeless as we walked down 82nd, and Jesus always makes sure we buy enough burgers. On our way back to Jessica, we met "Free Bird", a very young woman who is also a heroin addict. She was doing far worse than when I'd seen her months before. Barely coherent, she had no shoes, and was wandering alone around Montavilla Park. She's a wisp of a girl, and she needs friends to keep her safe on the streets. Jessica was more lucid when we returned, and she told us of her trials, including a sexual assault on the streets and missing her children. Yet for all her pain. Jessica was not without hope. She remembered better times and better friends, and told us of her adventures in trying to become a Catholic. She even ventured she might become a religious sister one day. And why not? I wish we had sisters here who helped women like Jessica, and surely some of them could one day become sisters too.

We met other street friends that night, but I'll particularly cherish the long conversations with Shawn and Chris, my brothers in Christ. Men need quality time and conversation with other good men, even when the conversations become heated. We Catholic men are not without our passionate opinions!

The following afternoon we walked SE 82nd distributing hot dogs and other goods. We met many of our regulars, including Johnny, who heaps us with abuse when we won't give him $20 or a motel room. Well, I'd had enough of Johnny, and shouted him down before stomping off. Johnny is the rare addict who won't let any one in--even though we've known him for three years or so. Johnny never has a good word for anyone. Fortunately, Jonathan Gnibus and Nick El-Hajj stayed behind with Johnny even though I shouted for them to follow us. Last I saw, Jonathan was giving Johnny a prolonged hug--something I thought I'd never see. And it turns out, Jonathan finally got Johnny to open up, and explain where all his pain comes from. Not surprisingly, Johnny's anger begins with an evil babysitter doing some awful things to him. Blessed be God for Jonathan and for Johnny in that moment of grace.

The rest of us headed up to SE 92nd to a homeless camp. A new member of our crew, Stephen Tobusch, had shown up just as I shouted down Johnny. He had never walked with us before, and as we headed up to 92nd I apologetically explained that I had never yelled at any one in my five years walking the streets. Well, Stephen was about to witness another first for Urban Missionaries, for we would have to call an ambulance! 

Under one of the roads over Johnson Creek, I saw what looked like a very still body under a sleeping bag, or perhaps some gear that was stowed away. In any event, there was no response. So I climbed back out from the little ravine and under the cyclone fence. But my conscience bothered me, and my friends urged me to give it a second look. So I went back down, and this time I gently lifted the sleeping bag. Old man Randy was under there, soaking wet and smeared with vomit. He responded after a minute, and I ran off to get him some warm hot dogs and other goods. His hands were bloated to double their normal size, and he could barely move his body. He was grateful for the hot dogs, though he seemed to have hypothermia. He had been pushed or "rolled" into the creek the previous night, and tried to warm up by hiding in his sleeping bag with the same wet clothes. It wasn't working, and he wouldn't survive another 36 hours in the cold. I called 911 and the paramedics came. It took some time to get Randy up and out, but he gave us a warm smile from the gurney. Sadly, he also accused one of our long time young homeless friends of being the one who pushed him into the creek. Our young friend looked sad and guilty, so it appears to have been true.

At this point Jonathan and Nick finally joined us after spending the last hour with Johnny. We met and talked to many other people, including three young Christians who were also out befriending and helping the homeless. Thanks be to God! At this point we also met Billy, a man in his early 30s who was passionately thankful for our apostolate. Billy lives with his mom, and was passing by on his bike. As we talked, I thought he was starting to break into tears, and all of a sudden he sped-off! I was grateful when he returned ten minutes later, and we resumed our talk. He asked for all the literature we had, and said he wanted to join us at church. But then he began to have tears again, and sped-off. It seemed to me that Billy had once lived on the streets, and was grateful and touched by the love we have for those we meet. Clearly God was pouring out his tenderness on Billy that day. Glory be to God!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

We're Finally On Facebook

Join us here on Facebook to follow our adventures and get updates and events.  I'll be posting several times a week on our comings and goings, as well as sharing photos and other good stuff.  I'll continue to post longer reflections on this blog.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Walking With The Church

In the past ten days we've been blessed to take part in a parish rosary walk and the Corpus Christi procession led by Archbishop Sample.  In each case, we brought up the rear with our rolling coolers, and periodically broke off to minister to those on the streets.  In each case, we eventually fell far behind as we sat with those whom God had put in our path.

The parish rosary walk was a four-hour trek along the boundaries of St. Stephen's parish.  There were around 60 participants of all ages, including Chris, Shawn, Jonathan, Meagan and myself.  Fr. Andersen asked me to surreptitiously plant St. Benedict medals at the four corners of the parish boundaries, and we were able to do so.  The parish neighborhood has dramatically gentrified, and it was a mild shock given our usual walking routes.  In fact, Portland is beginning to resemble the Bay Area in it's idolatry of "good living" (at least in the gentrified neighborhoods). The clean streets with countless new quirky and cool shops (I counted three gourmet ice cream stores) is a far cry from the more visceral lives of those we typically befriend.  And yet, our friends on the streets lead more "real" lives by daily confronting their own hunger, thirst and battle with demons.  For all that, most are not without hope and faith, and they are keenly aware of their lowliness before the good God.  That's not a bad place to be, even though most people count them as simply wretched.

Shawn and I under a Johnson Creek bridge that is the gateway to a homeless camp

Suffering is God's "ace card" in bringing us to him.  Through different forms of suffering, Jesus stripped me of my idolatry towards women, physical fitness and the life of the mind.  In suffering, many of us discover and acknowledge that "the wages of sin is death", and then we become converted to life in Jesus Christ.  Jeffrey James, a homeless alcoholic whom we met on the rosary walk, has arrived at this place.  He knows he is an alcoholic.  He has no delusions.  He takes pride in his landscaping background, and likes to plant flowers and clean the grounds where he stays.  He was raised Catholic at nearby St. Ignatius Parish, and was overjoyed at the rosary we gave him.  He was touched by our selfless acts, and kept calling us "saints".  Other than his overly generous compliments, he was very lucid.  That often comes from being homeless, because those who live on the streets have a lot of "down time" to take stock of their lives.

We also met two other men who have lots of time to consider who they are and what the world is all about.  Nico and Alan chased us down in their motorized wheelchairs.  They each have disabilities, and it is very difficult for Alan to speak. They are young men who spend long hours in hospitals and clinics and they use the time to take stock of things.  Unfortunately, their zeal for justice has brought them to Marxism, though their concern for the poor and vulnerable is sincere.  Chris and I talked to Nico and Alan for 45 minutes, sharing our reasons for conversion, and discussing the dislocations caused by capitalist market economies.  By the time our conversation had run it's course, we were hopelessly behind our group and had to hustle to make the parish barbecue.

The Corpus Christi procession began at the Cathedral and travelled down to the NW park blocks.  The crowd was impressive, numbering in the hundreds.  There were many priests, religious sisters and seminarians, and lay folk from many different countries.  It was a display of authentic Catholic piety, beauty and diversity.

Once again, we eventually fell far behind the main group, but we had many remarkable conversations and encounters.  I believe it was because Jesus Christ in the Eucharist prepared the the way before us.  We gave away four coolers worth of Gatorade, water, protein bars, socks, gloves and rosaries.  I would especially ask our readers to pray for two men.  The first, Michael, is a homeless addict in his early 50s.  His heart aches for God's mercy and divine life, but he doubts that God will forgive him for his squandered life.  Meagan and I sat with him and talked with him for some time.  Chris led a prayer over Michael as we all joined hands.  It was clear that Jesus had placed Michael in our path, and that our sweet Lord was calling him, heart speaking to heart.  He cried quiet tears even though he wasn't the type to cry.  I was gratified when we were able to greet Michael again on our way back to the Cathedral.  The other person I beg prayers for is Scotty.  Scotty was living in a doorway by the Cathedral.  He is a frail man in his early 50s who dresses like a woman.  He wears black stockings and brightly colored jewelry, but is badly unkempt.  Someone recently beat the tar out of him.  He reminded me of the Gospel story of the man beaten by robbers (that is, demons).  Christ is the Good Samaritan (according to the ancient Church Fathers) who takes pity on our woeful condition and restores us to health.  It tore my heart to see Scotty beaten and broken (physically and spiritually), and I wept when I got home.  Jesus has a radical solidarity with the beaten and broken.  Please pray for Scotty and Michael.

Meagan, Shawn, Dave, Chris and Nick

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Jessica's Story and Mine

Perhaps the greatest stumbling block to the Christian faith is to peacefully accept everything God puts in our lives, and to praise Him with a simple heart through trial and change.  Most of us get shipwrecked by questioning God's providence, and losing faith and hope (and finally, divine charity) amidst trial and suffering.  Jesus gives us, in His own life, the antidote to losing our way, and that is to empty ourselves out in the Desert or on the Cross, to become poor as He once did.  Jesus has spent the last six months or more showing me my poverty, and making me poorer still.  I think it's starting to work.  We resist it, especially us Americans, but eventually humility takes root in the soul for those who keep coming back to Christ.  Eventually we let God be God, and resign ourselves that we are just creatures, albeit His creation invited to "partake in His Divine Nature".  Glory be to God.

Looking back on the last 6-7 months, one episode stands out for signaling the Dark Night that was to come.  While a Dark Night is actually a necessary and blessed grace, I've often wondered, "How did I get to this point?"  Then I always come back to the person of Jessica.  Chris and I first met Jessica along SE 82nd about a year ago.  She was walking along by herself in tiny shorts and had a noticeable limp.  She gratefully accepted our Gatorade, and then explained that her leg was grotesquely swollen because whomever had given her the last hit of heroin was bad with a needle or there were too many impurities in the dope.  We saw her again the next week with a group of addicts, and she tested us by asking if we remembered her name.  Everyone was silent and expectant, as I fumbled about in my brain, but it seemed I would fail the test.  The mood began to fall fast.  Then I heard a subdued voice behind me say, "Jessica."  I turned and pointed triumphantly at Chris, "Yes, he's got it!"  Thank God for Chris!  From that point on we earned the trust of Jessica and the circle of addicts.  That was also the time we met Troy, the young Christian man who became homeless by choice. Troy always stayed close to Jessica and looked out for her, though since he was new to the streets, she had to look out for him, too.  It was easy to see why Troy had a soft spot for her: she was honest and an open book, and they were about the same age.  Please read about Troy here.

We always saw Jessica when we walked SE 82nd, and sometimes I would bring she and her friends Popeye's chicken or pizza.  Her leg began to get worse and then it slowly got better.  I gradually learned more of her story.  She was from Milwaukie, Oregon where it was "much harder to be homeless" due to police harassment, and so she was grateful to have found 82nd.  She had a four year old that she had left behind with her mother, and had no idea where the boy's father was at this point.  They had started out on meth and moved up to heroin.  She had never prostituted though she usually hung out with other users, where there was a lot of "sharing" (to use a euphemism).  Then something changed. Jessica got tired of "jonesing" for dope and decided to prostitute.

The first time I noticed this I was driving by with my little children and so I couldn't stop to talk with her.  My soul cried out in pain, "No!  I have to do something about this!"  Troy couldn't take it either, and so he left and I haven't see him since.  I saw Jessica again the next evening, grotesquely painted up with make-up, and with her swollen leg and all.  I raced home to drop off my children and grabbed my tunic and some money I had gotten from my ATM the evening before.  I put the tunic on while I drove and prayed that I would make it back in time.  I spotted her down by the cheap motels and found a place to park. She had disappeared from sight, and I searched about with determination, ignoring everyone around me. Then I saw her. She was about to drive off with a dope dealer in his early 50s.  I immediately recognized his type from my time in prison and before.  He had once been roguishly good looking, but it's a hard lifestyle.  He even had a "souped up" older model BMW that had seen better days.  Yeah, I knew what he was all about.  Jessica saw me, and asked in surprise, "What are you doing here?"  I instinctively held up the money, and said, "Looking for you."  Her eyes were sad. She pleaded, "Why didn't you come sooner?"  Then there was an opening in traffic and the dealer sped off.

I haven't seen Jessica since and that was over six months ago.  She probably became the live-in girlfriend of the dealer since she was young and clean enough to suit him.  That kind of thing is common enough.  Perhaps she has overdosed and died as have so many young people nowadays.  In any event, I can not save her, nor has God given me that mandate.  She is always in the loving gaze of the Father, and He has a perfect plan for her if only she'll accept His plan of salvation.  I'm positive that His plan does not involve me giving her money to subsidize her drug habit if only she won't prostitute.  I had not done that before and I have not thought of doing it since.  At the time I didn't care whether it was ethical or not, I just felt I HAD TO DO SOMETHING.  But it's not my world and I'm not in charge.  At the time I resented God for once more tearing out my heart and stomping on it.  I declared to God in the depths of my soul, "I can't do this! You're killing me!" From then on I started to walk the streets with a harder heart, with less innocence, with occasional swearing and a grim sense of humor.  Then the Dark Night began to fall right on time.

I've since understood that we are precisely called to open our hearts so that they are wounded.  We are called to open our hearts to our suffering brothers and sisters, just as Jesus exposes His pierced Sacred Heart.  It is a sacrifice pleasing to God, and it is sharing in His divine life.  It is also painful.

Here comes the pain...
Sometimes we are wounded by love and it is a beautiful thing.  Just the other day at the grocery store I ran into a neighbor I often see but have never spoken to.  She's a seventy year old Ukrainian immigrant woman who dresses like a peasant from the Old World.  Her son has Down syndrome, a perpetually twisted hand, and lives at home.  He likes to sweep the sidewalks and driveways.  He is well-looked after.  I made eye contact with the old woman and smiled.  She smiled back with the clear, pure eyes of the holy ones.  For an instant, her square, gray face became beautiful with divine life.  I looked away and began to weep from witnessing the divine beauty within this faithful mother.  I hid my tears from the public but I was grateful that my heart was now soft and open to God's ways, open to His Plan.  Glory be to God.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Still Kickin'

It's been a while since I've updated the blog, and that's because I've been undergoing a period of spiritual dryness and temptation dating back to before Advent.  It's not pleasant to be purified by our Lord, to have every dark nook and cranny of your soul exposed to yourself, but it's certainly necessary.  During the worst moments I think, "Sheesh, I wouldn't wish this on any one!"  But we know it's actually a blessing.  Nevertheless, the last thing you feel like doing is writing about spiritual things, if for no other reason than you feel like a complete phony.  I certainly didn't know myself as well as I thought.  Just before the worst of it I was telling Shawn that by God's grace He had made me solid as a rock and able to handle anything that came my way.  Ha ha, what arrogance!  God did remove His grace, and I found myself as pliable as Jello.  He even took away my faith for a while (I don't mean to say I doubted that Jesus was Lord, or that demons existed--of course not).  If God means to strip you down, He can really do a thorough job!

All of this purification was necessary because this is a very difficult apostolate.  We walk amidst the Devil's handiwork, and we witness a tremendous amount of human suffering.  We also witness tremendous grounds for hope, as this blog has catalogued over the years.  Jesus' point in all of this is that we have to completely surrender to Him.  We have to make Him our rock, and to expose our hearts to compassionate suffering as He exposes His Sacred Heart.  Our strength then comes through our weakness to Him, by surrendering to Him.  The last thing he wants is for me to walk the streets in the same tough way I used to walk around prison cellblocks.  I've been guilty of that lately.

Speaking of prison, I gave a talk today at a prison ministry conference at Mt. Angel Abbey.  Archbishop Sample spoke as well, and I was very gratified by his authenticity and balance.  He's just "real" in every sense, and has a deep and wide-ranging worldview.

The conference was an unqualified hit.  I was extremely gratified and humbled to meet the hidden saints of the Church, those men and women who have done prison ministry for decades with little or no reward or acclaim.  So many of them have those clear, luminescent eyes that reveal the temple of the Holy Spirit.

I also made many new contacts, and probably met at least five permanent deacons.  Some of the seminarians expressed interest in walking the streets with us in Portland.  Some of their training consists in hands-on ministries like our own, and hopefully we will hear from their coordinator soon. I also spoke to a deacon who asked if we would help the new Salem chapter of St. Paul Street Evangelization once they are ready to hit the streets.  I am happy to drive down and provide moral support.  Whatever gets them over the hump and on to the streets!

Finally, I met a woman at the conference who just happened to have three-hundred pairs of thick socks from Costco that she was looking to give away.  The children at her parish, St. Michael's in Olympia, Washington, had collected more than she could distribute, and she was happy to give them to us.  It was a clear work of grace--we had even parked right next to each other without knowing it.

We are almost out of socks, and the socks I had been buying are no longer in season at Costco.  Now we have a fresh supply for Spring.  The woman also put me in contact with a recently re-leased ex-con who misses being in prison.  That may sound crazy to most people, but I had a few prison buddies who felt that way once they were released.  This young man, Gerald, came of age in prison, much like I did, and he misses his prison buddies and the stability and status of being a "solid con" in "the joint".  I did a brief stretch in the prison where he did nine years (Shelton).  Hopefully we will make a connection and I will be of some use to him.

As soon as I get clearance, I will be spending one Sunday a month at Oregon State Penitentiary, and a couple of the guys might join me.  We won't be able to walk the streets that day, but it's a worthy use of our time.  I will be honored to witness the Holy Sacrifice and receive the Eucharist at a "hard time" prison.  While such prisons seem God-forsaken in so far as they are stripped of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful (this was actually the subject of my talk), we know that Jesus is actually uniquely present amidst the most desolate situations.  In fact, this is the test of our faith, whether we truly believe and then see Christ at work in the most painful situations.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Soul of the Apostolate

We've been blessed with an unusually dry late Fall and early Winter, and so I've been able to walk the streets three times each week. Sometimes there are six of us with rolling coolers, praying along SE 82nd, or four of us fighting the wind up Division Street, or sometimes just Meagan and I along NE Broadway. A few things have suffered as a result.  My wallet has suffered as we seek to do our small part in alleviating the physical sufferings of those living on the streets in Winter. My prayer life has suffered as I succumb to a spirit of busyness as well as a genuinely full schedule.  And lastly, the blog has suffered as spiritual dryness and time constraints have taken their toll.  I miss writing, but writing takes leisure and that has been in short supply as the apostolate has begun to take on the features of a small organization.
Justin & Jonathan discuss homeless services
with a man along SE 82nd

Speaking of leisure, I have repeatedly offered to God my leisure time as a sacrifice if only He would do something to shake Portland out of her faithlessness.  I have often said, "Lord, I will give up every moment of time to myself for the rest of my life if only you will wake this city."  That may seem like a strange sacrifice, but leisure is the very life-blood of the life of the mind, and the arts.  Good books and beautiful art feed the soul, though not so well as prayer does.  Prayer also takes leisure time, and I am willing to sacrifice some of my closeness with God.  Blessed Titus Brandsma lived in a whirlwind of practical activity and writing, even though he was a Carmelite.  It seemed that God required him to sacrifice a deeper life of prayer for the sake of his other callings.  Finally, after the Nazis imprisoned him in Dachau, he was at last able to pray in the way he had always desired.  His soul drank in the sweetness of communion with God even in that cesspool of malice and violence.

Sometimes our apostolate begins to resemble only an outreach on the streets, complete wth the corporal works of mercy.  That sounds like a fine thing, but it isn't enough.  At those times the Holy Spirit intervenes, and I am reminded once again that prayer is the soul of the apostolate.  I may not have much time for deep prayer at home, but we must pray as we walk together.  Prayer elicits grace as we share in the life of God.  Without prayer, my supernatural hope and charity will shrivel like a prune.  Without prayer, fewer graces will flow to all of those who've chosen to live far from God (even though He remains so close!).  With prayer, we walk in grace with Christ who alone can do all things.  Without prayer, we have only ourselves and our weakness, our merely "natural" hope and love.  Those won't do much good for what we've been called to.  One of our guys, Nick, put together a little prayer and chant booklet for us on our walks.  We will use it religiously.

A final thought.  Dr. Peter Kwasniewski has a must-read article on these issues, provocatively titled, "Confronting the Heresy of Activism with the Primacy of Prayer".

Behind a 7/11 frequented by prostitutes and "Johns", Justin taught Michael the rosary.
Shawn and Chris join in for a final prayer.  Michael is a humble man who struggles with
schizophrenia.  A woman once told him he is a protector just like the holy angel Michael.