No far-off land for these missionaries
Bob, 65, sits on a low shady wall in the small quiet park sandwiched between the state Capitol and Civic Center in Denver. Headphones in one ear, he is listening to Rush Limbaugh, his belongings packed tightly into the bulging backpacks on either side of him. Along with a few other men perched farther down the wall or lounging under leafy trees, he is waiting.
The park is suddenly busy. Within minutes, a cluster of young men and women have set up white tents and tables upon which a buffet of food begins to appear.
A line has started to form as trays of chicken shish kebab are brought to the tables, now laden with bowls and trays of watermelon and fruits, potato and green bean salads, chocolate chip cookies, water, lemonade, and other flavored drinks.
“They give a good meal,” says Bob, eyes crinkling under a blue winter cap, the muffs pinned above his ears, three binder clips snapped on the brim. A sparse, black beard and mustache streaked with thick gray whiskers frame his tanned face.
The food is good. But the conversation is better.
“They'll talk to you,” Bob says. “It's pretty neat.”
They are young Catholic missionaries, who since Thanksgiving 2011 have turned the second Saturday of the month into Lunch in the Park for the homeless in downtown Denver. With help and donations from church volunteers around the metro area, they bring home-cooked meals to Lincoln Park, in the heat of summer and the cold of winter.
But the real gift they bring is one many take for granted — someone to talk to, someone to listen, a human connection.
“This lunch is wonderful,” Bill, 60, says in a soft voice as he sits on the grass, eating. “But that doesn't even touch what they've done for me. ... I got a lot of my dignity back from them.”
The missionaries of Christ in the City, a Catholic service organization that asks young people between 18 and 29 to dedicate one semester to a year working with the poor and other marginalized segments of society, come from throughout the country. They hope to grow spiritually while ministering — mind, body and spirit — to those in need.
They find connections to resources and mental health support, if needed. They provide food, sleeping bags, clothes. They talk about God, if asked.
But more than anything, they offer friendship.
Under a blue tent just across from the buffet, Kati Belsole places a statue of the Virgin Mary on a card table in preparation for the recitation of the rosary, which takes place before food is served.
She is 23, from New York, with a degree in theology, and she talks passionately about her desire to share God's mercy with the poor and homeless.
But “part of our ministry is just that conversation element, showing people they have dignity and they're worth it,” she says. “They're worth it just because of the fact they're a person.”
She arranges a vase of red and white fabric roses next to the statue, along with a large crucifix and wooden rosaries she'll hand to those in the park who want them.
“We really want to know the person, their joys and their struggles,” Belsole says. “It's a relational thing. We really try to remember people's names and their stories.”
Bill will tell you his story is one of redemption.
The missionaries found him on the 16th Street Mall nine months ago. He was drinking every day.
“They would stop and talk to me.” A slight man, he wears wire-rim glasses and a cap. “Without fail, if I was there, I would see them.”
He pauses, takes a bite from his plate. “Well, I've had people make a little effort, but I've never had anyone come every day that I could count on.”
Recently, Bill says, a car hit him as he was crossing a street. The collision put him in the hospital for three weeks. “They would come see me every day, pray for me. When I started getting better, they still came by.”
Raised in the Catholic faith, Bill began talking about God.
“They helped me get my life back spiritually, even physically.” He has not had a drink, he says, in five months. He is living at Samaritan House shelter, working toward a job and his own place. Early next month, he will see his sister from Indiana for the first time in 1½ years.
“They'll just take you on a human basis,” Bill says. “People who have been in the position I was in, we just don't have many people who we can talk to on a normal level, whatever that might be. And they gave me confidence to talk to other people I normally wouldn't have talked to.”
He is quiet. “I don't know how to put into words how thankful I am.”
Alex Lambis, 23, is a college graduate from Orlando with a degree in interpersonal communication. He spends two hours each day wandering the streets of Capitol Hill. He has come to know many of its homeless residents well.
There's Zachary, artistic and creative. And Art, tender and caring. Bernie is open and genuine. Jessica — loving, motherly.
“I've had people ask me why I'm out there every day,” Alex says. “I say, `We're just out here, to hang out with you guys and see how you're doing.' ... I think the constant presence makes a difference. It takes perseverance and constant effort and not giving up on people.”
Alex has learned much about faith and human dignity from his friends on the street. He's become more compassionate, he says. And “I've come to realize there is beauty that can be drawn in the middle of suffering — even if the situation is bad and ugly, good can be drawn from it.”
On this Saturday in the park, he sits down next to Jessica. A pretty mother of two, she is 32. She has carefully braided her hair and shadowed her eyes. She wears hoops in her ears and bracelets, a bright red sundress and pink fingernail polish. She is homeless, she says, because of a series of bad decisions. Her children are with her mother.
Jessica savors the home-cooked meals. “They're always made with love, and that's what gets me.”
She is grateful, too, for Alex and the others.
“They pray with us, and we need all the prayers we can get,” she says. “They're here for us, for me. Just being there and listening.”
She glances at Alex, arms hooked around his legs, whose year in Denver is almost over.
“He'll be leaving soon,” she says. “And then I'll have to start all over.”
Tables have been cleared and leftover food given away. Pockets of people remain, sitting on the ground or standing, missionaries and their street friends still deep in conversation.
“The '64 Wildcat — the red one I was talking about?” a man with long, gray scraggly hair and beard says to his young listener.
“That's what it was called?”
“I had to replace the windshield because it was cracked and I had to replace it with a clear windshield. I said, `Man, this windshield looks like my forehead!'”
The two laugh.
And the laughter lingers, its echo of a simple joyous moment a sweet reminder about the transforming power of human connection.
Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-566-4110.