The Rest of the Week
Sunday, 11:30 a.m.
One moment can change everything. One split second decision can forever alter the course of one’s life or another’s, and forever change both their history and yours. I remember the moment well; it is etched into my mind with a clarity I rarely enjoy. I remember the warm summer breeze that was blowing that morning and the way it made my vestment dance in the wind. I remember the quiet rhythmic sound of the cars that were driving by on Lowell Street, and the familiar sound of families making their way down the front steps of the Cathedral. I remember the way the sun shone that morning and the way everything seemed tinged with hope.
Until that day I had often wondered what it would be like to see just for a moment the way God sees. I had wondered if He saw first with eyes of sorrow for the waywardness of the world in which we live, or if he saw first with compassion and hope. Every weekend after Mass my custom had been the same, to shake hands and talk with people as they left church. However, somewhere along the way I began migrating from the vestibule to greet people instead on the front sidewalk, in the full light of day. Maybe I am a dreamer, but a little part of me was convinced that maybe, just maybe, someone passing by would be encouraged in their faith by the sight of a priest and his people amidst the chaotic world in which we live.
On that summer morning as I stood outside the church, I noticed something different. As the crowds were leaving Mass, a man was walking down the sidewalk in my direction with his head held low. They say you can tell a lot about someone by their eyes. His eyes were downcast with the heavy burdens of life, and he seemed to carry a heart that was hungering for hope, but which had long forgotten what it looked like or where to find it. It was clear that he intended to pass by and continue on to another destination. As I saw him walking my way, I turned back to see parishioners coming down the stairs who would soon expect a greeting. Then I turned back again to the forlorn man. I stopped, reached out my hand, and said good morning.
He stopped dead in his tracks and slowly looked up, and before he could respond I said, “My name is Fr. Andrew what is yours?” He paused and hesitatingly responded, “James.” Sensing his burden was heavy, I continued “James, I am a priest, most of the time I eat alone and sometimes I just want company, today is one of those days. Would you be willing to be a friend and grab lunch with me today, my treat?” He froze, looked up again and said, “Well actually yes I would like that.” After greeting parishioners, I invited James inside church and he sat in the back as I made my way to the sacristy and then back out again.
James and I headed downtown to a small café, awkwardly navigating the beginnings of a conversation and a friendship. Over the course of a few hours that afternoon James shared his story and his soul. He told me of the unexpected turns his life had taken in what was supposed to be the golden years of his life, and how he had gotten knocked down so many times he had begun to forget how to get back up again. I did the only thing I could. I reached my hand out in friendship and helped him up.
What James needed most was not money, in fact he never asked for any. What he needed was a reason to hope again, a reason to believe, and someone willing to see first his dignity rather than his homelessness. Over the next few months James and I would meet often, sharing meals together and building not only a strategy for him to move forward, but also a friendship. However, one thing changed during that time. We stopped meeting up outside the Church, because James had begun to come in. He had come back to the faith after decades away, and could be found quietly sitting in the back of the chapel for daily Mass, sitting amongst the people on the weekends, and shoveling the sidewalks each time the winter snows fell.
I can’t tell you James’ whole story, but what I can tell you is that somewhere in New Hampshire today he is reading this story from a small apartment where he is rebuilding his life. I can tell you he is grateful to a saintly woman in the parish who joined us in friendship and who, after I was transferred, doggedly navigated government bureaucracy on James’ behalf to help him re-establish his retirement benefits—and his dignity.
I have often wondered what would have happened if I did not see James as he walked by that morning. What would have happened if I had chosen to stay inside the vestibule or if I had simply allowed James to pass by, preoccupied with my pastoral duties, or absorbed in my own worries. I will never know, but what I do know is that the same God who helped James to be renewed in his faith, dignity, and hope, renewed me in mine.
To see as God sees is to see first with hope, which makes me wonder, on that summer Sunday morning out on that sidewalk, who saw whom?
Father Andrew Nelson is the pastor of St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish, Somersworth, and St. Mary Parish, Rollinsford.