Early Sunday morning, I stopped by my home parish, St. Leo in Tacoma, to pick up communion for the day's services. It wasn't 6:30 yet, not officially dawn, but in front of the church there were three men sleeping on the benches. St. Leo's sits on the Hilltop, straight up from downtown, just blocks from the county jail (where people are released at 10pm) and several hospitals. The block houses a number of vital ministries: a food bank, a hot meal kitchen, a medical clinic. The Catholic Worker folks have a house on the next block and there are gardens that have taken over abandoned lots with lots of vegetables when the season turns. It's a busy place. Many of the men I meet at prison have been to St. Leo's over the years. I worked at the parish for seven years, and every now and then, I tease one of the offenders, "You weren't the guy I saw peeing on the wall, were you?" Sometimes a guy will look startled and a bit guilty.
Sunday, three men sleeping on the benches and it was cold. I thought, "This is something I don't see at the prison." The proximity of obvious poverty is missing at the prison, though it shows up in other ways. I'm glad I worked at the parish for as long as I did. There are traces of the experiences there that help me to connect to the men I see now. Those moments of connection are important. They establish the beginnings of a bond.
Looking back over this day, I see that I am always making those connections one way or another. To a rosary-seeker this afternoon, I asked, "Are you related to Fr. John M?" He raised his eyebrows and said, "I don't know, but the last name isn't that common. Maybe!"
Another had a hint of an accent. "You sound like you're a long way from home. Where's your family?" "New Orleans." "Really? I lived in the Ninth Ward for two years and taught down there." (Both of us immediately lapsed into N'Awlins talk and named street corners and landmarks in the area, and cheered the Saints.)
When a man came in trying to take up far less space than his body needed, I took his name and DOC number for the property sheet for his new rosary and then asked, "Are things okay? You look like you're trying to blend into the wall." "I don't do people," he said, shrugging a shoulder toward the people still waiting to get into my office.
My second thought on seeing the sleepers outside the church was that they could easily be men I'll see at prison someday, or that some of my guys have spent time on the streets, finding shelter and a few minutes of unguarded slumber.
So when we were in the middle of our Word and Communion Service, I spoke of the brothers on the benches and we prayed for them: that they would be safe, that they would find shelter and peace, that they might know they are a part of the Body of Christ, loved and prayed for by men who will not see them this week, but may know them in years to come.