Center City Beautification?

Bruce always slept on the grate outside of the family court building on the corner of 18th and Vine in Center City Philadelphia. When I say always, I mean every cold night for many years. He had his blankets and stuff piled up under, around and on top of him. He was mentally ill, with some paranoia and other issues. He didn’t like waiting in line, so relied on a few of the guys to bring him leftovers in the evening. Bruce slept on the grate to stay warm from the steam from the court building’s excess heat.

On December 3rd, when Fr. Noah brought Bishop THOMAS to help serve, Fred made sure we visited Bruce to give him some dry blankets and three dollar coins that we were giving out for St. Nicholas Day. We went over to where he was lying. Fred and I introduced Father and the Bishop. We gave him the blankets and the coins. Father Noah said a brief prayer of blessing and Bishop THOMAS blessed him. We told him the coins were given in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in honor of St. Nicholas. Then we left and headed home to warm dry beds.

There have been numerous articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News through the years filled with complaints from Mayor Rendell, rich condo owners and the Four Seasons about the unsightly homeless people in center city. Mayor Rendell blamed the homeless for the failure of his Convention Center. (I’m sure it had nothing to do with inadequate parking, no public restrooms open after 5pm in the city; a “welcome” center with no accessibility or parking, only open banking hours; or battling unions.)

Logan Circle Residents Association keeps lobbying for more repressive legislation to limit loitering in public parks, because they don’t like the looks of poor people. (I thought parks were designed to encourage people to slow down and loiter.)

Well, early in the morning of December 4, some motorist jumped the curb and ran over Bruce as he lay sleeping on the grate, killing him. May his memory be eternal!

Any who think that poor and homeless people are ugly, scary or unclean are guilty of prejudice and are lacking faith.
If you think they are ugly or unsightly: Isn’t it Christ’s face you are avoiding?
If you are afraid of them: Is it because you are afraid you may lose your money and join them? Or is it that you are afraid God wants you to share your abundance with them?
If you think they are unclean: Isn’t it really that you are afraid to face up to your own frail humanity and allow your heart to be touched by a brother or sister who has the same basic needs and wants as you do?

Many people have passed the busy corner of 18th & Vine in the last couple of months. Most were oblivious to any change. Some, I’m sure, noticed that it seemed somehow neater, but weren’t sure why. A few think the city finally enforced the Sidewalk Ordinance to clear out this rabble to beautify their neighborhood. I hope there are none, but I fear there may be some, who know what happened, and think ‘it’s about time’ and blame the victim.

When I saw the empty grate, I grieved for the loss of Bruce. I also considered my own failures. I never got to know Bruce. I saw him there, but rarely went out of my way to see if he needed anything. I considered my failure to understand how Bruce could have come to have such a life. I did not love Bruce enough.

Now I think about the failures of a society that seems all too willing to give up on people. We are willing to spend trillions on an internationally deployed military to protect rich corporations and ensure that we can burn way more than our fair share of oil. Yet we are not willing to treat all men as our brothers or fathers, or all women as our sisters or mothers, or all children as God’s children (as the Scriptures teach us), and share God’s resources to meet basic human needs. We do not love each other enough.

Updates on Christmas 2009 Report

Scott had some seasonal part time work over Christmas, and his assistance and food stamps have been temporarily reinstated. Mack was able to land a couple of big commissions, so his truck is back on the road. Jose finally learned what weird stuff the Mormon friend he lives with believes, and is looking for someplace else to live. His mom told him to leave there immediately.

Bishop THOMAS posted an article about his visit to Philadelphia in his blog on the diocese website and included the entire Christmas Report in PDF there. Thank you, Sayidna!

More volunteers are coming out on Thursday nights. So many that it’s like a party! This is great! Several of them have expressed a willingness to switch to Tuesday nights. We just need some more people to step forward to make soup and sandwiches and locate goodies and fruit and we’ll be able to double the ministry.

Give it a try! You will be blessed!

Life Lessons Learned

For three weeks in December and the first week in January I was unable to go serve in the city, because I was sick with MRSA and the allergic reactions to the antibiotics used to fight it. The fifth week, I went, but someone else made the soup and I rode shotgun, under priest’s orders. It is ‘community’ MRSA. It breeds and gets stronger in homeless shelters and prisons. I probably picked it up because I had an unprotected scratch on the back of my neck from wood chips flying during icon production. Then I got a sweaty arm around the neck from one or more of our diners who was showing his thanks and affection.

This was my second outbreak. The first one was in late October, but it was misdiagnosed and treated with an antibiotic that temporarily subdued it, but made it stronger.

I was tired and unable to think straight much of the time. It was a busy time for “Come and See” Icons, Books & Art. I was only functional for about 4 hours per day. Thankfully, I was able to hire my neighbor, Michael, to do most of the edge painting and cleaning up of icons, and running errands. Also Nick Morelli helped me for a few days. I would mount the icons in the morning, then fall asleep while attempting to work on the computer; then go back out to the barn to pack the icons; then come back in to label them for mailing. It was the first Christmas in nine years in business that I had no customers who were upset or disappointed because we did not meet their reasonable time constraints. Thanks guys! You saved Christmas!

I’m a little fuzzy on who drove to the city in my stead which weeks to feed the homeless (and they don’t want to be named here, anyway). I made the soup three of the weeks, but chose simpler kinds.

Service was not interrupted. This demonstrated practically what I have believed for many years theoretically: No man is indispensible. It is hubris to think one cannot be replaced.

On Theophany, two friends from out of town called me, independently of one another, to make sure I was still alive. One told me it would ruin his feast day if I died. I assured him that, for him, I would try to stay alive. To quote Fisher Stevens’ Indian character in Short Circuit, “With friends like this, who is needing enemas?” I had so many people checking up on me and praying for me, it was truly a blessing. I was reminded: I have many people who love me and want me to be and do well.

In the middle of this ordeal, Fr. Noah asked me what I was learning from it. I recalled to him a quote I memorized in 1973. I was confused on the source, (I’m blaming that on the drugs I was on.) but the quote was right. Robert Murray McCheyne was a Scottish minister who was determined to give his all to preaching the gospel. As he lay dying at age 29, he said to his friend: “God gave me a message to deliver and a horse to ride. Alas, I have killed the horse and now I cannot deliver the message.” The lesson: I need to pace myself and take better care of myself.

I am now allergic to four classes of antibiotics, so the plan from now on is to avoid getting sick. Thank you all for your prayers and concern.

Congratulations!

On January 16, Reader Michael Jones and Katie Ren were wed at St. Stephen’s Orthodox Cathedral in NE Philadelphia. They have helped serve on Thursday nights for the last few years, during their courtship. May God grant you many years!

On January 22, at 7:57pm, Anna Nora Heveran was born to Helen and Michael Heveran. She came in at 8 pounds even, and 20 inches tall. She has four siblings. No doubt, before long, she will be serving the homeless with the rest of her family. Congratulations and Many Years!

A Gentle Giant

In the last few months, I have had several conversations with Chris. He is one of our diners. He is about 6’4″ and large. Of course he looks even bigger all bundled up in layers of winter clothes. He is soft spoken and articulate. He always says thank you, even if he arrives too late to get any food. He has a gentle way of sharing wisdom. He had been part of the conversation a couple months ago where I told another man that I had had over thirty different jobs that I could remember, before I started the icon business over nine years ago. That man said I sounded like a homeless man.

Chris asked me again last Thursday what it was I did for a living. I told him I was still making icons, although some days I wished that there were someone who could fire me, so I could do something else, but that my wife would not be happy with that.

He said, “So it’s good for a man to be married? ‘It is not good for the man to be alone.’”

I replied that it is good for me. I said, “I probably would have been dead years ago, if it weren’t for Bethann.”

Chris looked straight at me and said, “Wow. I can tell you really believe that.”

I said, “Yes. I wouldn’t take care of myself and I would take too many risks.”

I am thankful I met Chris. I am even more thankful that I met Bethann.

Any Thursday Night

We serve a hot meal and give away sandwiches, pastries, fruit, toiletries, blankets and clothes to between 75 and 175 men and a few women every Thursday evening at 8pm in the park across from 1801 Vine St. We won’t start serving on Tuesdays until we have a couple more ducks in a row.

I leave St. Philip Antiochian Orthodox, Souderton, as the bell chimes seven. If you want to ride with me or caravan call me to let me know.

The McGraws come from Chester County. Others live in various parts of Philadelphia and meet us there. Fr. Joe Toroney and Mat. Kathy breeze in from wherever they have been working that day.

Feel free to make sandwiches or buy fruit to send. Please call for requirements. Or come out and join the fun! You never know who of the least of these may lead you to Jesus Christ.

St. Basil the Great, On Social Justice

What keeps you, now, from giving? Isn’t the poor man there? Aren’t your own warehouses full? Isn’t the reward promised? The command is clear. The hungry man is dying now, the naked man is freezing now, the man in debt is beaten now – and you want to wait till tomorrow?
“I’m not doing any harm,” you say, “I just want to keep what I own, that’s all.”
Which things, tell me, are yours? Whence have you brought them into being? You are like someone who sits down in a theater, and would prohibit everyone else from entering, saying that what is there for everyone to enjoy is for himself alone.

- St. Basil the Great, On Social Justice,
“I Will Tear Down My Barns”