December 07, 2017
A backpack full of prayers
BY TONI CASHNELLI
PHOTOS BY TONI CASHNELLIComforting a man in despair.Br. Mchael Radomski
“First, we pray,” he says, then asks the Almighty for wisdom to help those in need. For the next two hours he will seek them out on streets and in parks, offer them a sandwich and encourage them to talk.
On behalf of St. Aloysius Neighborhood Services, friar Michael is channeling God’s love to the reclusive homeless, those too skittish or embarrassed to say, “I’ve lost my way.” A member of the parish’s Backpack Ministry since 2008, he is there, he says, “to be present to people” who are sad, vulnerable, alone and afraid.
Just listening doesn’t sound like much. But to those who have nothing, it means everything.
Top, helping John put on gloves; middle, prayers at a construction site; above, friends on Washington Boulevard
The route he takes varies, “depending on the needs that present themselves. It’s not so much about giving out stuff as being available. We don’t preach to them. We’re there to pray with or for them.” In a world that is often indifferent or disdainful, “It’s a chance to affirm their dignity. They don’t often get that.”
Everyone has a story. “Many have had a difficult life,” derailed by drugs, mental illness or a dysfunctional family. “We have certain regulars we’ve gotten to know and have seen for years,” then, out of the blue, “They’re suddenly gone, off the map, and we don’t know why.”
Walking in groups of two or more, “We try not to let bad weather stop us,” Michael says of St. Al’s 25 backpackers, most of them lay volunteers who come once a week. “If it’s not nice for us, it’s not nice for the folks stuck out there, either.” The worst day ever? “Oh gosh, when the snow was up to our knees.” They actually found people waiting for them along the route. “Warming centers are great, but when we go out in the cold and snow, those we minister to have a sense that they really are loved.”
There’s a strategy to this, he says. “You approach people who are loners, less likely to go to a shelter. We try to give them the ‘once-over’” to find those truly in peril. “Our priority is those who don’t have the safety of a warm apartment to go to each night.” Since backpack supplies are limited, “We try to explain that we’re holding tight onto items for people in dire situations. It’s a tough thing to do, but it’s a necessary thing to do.”
Michael heads north on Washington Boulevard, sidetracked by an unshaven senior sitting in the median of the street. He hails the friar, introduces himself as “John” and holds out his hands. John not only needs gloves, he needs help putting them on. “I had a stroke,” he says. Michael fishes a pair of gloves from the backpack and tugs them over the man’s gnarled fingers. “We’ll keep an eye out for a pair of mittens that would be easier,” he promises John.
Making connections: Sometimes, all you can do is listen.
At a construction site, a guy with a street-cleaning machine wants to talk. After being paroled from prison, the man spent four years looking for work. He would like to pray and give thanks with a man of God for the positive turn his life has taken.
Michael says his habit is rarely recognized. “Most of the time people are like, ‘What are you dressed up for?’ Most of them just know we’re ‘church guys’.”
Top, seeking lodging for a man on the street; above, Michael sets out with food and his backpack.Up the street, he turns into Grand Circus Park. A dozen men are sitting around the drained fountain, hip-hop vocals blaring in the background. Faces registering anger, boredom or hopelessness, they come to life when Michael walks into view. “When we get to a certain part of a park, they come from other parts,” he says. “It’s like they have antennae.”
A short queue forms quickly. “Got any socks?” a young man asks. Michael pulls out half the contents of his backpack before announcing, “There are no socks.”
“I’m allergic to peanut butter,” says another when he’s offered a sandwich. “What about chocolate?” Michael says, offering a cookie. These guys may be hungry, but they don’t seem destitute. Scanning the park, Michael points to a bench across the way. “That man is homeless. He’s wearing a coat that folds out into a sleeping bag.”
A middle-aged man named Aaron comes forward, face contorted in pain, and says he needs to pray. A dam of despair breaks loose as Michael petitions God, with Aaron sobbing, clinging, sinking to his knees. For the next few minutes there are no answers, only questions, but it’s obvious that this desperately sad soul has found comfort and catharsis. He wipes his eyes, gets to his feet and stumbles away.
“There are a lot of them like that,” according to Michael. “It’s hard to say, ‘My time’s up. Gotta go.’ You just can’t do that.”
A bearded man with a finger wrapped in bandages wanders by looking so dazed that Michael is concerned. “You got a place to stay tonight?” he calls. “On the road,” the man says in heavily accented English. An immigrant from Nepal, he is alone in America.
Thanks and a handshake at Grand Circus Park“What do you believe in your God?” he suddenly asks Michael. “God loves you and me” is the friar’s response. “Some say Allah, some say God the Father; it’s all one God.”
For the next half-hour while the man sits quietly on a curb, staring blankly with his upturned hands on his knees, Michael is on his cell phone, trying to find lodging. Coming up empty, he scribbles a list of names, places and phone numbers.
“I wish there were more I could do for you,” he says, handing them over. “I will hold you in my heart and pray throughout the night. God will look out for you. Place it all in God’s hands.”
Armed with a bag of hand warmers, mittens, sandwiches, and directions to a shelter, the man sets off across the park. “I feel so unable to help in any way,” Michael says. “It aches to not know what happens to them. That’s the only part of this ministry I don’t like.”
Some days, there are rays of hope. “Periodically we meet somebody who is back, better, who has a house and has found work. One such person is Angelique, a young, timid woman who was ever gracious and appreciative” of the help she received. “She kind of disappeared for a while. Then one day we were out and someone called, ‘Hey guys! Hey, St. Aloysius!’ It was Angelique,” greeting them with a smile and a hug. “She got a home, lined up a job and got her life back on track. It was wonderful to see.”
With his load lightened, Michael heads for St. Aloysius and his other duties. He will be back here next week, praying for more happy endings.
(To learn more about St. Al’s Neighborhood Services and how to make a donation, visit stalsdetroit.com.)
BY TONI CASHNELLI
How does he do it?
Paul Walsman, OFMWe asked that question in recent years as the seemingly tireless Fr. Paul Walsman zipped around the hemisphere preaching for Food for the Poor. Even a terminal diagnosis could not keep this energetic 92-year-old off the road, where he would do two, three, as many as four Masses a weekend raising money to fight hunger. Paul could inspire people, and that fed his energy and endurance.
There were few tears at his funeral Nov. 16 at St. Margaret Hall in Cincinnati. Some said they simply could not believe Paul was gone. Others were more celebratory than sad that such an active, productive and meaningful life had lasted so long.
When family and friars shared memories, they used the same adjectives: Gentle. Delightful. Kind. Loving. Generous. Special.
PHOTOS BY TONI CASHNELLIAbove, Paul with classmate Frank Geers at Colin King’s missioning; preaching at Paul Desch’s funeral
“I had one year of living with him at St. John the Baptist Friary,” said Guardian John Bok. “I found him delightful to live with. His gentleness I found to be uplifting.”
Gentle, perhaps, but tough when he had to be. “The first year of high school we had gym together,” said classmate Fr. Tom Speier. “Who’s my opponent but the ex-aviator, Paul Walsman.” [Paul was a Navy pilot at the end of WW II.] When they squared off, “He demolished me.”
“I was in the Southwest in 1971 when he was out there” ministering to Native Americans, said Br. Scott Obrecht. “He always struck me as someone who went out of his way to see how I was doing. Through the years he was a kind, loving, generous man, and he will be missed.”
In Fr. Fred Link’s experience, “Paul really put himself out for others. His zeal for Food for the Poor was pretty amazing. He was indefatigable in his life as a friar-priest. He was a wonderful, unique, caring, compassionate, kind, loving man, deeply spiritual. The man had depth. He touched a lot of lives.”
Fr. Dennis Bosse heard stories of Paul’s pre-friar life as a pilot, which included zero enemy interaction. “I fought the battle of Corpus Christi, Texas,” Paul once said of his stateside service. According to Dennis, “Paul always joked that when he finally got his license, ‘The Japanese heard I was coming and surrendered.’” Paul’s health may have failed, but not his sense of humor.
Mark SoehnerTop, artwork by Paul at the funeral; middle, sister Barb Ernstes and brother Bob; above, voicing his opinion at a provincial gatheringBob WalsmanBarb Ernstes
In his homily Fr. Clifford Hennings emphasized contradictions, not the least of which was his friendship with Paul, a man 60 years his senior. “One of the oldest friars in our province and the youngest, becoming fast friends? An unlikely thing for sure,” he said. “Paul and I were in many ways two very different people,” distanced by generations and experience. “He had years of ministry under his belt, while I was still trying to figure out if I was even being called to this way of life.” At opposite ends of the political spectrum, “There were many occasions where the two of us would just go at each other.”
But “despite our differences, or maybe even because of them, we quickly became friends….I came to love the genuineness Paul always seemed to have. How he would open up and share with me some of the most intimate moments of his life. I had never known someone his age to speak with me in such a way.
“It was as if age didn’t matter with Paul. There was no paternalism, no condescension. Only sincerity and mutual affection.”
When Clifford’s classmates left the Order, “He became a pillar of strength for me. I knew in Paul, that it is OK to struggle, to have doubts. I saw in him that I could live this Franciscan life without having figured everything out. Because Lord knows, he didn’t!”
But hope burned brightly in Paul.
“I learned from Paul that we can be joyful, even in the moments of doubt,” Clifford said. “We can find the light of hope, when things are uncertain. Paul gave witness to me, and I am sure to many here, just what it means to trust in the love and mercy of God.” It was true in life and true as Paul approached death.
“The way he accepted death these final months is a testimony to that fact. How he committed himself to preparing to embrace Sister Death, and how he shared that so vulnerably with me and the fraternity shows the power of faith and the limitlessness of love. Love, which knows no boundaries. Love which crosses all divides. Across the divide of age, of interests, politics and experience. Even across the divide of living and the dead. ”
So, Clifford asked, “How much greater then is the love of God?...God’s love is without limit, without border or contradiction.” And even in times of mourning, “God’s love is there. And when we breathe our last, God’s love for us never ceases…It is in this love that Paul put his trust. It is to this love that we now commend our brother Paul.”
It was a fitting tribute for an eternal – and ageless – optimist.
Over the past few weeks I have been doing quite a number of visitations in Detroit, followed by the funeral for Bill Spirk in Albuquerque and visitation at Pleasant Street. I hosted a “holiday party” at St. Francis Seraph for my family, visited the guys at Mercy in Winton Woods, and then moved on to the missions in Jamaica. I told my family that I’m averaging one week a month in Cincinnati!
From an online video, some of the 68,000 faithful at the beatificationWhile in Detroit attending the Beatification of Solanus Casey with Jeremy Harrington and Matthias Crehan, I think I heard the Baptist cry to Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord! That Mass with 68,000 people actually started my Advent. Solanus never knew who would be at the door, but he treated each one as Christ. It started me wondering about all the little inconveniences that knock on my door through the day. If I could simply not take offense at them, and begin to “welcome” them, I’d feel more like Solanus! Even if there was one or two that I learned to more immediately “turn over” to the Lord, what a difference it would make. Solanus used to counsel people to “thank God ahead of time”. Maybe I could ask for that grace of acceptance, and start thanking God now. It’s Advent.
— Fr. Mark Soehner, OFM
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Top, helping John put on gloves; middle, prayers at a construction site; above, friends on Washington BoulevardMichael’s roomy red backpack is stuffed with gloves, wool caps, t-shirts and hand warmers, all in demand on this bright but brisk afternoon. He fills a collapsible wheeled crate with bottled water and sandwiches donated by local parishes. “We try to have PB&J and some sort of meat sandwiches. If there are extras left over, we sometimes go to the library and pass them out to patrons who are homeless. Today we have homemade cookies, praise the Lord!”
Making connections: Sometimes, all you can do is listen.“Brother Michael!” he hears, and turns to spot a friend. “Carla, you doin’ all right?” he asks a smiling, white-haired woman with a walker. She turns down a sandwich, preferring to catch up on the news while a small crowd gathers around them. Soon they are engaged in a lively conversation. “We often have a good time when we go out,” Michael says. “It’s a joy to meet people like Carla who are filled with joy” despite their circumstances.