Jesus in our Midst
The Triduum may be the single busiest time in the Church calendar. As the Church remembers the events that led to our salvation, there is plenty to grab our attention. This year was the same in many regards as other years but from a personal perspective, through serving as an acolyte, I was immersed in the experience. I knew in advance that I would be helping with Holy Thursday, the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday Mass. I knew that I would have the opportunity to wash the feet of someone and help with the incense on Holy Thursday, help with sprinkling the faithful on Easter day, as well as serve for the Easter Vigil. I was excited about this new experience.
Preparation for the Holy Thursday and Easter Vigil Liturgies entailed several hours of practice and focus on the specifics of the Liturgy. I am grateful that I had the chance to help in this way as it was a valuable process in my Formation. There were many surprises for me. First, when I was washing the feet of an RCIA candidate, I felt a sense of awe and thanksgiving as I realized why Jesus used this sign to show how to serve each other with agape. I felt humbled as I participated in a Liturgy that is rich with Catholic Tradition which is centuries old. On Good Friday, I had a feeling of profound thankfulness when I understood why Jesus died for me. Again, it was that same sense of awe and thankfulness.
My biggest surprise came on Saturday morning as we were wrapping up the preparation for the Easter Vigil. I was standing to the right side of the alter and noticed out of the corner of my eye a man slowly walking up the aisle. He was dressed in shoddy dress and looked like he had been on the street for a while. Immediately upon seeing him, I felt that God was calling towards this man. I turned and looked directly at him as he stepped to the left and sat in the pew. I noticed that the man was wearing a hospital bracelet which I saw him rip off. Then he put his head in his hands and sat there. I then sat beside him. The man was dressed in clothes that didn’t fit him, he had a week or so of growth on his face and he had been on the street for some time based on his odor. At first, he would not look at me. He just kept talking and saying he was sorry. He told me that he was dying of stage-4 stomach cancer which he believed to have been caused by building materials that he inhaled when he served a fire-fighter at the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. I listened as he told me how he had 14 stomach surgeries and four tumors, one as big as a baseball. He continued to writhe in pain and talk, as I listened. He showed me his bulging stomach and pointed to one of the tumors. He was a fifth-generation fire-fighter in New York City and had the harrowing experience of being trapped for 11 hours with another firefighter in the stairwell of one of the Twin Towers, after it crashed to the ground. He told me about the people he went in the building with and named some that didn’t make it out alive. He told me about their families and why he chose to be a fire-fighter - “To save lives”, he said. He intently relived the time in the stairwell and rerouted how he and the other fire-fighter dug themselves out to safety. He reflected on the site of the attack as he walked the grounds. He could “see body parts, dead bodies and heard the screaming and wailing of many people” [in misery]. Because of this, he was suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
At this point, I found out his name by looking at the hospital band and confirming it with him. His name is is Allen. Many times as we talked, He kept saying he was sorry that he couldn’t save more people and how he never saw himself as a hero. That he was “just trying to do what was right.”
I asked him why he was in the area and Allen told me that his doctors at the University of Tennessee arranged a meeting with the Cancer team at Northside Hospital to discuss treatment. He had just been there before walking the four miles to St. Thomas. He was looking for a Catholic Church because he was Catholic and felt the need to be closer to God. When he got to the parking lot at St. Thomas, Allen saw a man having a hard time getting into or out of a wheel-chair and Allen instinctively stopped to help. Then he followed the man in the wheelchair into the Church which is when I saw him. Allen reported to me that the doctors at Northside said that his cancer was too far advanced that there was nothing that they could do for him. They suggested that he go back to the University of Tennessee and get into hospice care.
After the Easter Vigil practice, Allen and I went to the Gathering Area and ate dinner. He asked for a blessing and one of the Deacons gave him a blessing. By this time, Allen and I were becoming comfortable with each other. I told him that God likely guided him here and that I was here at the same time to walk with him in compassion. I told him that I did not pity him and that we were brothers in Christ on this journey of life, supporting each other as called for. Allen didn’t have any money so I offered to buy him a bus ticket to Knoxville (the location of the University of Tennessee). He agreed that I could do that. I asked if there was anything else, and he asked if I knew where he could get a new coat (the one he was wearing was three sizes too big) and I said sure that we would go to my house on the way to the Greyhound bus depot and get a coat and whatever else he needed. On the way to my house, Allen mentioned that someone had stolen his backpack, so I said not to worry that I would get him whatever he needed.
When we got to my house, I introduced him to Elena, my wife, and explained what was going on and she asked how she could help. She went in search of a backpack, while Allen and I got him some sweatpants, T-shirts, socks, underwear and a nice winter coat. (The coat he had been wearing - he left at the Greyhound bus terminal on the sidewalk saying “Someone needs this coat and they will find it.”) We gave him some cash so he would be able to get what he needed.
So, we hopped in the car started off for the Greyhound station. He mentioned he was hungry and how much he liked Kentucky Fried Chicken. We drove to KFC where I bought him lunch, then left and headed down to the Greyhound bus terminal. He really liked the KFC! It turns out that he and I like the same music too! During the 45-minute drive to the bus station, we talked about everything from divine intervention, to the race issues, to COVID vaccines, kids, school, hitch-hiking “in the good old days” (Allen was almost 55 years-old so our “good old days” are similar!) - all the while listening to rock-and-roll and country music. He mentioned that he really liked Lynard Skinard - who is one of my favorite groups too! I told him that my son and I used to like to ride in my convertible with the roof off singing “Free-Bird’ at the top of our lungs! He professed that he “stopped being angry about 9/11 because it just tears you up.” That was profound for me as I had been angry about my dad’s death in January this year from COVID. I felt peace then and still do. Maybe that was one of the reasons I met Allen.
When we got to the bus station, there were plenty of people hanging out there. As I approached the counter to buy the ticket, I waited for about ten minutes and no-one showed up to help. Allen suggested that we get the ticket to Knoxville from the kiosk. We found out that there was no direct bus from Atlanta to Knoxville. When I purchased the ticket to Knoxville, SIX tickets came out of the kiosk! That meant that Allen would have to change buses five times on the way there (including in Cincinnati). He would have been traveling for 12 hours! We both thought that this was a bad idea so he suggested getting a ticked to Chattanooga where he would find a way to get back to the people at the University of Tennessee (Allen was very fond of the people there who even had a fundraiser for him - it was like going home for him). The good news, was that the ticket for Chattanooga was available for a 5:45 PM departure that same day. The bad news was that the only bus scheduled to Chattanooga that day was sold-out and the next bus was scheduled for the following day (Easter Sunday) at 5:45 PM.
The look on his face broke my heart. Allen had nowhere to go so I was inspired to set him up in a hotel room for the night. He thought that was a great idea and mentioned that he would be able to go to Mass in the morning at the Shrine. So, we set off to find him a room. It was three o’clock by now and about time for check in. We went to one hotel and found out that the room rate was about $500/night and Allen and I both thought that this was a bad idea (He said, “Your wife wouldn’t be happy with you!”). We asked the check-in person at that hotel the location of cheaper hotel. At first, the guy pretended he didn’t hear us but we explained the situation we were in and he graciously agreed to find a cheaper place. He pointed toward a Hilton a few blocks away that was about half that price.
We walked to that hotel an arranged for a room for him. It was on the 20th floor and had a great view of downtown! Allen seemed happy, extremely happy! I felt that I wanted to make this that best day I could for him. He had selflessly helped many people and now it was his turn. I felt honored to be that person and I pray for Allen to have a good life both here in this world and the next.
When I got back into my car after leaving Allen at the Hilton, I turned on the radio. Guess what song was on? Correct! It was Free Bird! So, I sung it at the top of my lungs!
In Formation classes this past Saturday, in our Synoptic Gospels class, we had just discussed the Gospel of Matthew. I thought of the story in Matthew where Christ explains that HE HIMSELF is in us all and it is our calling to serve Him in each other. The Gospel writer said: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me. Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you? And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”’ (Matt. 25:31-40)
I truly believe that I encountered Christ through Allen and I pray that I will always have what it takes through God’s grace to do what He calls me to do and that I answer the call. Amen.