IT WAS THE LAST summer before my ordination. I was stationed in Morehead, Kentucky and living with Father Larry Goulding. We had just settled down to watch the 11 p.m. news when the phone rang. Father Larry picked it up, and I could only hear bits and pieces of the conversation.
“You are here with no money? . . . Need a place to stay? . . . No family here?” Pause. “OK, I’ll be right down. Meet me at the gas station in front of the hotel.”
As Father Larry hung up the phone and put his shoes back on, I remember his words: “That was Jesus on the phone. I don’t like it when he calls at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night.”
This experience is the experience of almost every missioner. People in need call or knock on our doors seeking help. And each time it has happened to me, especially when it happens at the most inopportune time, the words of Father Larry echo in my head: “It’s Jesus on the phone.”
A man recently came to our Glenmary House of Studies in Hartford, Kentucky. He was passing through. “I heard this was a homeless shelter but that you were filled,” he said. “Can you get me a hotel room?” I did, after we shared a meal.
Make coffee or hide?
Whenever I drive around town and notice an unfamiliar man or woman with a backpack, I know they will soon be showing up at my door. I ponder: Should I make coffee or hide? But making coffee always wins out when the visitor actually arrives.
I remember once giving out clothes to a woman only to have her return a short while later saying the grandkids wanted to exchange them for a different color. People often say they will work for help, and I am happy to oblige them. One man said he would sing for me. But after only two verses of Amazing Grace, I was more than happy to give him the money!
In my more evangelizing moments—and if I have time—I invite the person in need to come with me to church and offer a prayer, and I extend an invitation to come to Mass on Sunday. They often say they will, but they rarely return.
Those who come on a regular basis for help often seem to be seeking attention as much as help. They want someone to listen. One woman used to visit quite often to get help budgeting her money. Another woman just wanted to share the pain of having four of her five sons in prison. She just kept questioning what went wrong.
Last Christmas Eve, while substituting in my former mission in Swainsboro, Georgia, I received a phone call at 1:30 p.m. The man on the phone, Terry, said he needed a place to stay for the night. “I am on a bicycle going from Detroit to New Orleans hoping to find work,” he said. He also said he was sick. It was Christmas Eve and I was busy, but I told him to go to a local hotel and I would meet him in 30 minutes. Preparation for Christmas liturgies was occupying my attention. Over an hour passed, and then I received another call. “Did you forget?” Terry asked. “No, I’ll be right down,” I said, thinking to myself, “Oh, Jesus, you are calling again at the most inopportune time!”
Nowhere to lay his head
I met Terry at the hotel. It was cold, and he had a fever. I went off to the drugstore to buy medicine, thinking the whole time, “I just don’t have time for this extra journey!” On my return we talked for a while. Terry spoke about going to New Orleans as if he were going to the Promised Land. “There will be work there,” he said. I invited him to Christmas Eve Mass. “I want to come,” was his reply. As I walked up the aisle that evening, I noticed there was no Terry. But when I turned around to begin the opening prayer, there he was in the last pew, looking around and seeming very peaceful.
As I greeted people after Mass, I noticed Terry standing by the crèche. I could see tears streaming down his face. When I walked over to him, he picked up the Baby Jesus and said, “I know, Jesus, how you must have felt that first Christmas Eve when you had no place to lay your head. Last night I slept under a bridge.” As Terry reverently replaced the Baby Jesus, tears welled up in my eyes.
I invited Terry to join us for refreshments, but he said no. “I have to go back to the hotel. Tomorrow I’m off to New Orleans.” With that, he was off into the night. Strangers come and go. I sometimes wonder if they really need the help they ask for. I question their intentions. I ponder why people who are non-Catholic so often come to a Catholic church for assistance. But as I sort out my own feelings, Father Larry’s words—“It is Jesus on the phone”—echo in my heart. Is that Jesus calling or knocking each and every time? I think it is.
Father Vic Subb is director of the pre-novitiate and post-novitiate programs of the Glenmary Home Missioners, www.glenmary.org. He lives in Hartford, Kentucky. Reprinted with permission from the Winter 2006 issue of Glenmary Challenge magazine.