Last night, as I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard, I saw a homeless man sitting in front of a tourist shop. As I passed by, he called out to me and to another pedestrian, “Hey, could you spare some change… enough change for a kitchen knife, so I can slit my throat?”
A little reversal of sentiment happened inside as I heard the second part of his statement. I had already begun fishing for some change, but when I heard him talk about the knife, I immediately decided that a donation might not, in this case, be charity.
I proceeded to board a subway that took me to my parish in the San Fernando Valley, St. Charles Borromeo. I wanted to get there in time to go to confession. I had forgotten that the parish had its annual festival going on this weekend. Confessions are normally heard between 7:30 and 8:30 pm, but when I arrived at the church at 8:10, the doors were locked. A couple of other young adults showed up, and we determined that they must have cancelled or rescheduled confessions because of the festival.
Just then, the young associate pastor rounded the corner of the church, heading for the festival in the parking lot. He could see we were hoping to go to confession, so he offered to hear our confessions in the courtyard. There was a line of several people waiting to go to confession after me.
When I left the priest after confession, a young Hispanic man entered the courtyard from the other direction and darted over to the priest. My first thought: one of those people who’s willing to confess cutting in front of others in line (isn’t that the sin of presumption?). Anyway, I didn’t think much of it. I wandered over to the silent auction for a bit and then sat down on the steps of the parish hall to check the voicemail on my cell phone.
While I was checking my voicemail, the same young Hispanic guy came up to me and asked if he could use my cell phone to call his wife. I handed him the phone and he proceeded to place the call.
“Honey, I just got out of jail and I went to the priest for confession. Yeah. How’s Esther?” (almost crying) “I know. Okay. Well, I’m gonna try and catch a bus, but where am I going to come up with that kind of money? I don’t have anything. I’m just going to trust God.”
I felt naturally uncomfortable eavesdropping on this conversation, and then had a jaded Los Angeles moment: He wanted to be within earshot. So one guy tries to get into my wallet by threatening to slit his throat, and this guy is pretending he’s making a fresh start. I’m gullible, but even I can see through this one.
The man handed back the cell phone, thanked me, and then walked away toward the festival. After he had gone about ten paces, he returned to me and said, “Hey, do you know where I might find anyone who could get me some money for a bus to Phoenix?”
I thought for a moment. Meanwhile, he said, “The priest said that the offices are closed until Monday. I’ve been in jail for six months. I have a wife and daughter in Phoenix. I just want to go be with my family. Could you help me? I promise, if you leave me your address, I’ll send you the money. I swear.”
Suddenly it hit me like a ton of bricks. How’s Esther?… I have a daughter…
So we went off in search of an ATM together. As we walked the two blocks to the nearest ATM, Reuben gave me more of his story. He was arrested for some gang & drug involvement here in LA, and his wife had moved to Phoenix in the meantime. Every time he talked about his daughter he got very emotional. “She’s a year old now, and I haven’t seen her for six months.” He also told me that this was his first time going to a church and speaking to a priest. “When I got out, I wanted a priest to hear my confession.”
Anyway, Reuben let me get him enough money for dinner and his bus fare. “Do you have any kids?” he asked me. No, I replied, and I told him I had been considering the priesthood. After I said that, he kept calling me “Father.” For some reason I didn’t correct him. I think he was still dazed from his first experience of confession, in a kind of childlike awe at the mercy of God. I guess I didn’t mind, at this particular moment, if he thought I somehow represented the Church as an avenue for that mercy.
It took a lot of courage and a lot of humility for him to approach the priest, and then to approach me, and to tell me — without any reservation and any self-justification — what he had done. Where did he get that kind of confidence, that kind of trust? Somehow I came away feeling that he understood this passage of Scripture far better than I:
Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. Everyone who asks receives; everyone who knocks will have the door opened. Is there anyone among you who would hand his son a stone when he asked for bread? Or would hand him a snake when he asked for a fish? If you, then, evil as you are, know how to give your children what is good, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11)
Later on, as I was laying in bed falling to sleep, I asked myself, where did Reuben learn to trust the Father like that? One thing he said may provide an answer: I have a daughter.
So if you have a moment, say a prayer for Reuben and his wife. Pray for his daughter.