In Lunch for the Homeless

A cheering crowd welcomed Pope Francis as he headed to St. Patrick’s Church in Washington on Thursday. Credit Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

A cheering crowd welcomed Pope Francis as he headed to St. Patrick’s Church in Washington on Thursday. Credit Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

The residents of the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter rose at 3 a.m. on Thursday to give everyone time to shower, fix their hair and get dressed in the best clothes they had after years on and off the streets, coping with evictions, abuse and jobs that disappeared.

They were going to have lunch with Pope Francis.

By midmorning, the women were seated at what looked like a wedding reception: a sea of round tables draped in baby blue tablecloths crowned with vases of yellow and orange flowers.

Never mind that the tables were under a tent on a downtown street, and that most of the 300 guests were homeless, felons, mentally ill, victims of domestic violence, substance abusers or combinations thereof. At noon, Francis emerged, as promised.

“He’s a good man. He’s about us,” said Lolita Hilliard, 61, who has lived at the shelter for just over a year.

On his six-day visit to the United States, Francis is heeding the warning that was whispered to him by a Brazilian cardinal just moments before Francis was elected pope: “Don’t forget the poor.”

After delivering an address to a joint meeting of Congress, Francis went directly to the homeless at Catholic Charities — an itinerary designed to send the message that his priority, and that of the church, is the people who live at the margins.

In every city he visits on this trip, the pope is using his celebrity to compel the cameras to show the nation a picture that it might rather ignore: Here in Washington, he met the homeless, and in New York he plans to visit with immigrants. In Philadelphia, he will go to a prison. As the church’s prime teaching pastor, he has made clear that he is committed to a dual purpose: to bring hope and encouragement to those who are suffering, and to galvanize the comfortable to do something for those in need.

“The pope is saying with this visit, you need to get involved with the poor,” said Msgr. John J. Enzler, the chief executive of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, while he waited for the pope to arrive on Thursday. “You can’t just go to church and say, I’ve done my duty. He says, ‘Go to the edges, go to the peripheries,’ ” Monsignor Enzler said. “He’s saying to all people, ‘Get out in the streets, get dirty, and be a church on the street.’ ”

For Francis, though, it took some careful planning. For the homeless men and women at the lunch hosted by Catholic Charities, the day began with a line more than a block long to get through the Secret Service screening. The shelter residents had signed up on a list after town hall meetings explaining the event, and were then selected by shelter managers.

Edward Gray, in a fishing hat and bifocals, was waiting in the line. He and many of the men who attended the lunch are living in what he called “801,” shorthand for the address of the Catholic Charities’ homeless shelter nearby, on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital. Unlike many of those in the line, Mr. Gray is Catholic.

Mr. Gray said he had seen a pope before: When he was an altar boy growing up in Washington, he traveled with a group to Rome and saw Pope Pius XII. He said he was not always homeless. He worked as a contractor on Capitol Hill, and a barber and cosmetology teacher. Mr. Gray, 69, said he had six children, five of whom are college educated, and sounded a touch skeptical about seeing the pope.

“He came all the way here to see the homeless?” said Mr. Gray. “That’s very strange to have a monarch come see the homeless.”

Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II visited Washington, but did not meet Catholic Charities clients, Monsignor Enzler said. “When other popes came, it was more for the bishops and the leaders of our country,” he said, or to celebrate large Masses for the faithful, as Benedict did eight years ago at Nationals Stadium.

Francis, though, managed to inspire a festive scene of makeshift luxury. Volunteers served covered plates of teriyaki chicken breast, Asian pasta salad and steamed green beans and carrots more than an hour before the pope was expected. The guests were told not to eat until he arrived and gave his blessing, and they did not.

At the tables, some guests socialized and took pictures of one another with their cellphones, though some sat silently and others nodded off. Some of the men wore suits, others jeans. One woman had her nails painted a yellow that matched the flowers on the table.

As an elevated platform with television cameras and reporters loomed over the scene, Ms. Hilliard, a former department store employee, said that she was convinced of the pope’s sincerity and that this was “no show.”

“The pope cares,” she said, “and that’s what really matters.”

The pope arrived a bit before noon, but first slipped into the adjacent church, St. Patrick’s, where he spoke to around 250 additional handpicked Catholic Charities clients on the subject of homelessness. Though he had just delivered a speech on Capitol Hill, at St. Patrick he offered no political program to address homelessness and poverty. To those who had fallen through the cracks, he offered faith, solidarity and prayer.

“In the face of unjust and painful situations, faith brings us the light which scatters the darkness,” he said. “Faith makes us open to the quiet presence of God at every moment of our lives, in every person and in every situation. God is present in every one of you, in each one of us.”

A few minutes later Francis came out the church doors to cheers and applause from the lunch guests. He gave a brief blessing, then said “Buen apetito,” to loud laughter. He himself did not eat, but he waded through the tables, stopping to lay his hand on the heads of children who had kept quiet during hours of waiting by coloring in the pope pictures they were given with crayons.

Smiling and seemingly unhurried, Francis moved among the homeless, some who took selfies and reached out to touch him and talk to him.

“I told him stay blessed and not stressed,” said Mark Perrez, 54, who said the pope held his hand and pointed with surprise to the eclectic collection of pins that Mr. Perrez wore all over the front of his blazer and baseball hat.

As the pope climbed into the compact black Fiat serving as his limousine, Peter Atkinson stood at the fringe of the crowd, marveling at what he said was for him, as a Catholic, a “moment of grace.” Mr. Atkinson, 54, an engineer in a sharp black jacket, who speaks English with a French accent, said he is now living in one of Catholic Charities’ transitional housing programs. He said he had hit bottom abusing drugs and alcohol.

“I wouldn’t have been able to participate in this moment seeing the pope if I didn’t have this trash in my life that brought me to the shelter system,” Mr. Atkinson said. “It took this moment of nudging by the universe. If I can’t read the signs, I must be blind.”

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/25/us/pope-francis-most-welcome-words-to-homeless-in-washington-buon-appetito.html?_r=1

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