A Name Written in the Heavens
Boston GS students are provoked by a surprise encounter
In the past few years, GS (Gioventù Studentesca: high school students following the charism of CL) in Boston has been doing a special charitable work. Together with another diocesan group led by a priest who is a friend of ours, we encounter the homeless population in the streets of our city. It is a powerful yet simple gesture where we meet others in their need. We are accompanied by reading “The Meaning of Charitable Work” by Fr. Giussani, and helped by our conversations after our time spent on the streets.
The last time we went before our summer break, the morning passed unremarkably. We met our friends, talked to them, but none of us would have said that something special was happening. We stopped to talk to one of the men we see most often. Steve is a Vietnam veteran who had a very rough life. He lost a leg in the war, and lost much more than that when he came back to the US. We had a pleasant conversation where he shared about his life and some important appointments he had in the coming weeks. He asked about each one of us, and then we left to go to lunch. Everything seemed very ordinary, similar to all of our other visits.
During that particular weekend, the GS kids had organized a sleepover (or “GS doubleheader” as we call it) and at dinner, the kids expressed the desire to see the new Top Gun movie, so we went. After the movie, the other GS adults and I dropped the kids off at the house where they were staying. As I parked on the side of the street, right in front of the door of the house, we saw a homeless man in a wheelchair in the middle of the street. He was screaming with incredible rage. To each car that just in front of us, he screamed: “F*** you, I just want to die!” “Run me over!” We all saw this, and recognized that the man in the middle of the street was our friend, Steve, whom we talked to that very morning.
Initially, he was screaming at us as well. But, all of the sudden, surprised just as much as we were, he recognized us and his tone changed. He saw my collar and remembered he had met the priest and those students earlier, and started to talk to us very gently. He asked what we were doing out so late in the city, and we told him we went to see Top Gun. It turns out Top Gun, the original one, is his favorite movie and we chatted about the wonderful Mr. Cruise for a while. In the meantime, the kids called 911. He told us more about why he was trying to get himself killed, and he said that God was trying to tell him something by having us there. The ambulance came, and he was taken to the hospital for the night.
This was a totally unforeseeable event for all of us, but what really struck me was how God educated the students and me that day. What changed everything that night was simply that fact that Steve was not an anonymous person for us. We knew his name. And through his name, we were put there miraculously to remind him of his intrinsic dignity which no addiction, no darkness, no trauma can take away. Are we supposed to think that Steve sitting in the middle of the street right in front of the house we were going to was just a coincidence?
We learned two things that night that our GS kids will never forget. First, by sharing in the needs of another, we are reminded we too have an intrinsic dignity, a name written in the heavens. We too suffer from traumatic events, profound misunderstandings with loved ones, and deep doubts about life’s goodness. Only by knowing that our value is sacred and kept safe from above, will we be able to look at all our suffering sincerely and without despair. The second thing we learned is that the world truly changes by virtue of a personal engagement with the people and the reality around me. No program on homelessness, no talk on the origin of this issue in Boston or elsewhere, no project would have meant anything for Steve that night. But the fact that we saw him, because we were faithful to a very ordinary day in charitable work, changed everything. In other words, the world changes only if I allow myself to be changed, to be converted.
Fr. Michele, Boston, MA