It was the first cold-ish night of the year, and we were bundled up. As members of the Labre Homeless Ministry, we knew that our evening walk around downtown Chicago could feel much colder than the weather reports predicted.
Labre is a work of the Loyola University Chicago Campus Ministry office inspired by a similar ministry at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland. Every Thursday, two dozen students wander around downtown Chicago offering food, clothes, and friendship to our friends-experiencing-homelessness. I’m lucky, they let me hang out and tell them about how their ministry reminds me of what Jesus did, walking in a group and befriending those ignored by the side of the road. St. Benedict Joseph Labre is the patron saint of the homeless.
We climbed off the El armed with our usual supplies: a dozen hot dogs, some PB&Js, fruit and snacks, and due to the weather, strong hot chocolate.
We passed by a downtown university campus, a couple burger joints and more than one Starbucks. To our north, the bright lights of the Chicago Theater beckoned. Dozens of tourists from across the U.S. puzzled over their phones as they tried to find the Hamilton theater. For a few blocks, we didn’t see any of our friends-on-the-street, but then I spotted two gentlemen sitting down the block beside a CVS.
One of the men recognized us. I recognized his big smile extending to the corners of his eyes. Our group of six sat down on the cold sidewalk to chat. For a few minutes, we tried to remember each other’s names, but we both failed at that task. No bother. He scarfed down his hot dog. His friend started his first of five cups of hot chocolate. Then we could relearn their names: Darryl and Dennis.
“I wanted to show you a video” Darryl said, fumbling to get his phone out of his pocket while unwrapping his second hot dog. “Ouija,” he said with a grin.
“Ouija?” I asked. “Like the game?”
He struggled to handle both his phone and his dinner, so I reached out. “You eat,” I said, “and I can look it up.”
I turned on the home screen, skeptical about where this encounter might lead. There were a few new volunteers on the route and I hoped their first encounter wouldn’t be centered around board game witchcraft. I opened Chrome to start the search.
His web browser did not feature occult activity, but instead was a porn video he had been watching before. Embarrassed, I closed the window and heard one of the student leaders struggle to suppress a shocked laugh. I typed “ouija” into the search bar.
“That’s not it,” Darryl said, having finished his hot dog. Taking the phone back, he typed in something new as Dennis repeated “OUI-JA.”
At this point I considered ending the conversation. From the unremembered names to the demonic games and the surprise on the screen, the night was leaving me unsettled. I don’t like being out of control.
Finally, Darryl found the video he was looking for. “WEEGEE,” he said again, showing me the screen. It had nothing to do with board games, but instead was a famous Chicago singer.
Darryl and Dennis sang the song to us along with the video.
Life is hard, and so unfair….
Unless you believe that someone cares….
Someone who’s there rain or shine…
sharing your dreams, your heart, and your mind…
As they sang, my heart melted. All the stress of the encounter, of my classes that day, of the newly frosty weather left my mind. Darryl invited me to share his dreams and his heart and his mind. I had told the students that we would be like Jesus, encountering folks on the street and offering healing. Instead, Darryl found me, touched me deeply and healed me.
Months later, I was heading downtown to meet up for our ministry, but my mind was elsewhere. I greeted students and met new ones as we got onto the crowded El heading downtown. Again, we passed classroom buildings, and fast food joints. It was so cold that night, I thought about sneaking off to see Hamilton myself, or at least grabbing something from one of the Starbuckses.
I saw a few of our friends on the street and led the group toward them. Suddenly I heard my name: “Jake!” It was Darryl. This time he remembered my name!
“I didn’t recognize you in the new hat,” I told him.
“Yeah, well, it’s winter in Chicago.” He was nestled under furry ear flaps.
Like so often, Darryl was surrounded by other folks experiencing homelessness. He introduced us to those in the group and the students diligently started filling orders for hotdogs.
Darryl serves as sort of a mayor for the folks in his area of the Loop. He knows the particular needs for each of the people around him. “That guy needs gloves.” “He needs a hat.” “Can I have an extra set of hand warmers for somebody who I’ll see later?”
While our friends drank hot chocolate. Darryl and I started catching up on the last few weeks and then looked forward to the next ones.
“My birthday is coming up,” he said. “December 25!”
We discussed the pros and cons of having a Christmas birthday. Darryl is a big Jesus fan, so he’s happy to share.
As Darryl met all the other members of our group. I caught myself distracted, making a list of tasks to complete before bed. First, I’d have to nurse my leg back to health. In the bitter cold, it went numb after just a few minutes on the frozen sidewalk.
I returned to the conversation to hear Darryl say, “I’ll be 48 later this year.”.
“Is your birthday coming up?” I asked. Concocting ways to thaw out my leg was taking up all my mental energy.
“Come on, Jake!” Darryl spouted back as the rest of the group looked at me in disbelief. “I remember your name after all these weeks and you can’t remember my birthday after five minutes!”
“Oh right oh right! Sorry, it slipped my mind.” Bashfully, I laughed at myself and my to-do list’s power of distraction. I found it easy to focus on Darryl for the rest of the conversation.
That night, again, my prediction about who would be healing whom proved incorrect. My preoccupation with my to-do list plagued me like the demons that conquer so many in the Gospels. Darryl channeled his birthday twin and helped me cast it out by forcing me to be present to him. He healed me, again.
Somehow, my leg felt warmer, too.
Chicago got even colder as Christmas approached. On the group’s last night out before break, I wished Darryl a Merry Christmas and a happy birthday.
I asked him how he’d be celebrating, he said he’d be with his brother and his dad. Hopefully one of his sons would stop by, too. It was the first time we’d spoken about his family. I told him about my brother who was struggling. We promised to pray for each other.
Before we left, he took me aside. “I need you guys to bring blankets out for Herbert when you come back in January. He just had all his stuff stolen, and the stuff I’ve been able to find for him is soaking wet. I don’t want to lose another friend to hypothermia. Please bring a blanket. Promise me.”
Every Thursday, I offer Darryl a hot dog, banana, and hot chocolate. But every Thursday, his gifts to me far outweigh my meager snack. Darryl looks me in the eye and diagnoses the worries I’m harboring. I can be sure that his presence and love will free me, even if just for the evening. Based on this last encounter, it’s clear that I’m not the only one whom Darryl is healing.
Darryl has forced me to get rid of my assumptions about how service works. It may sound foolish to believe that God regularly shows up in a man experiencing homelessness who sometimes watches porn outside a CVS. In the way he always looks deep into my heart and casts out my demons, Darryl proves to me that it would be foolish to believe anything else.