Whoever Cares for the Poor Lends to the Lord, and He Will Pay Back the Sum in Full

Frans Francken the Younger (1581-1642), "The Seven Works of Mercy"
Frans Francken the Younger (1581-1642), "The Seven Works of Mercy" (photo: Register Files)

At first, I thought the friar was joking.

The exuberant, joyous Franciscan with whom I spoke called it the "Jesus Run." Whatever that meant, it couldn't be good―there's simply no precedent in the Church for using those two words together to describe anything.

It sounded vaguely unorthodox and somehow, modern.

I met Br. Shawn Conrad when I went to St. Crispin's Church to volunteer for Lent and learn more about the "Jesus Run." I came away with by far more than I gave.

The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal (CFR) are a community started by Fr. Benedict Groeschel in 1987. These men came together in the hope of living a more authentic and austere Christian life as exemplified by St Francis of Assisi. They consider themselves both contemplative and active.

The mission of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal is to serve the materially poor―especially the destitute and homeless. Friaries not focused on formation provide the poor with some form of shelter, a soup kitchen, food pantry and/or clothing room. Every friar is personally and directly involved in hands on work with the poor. Their second apostolate is evangelization through preaching and teaching the Gospel.

It was late on a cold, depressing New York City's winter's eve as I made my way to a particularly desolate part of the Bronx to which I hadn't ever been before. I could tell the area was both depressed and depressing even before I got out of the subway station.

A nearly eternal darkness, both spiritual and physical, seemed to choke the community. Even as a native New Yorker, I felt a bit out of place being ashamed of my relative wealth. And just for the record, as a journalist, I'm not exactly rolling in the dough. Just ask my long-suffering landlord. But, in comparison, these people had nothing and I had everything.

The depth of poverty in Mott Haven, Bronx, America's poorest congressional district, was stifling. It's a miserable accusation of "polite society" living in extraordinary, conspicuous wealth in nearby Manhattan, that people live like this―unsure from where their next meal will come.

The friars operate the St. Anthony's Shelter adjacent to the St. Crispin's friary. It offers a bed, clothing and meals for 18 homeless men every night in a spiritually and emotionally supportive environment. In 1993, the friars took over an abandoned building next to their compound which served as the neighborhood's crack house and flophouse and created a 65-unit SRO (Single Room Occupancy) apartment building

It's such delicious Christian irony that an edifice that served as a temple to the false god of this world, one in which drugs promised a temporary and false salvation and freedom but only bestowed fear, pain and death, is now rebuilt and transformed to honor the Redeemer.

The eight friars―five priests, two brothers and one deacon who will be ordained to the priesthood in May―currently living at St. Crispin's, helped in the preparations for the evening's "Jesus Run." Generally speaking, the friars and associates prepare about fifty packages which include sandwiches, soup, hot chocolate and snacks. They also bring along clothing and toiletry items in case they are requested.

Meeting Jesus through the poor is a life-changing experience, as I learned. One of my fellow volunteers was Virginie Woo, 44, a French national and experienced Associate in the Bronx program. In her free time, she's a chef du cuisine and a culinary teacher in the City. She's originally from Versailles and had been in the States for the past 5 years. Virginie has volunteered with the Bronx friars and their Jesus Run for the past four years.

"It’s a mystery, meeting people poor, it's like meeting Jesus," she explained. "The homeless have huge difficulties in their lives―they've no other option available to them than to live on the streets. Sometimes they yell at you. They are suffering. They sometimes agree to pray with us. It means a lot to them. It's like meeting Jesus on the Cross."

"We've been helping a poor lady named Angela on 145th Street in the Bronx," explained Virginie. "She was HIV positive and had lived with AIDS for many years. Angela was blind and had had several heart attacks. She was very weak, had a long history of having been abused by men including being raped. She had a difficult life. It was a truly sad situation."

"She clung deeply to Jesus," explained Virginie. "Angela was a woman of remarkable faith. She always wanted to talk about Him when we came over to cook and clean for her."

On Holy Thursday, two-years ago, Angela was stabbed to death by a drug addict who then threw her body off the roof and then went to sleep in her bed.

After a hard night sleep in cots that would have made the holiest and humblest hermit grumble, the thirty volunteers woke up, ate breakfast and busied themselves in chores. Holy Hour, Mass and a communal meal followed that afternoon. Before very long, we were preparing for the pièce de résistance―the so-called "Jesus Run." This was where the volunteers/Associates were invited to make sandwiches and hot chocolate for the poor.

Late that very same night, the friars, associates and I piled into two enormous vans and drove around Manhattan until 2:00 AM handing out clothing and the sandwiches and hot chocolate. Grateful, shaking hands accepted what we offered―both the food and our respect for them as human beings. I'll admit openly, it was difficult to look at the homeless directly when they thanked me―their eyes spoke of tremendous pain and years of abuse. I didn't want to appear haughty or condescending but that was easier than I thought as I felt my shame burning me up. These were people who I would have otherwise ignored, or worse, avoided, had I met them in any other situation. And, now, as I speak with them and hand them food I spent nothing to give them, I realized that they were Jesus for me and I am found wanting.

I spread mayonnaise on the bread slices while Br. Shawn, the director of the Associate Program and its "Jesus Run," generously applied cold cuts and cheese. Virginie bagged the completed sandwiches and added the bag of chips.

"The Associate Program at the friary has been in existence almost from the beginning of our community in 1987," explained the friar. "People had met the friars at various parish missions in the NY area and expressed an interest in helping the friars with their work in the South Bronx."

The Jesus Run isn't only for those souls who have committed themselves to the friars' Associate Program. In fact, the Friars welcome anyone who hopes to volunteer.

"The Associate program allows lay people to grow deeper in their faith through prayer, spiritual talks, and participating in spiritual and corporal works of mercy," explained Fr. Shawn. "The Jesus Run allows Associates to help the friars in their work with the poor and homeless, as well as providing food, clothing, prayer and friendly social interaction for the homeless. Our goal is always to engage in a personal encounter with each man or woman we meet, to treat them with dignity and respect, not only as a human being, but as a child of God. Hopefully each encounter helps the person to become more aware, or perhaps even experience for the first time, that someone cares about them, and that they have a heavenly Father who truly loves them."

Though there are a number of other groups, usually run out of individual churches, that do similar work, the friars don't coordinate with anyone else, primarily because the bigger the group becomes, the less personal the encounters with the homeless can become. From personal experience, I can see that the friars aren’t here to merely feed the homeless. The City could do that a great deal more efficiently―even though they don’t. Rather, this is a moment of God's grace. An opportunity to show hope to the hopeless and love to the friendless.

I asked Br. Shawn as to how his community's charism figures into this much-needed program and in how the friars and their Associates deal with the homeless they serve.

"The Jesus Run fits in perfectly with our Franciscan charism. St. Francis lived a very poor life, and had a great affection for the poor, especially lepers who were the most outcast people of his time. He had a tremendous love for the poor because it was in them that he could most identify with Jesus Christ crucified. He saw in each person he encountered the image of God, but in an even more passionate way, those who were poorest and suffering. Engaging in 'hands on work with the poor' has always been an essential part of our apostolate and charism."

The van returned to the friary at around 3:00 AM the next morning and as we tumbled out, Fr. Shawn opined as to how more Catholics can get involved with a similar apostolate to the poor.

"As with any other endeavor within the Church or parish, what's needed is committed people who have a true love for the Lord, knowledge of the faith and a desire to serve the poor. Some organizational skills are needed, but nothing too complicated. It is a rather simple operation: Get a small group of people, put some food, clothing, personal items, religious cards, rosaries and medals together, find out where there may be homeless or needy people and go out to meet them and bring the love of Jesus! Work directly with your parish priest if possible and make it an official outreach of the parish."

Br. Shawn smiled at me beatifically. "The homeless always give us words of wisdom, poetry or even a painting from someone. But the most satisfying words we hear are, "Thank you. Thank you for treating me like a human being, like I matter."

The "Jesus Run" can best be described as holy chaos. I don’t mean this disparagingly in the least. Rather, I say it with a sense of awe at how something so completely unorganized and with no noticeable structure can produce such goodness. In a world in which the poor are punished for being poor, I'm grateful for the friars and their Associates to show me that Christ offers a different option.