A Taste of Homelessness
As a novice, this former Jesuit tried living briefly on the streets. What he did (and didn’t) learn about being homeless.
By David Nantais
A late night Greyhound Bus ride is a great opportunity to test one’s faith in God. Although I was technically traveling from Chicago to Des Moines, this particular trip was actually a journey into the unknown. I might as well have had no particular destination; at the terminus of this ride, there would be no one to greet me, no itinerary to follow, and no place to stay.
As I stared out onto the rain-soaked highways of western Illinois, I was filled with anxiety. There was still time to back out. No one aboard knew that I had recently entered the Jesuits and was en route to downtown Des Moines to live homeless for two weeks. If I stepped off at a quaint little farm community, found a nice bed and breakfast and then caught a morning bus eastbound, who would care? After all, what I was planning to do was pure lunacy. What did I hope to accomplish? What was I trying to prove?
I had struggled with these questions in my daily prayer, and I believed myself to be at peace with the answers I found. But now, settled into the anonymity of the darkness on a night bus filled with people too poor to travel any other way, peace had given way to nervousness and an increasingly uncomfortable sense of vulnerability. I reminded myself that this “pilgrimage,” as I referred to it, was an opportunity to put flesh on the bare bones of my piety. I could speak about trusting in God, but I had never really had to rely upon God for much in the past. Sure, I would pray for the occasional good grade on a test I hadn’t studied for, or for the girl I wanted to ask out to say yes, but this was the immature “gimme gimme” faith of a juvenile. As an adult, and one who was preparing for the priesthood, I knew that my relationship with God demanded a far greater commitment and trust on my part.
The Jesuit novitiate is a two-year period of ministry, learning, and discernment during which a novice undergoes many “experiments.” An experiment is not anything scientific, but rather a chance for a man to test his vocation in a variety of settings to see if he is suited for life in “the Society,” as the Jesuits refer to themselves collectively, which is short for Society of Jesus, the official name of the Order. A novice experiment can be just about anything, from teaching to working in soup kitchens to spending two weeks living homeless on the streets of Des Moines. In these settings, a man is challenged to meet the poor, and even more importantly, to begin to look at the poverty that is present in his own soul.
I was never ordered to live homeless; it was my idea. My novice director, the Jesuit priest in charge of my formation, had encouraged me to perform a pilgrimage of my choice, provided it was not too dangerous and I had a worthy goal in mind. I decided that living homeless would be a good way to test my trust in God. I felt like I needed to place myself in a situation in which I had no other choice but to trust.
Still, I tried to make it as easy on myself as possible. I knew that doing something this risky would require a few emotional safety nets, and being in a familiar city was one of those for me. I felt a certain sense of safety in Des Moines, as I had attended graduate school at Iowa State University in nearby Ames. A second safety net was a letter I carried, written by my novice director, identifying me as a Jesuit novice on an approved expedition from the seminary. This, I imagined, would come in handy in case I was picked up by the cops for loitering or needed to beg a free stay at a cheap motel. Since I carried only $20 with me, I would need all the charity I could get.
In a way it was a fantasy, this notion of having an authentic experience of poverty. I could choose my location, I had plenty of backup, and at the end of the two weeks, I would return to my regular life. With the hope of feeling just a little more helpless, I purchased a one-way bus ticket from Chicago to Des Moines, reasoning that I would only be able to get back home with divine aid.
The term “pilgrimage” conjures up visions of throngs of Muslims converging upon Mecca, or a busload of Catholics making their way to Lourdes. The journey I was on was different, although it was no less a spiritual one. I was not forging a path toward a holy place, but rather attempting to find the holy in the journey itself. I was searching for God where I did not know for certain God could be found. But these noble thoughts were not wafting through my mind as the bus sped along the highway. I was scared, plain and simple. I prayed for something in me to change, because I knew I could not spend two weeks curled in the fetal position at the Des Moines Greyhound station.
At 4 a.m. Des Moines time, the bus pulled into the station. After a couple hours of attempted sleep in an uncomfortable chair, I headed into the city. The rain that had accompanied me all the way from Chicago continued to fall softly, so I dug into my bag and unwrapped a neon yellow rain poncho, pulled it over my head and tied the hood in place under my chin. Another safety net; I wondered how many homeless people even owned a poncho.
Human beings seem to have a compulsion during times of stress to turn the most mundane activities into rituals. As it rained all week, donning my rain poncho turned into a ritual that I accompanied with a prayer to God for safety. Because they are familiar and predictable, rituals and sacraments serve to inject some sense of meaning into circumstances beyond our grasp or control. They provide a trusty anchor to cling to during those turbulent moments of ambiguity. This glorious paradox, that the divine, the ineffable, comes so close to us in the seemingly mundane activities of daily life, is a truth too easily overlooked. Thus, having to walk in the rain toward no particular place became, in a strange way, a privilege that brought me closer to that truth.
My first few days on the soggy streets of Des Moines were rather uneventful, which in homeless terms means they were good days, as I was nervous enough and didn’t need any extra excitement. I spent two days at the Catholic Worker House, trading my manual labor and mediocre cooking skills for a bed for the night, which turned out to be one of the unsightly velour couches in the living room. During my stay I met a number of interesting people, some regulars to the house and some in transition to new phases of life. There was the Bible-quoting, chain-smoking ex-drug addict who recapped his life story for me in the span of 20 minutes and impressed me with his honesty and clarity. Sauntering through the living room at various times of the day was a man who took up residence underneath the back porch of the house and said little. Over coffee the first morning I met a middle-aged woman and her teenaged daughter who told me they needed a temporary place to stay until, as the mother put it, “we get back on our feet again.” I wanted to ask them about the specifics of their predicament, but I wasn’t sure if I had the courage to listen to their story.
The Catholic Worker House soon became such a comfortable hangout that I would have liked to spend the next two weeks there. But I resisted the temptation to stay in one place for more than two days. The whole point of my pilgrimage was to be challenged to put my trust in God, so I hesitantly packed my bag, put on my poncho and bid my acquaintances goodbye. Like a newfound family, everyone wished me well, which provided me with a welcome boost of spiritual fuel as I jumped back into the unknown.
Since it was Sunday, I found a church and settled in for mass. I experienced an overwhelming feeling of gratitude to God for the previous two days. Never had I felt so much comfort with a group of strangers after so short a period of time. These people did not care who or what I was or once had been. My education, social status and accomplishments were of no consequence. A year before I had received my Masters Degree in Biochemistry from Iowa State University, but the residents of the Catholic Worker House didn’t know that, and what’s more, they wouldn’t have cared. They simply saw a young man who needed some help, and they offered a hand. I did not have to earn their friendship. It was given freely and without question.
In stark contrast, I realized that I had not always acted as hospitably. It was humbling to admit to myself that there were times in the recent past when I had been too selfish and preoccupied with my own agenda to be welcoming to others. That God would ignore my boorishness and extend love to me through the actions of complete strangers was a wonderful blessing indeed! In humble gratitude, and wanting now more than ever to truly place my trust in Him, I contributed 10 dollars—half of my emergency funds—to the collection plate. Gulp.
The next day was Memorial Day. It was still raining; late in the afternoon I went in search of a shelter where I could spend the night. My previous experience in a homeless shelter consisted of preparing and serving food; now I would be on the other side of the counter and the coin, holding my tray out and begging for a meal. Someone at the Catholic Worker House had given me rough directions to one of the local shelters, so I slowly made my way through the side streets of Des Moines, past rows of comfortable-looking homes. I longed to be invited into one of them; how good a shower and a pair of clean, dry jeans would feel. The jeans I was wearing were damp and cold, and I was chilled to the bone.
I finally found the shelter, an old-fashioned light brown brick building. As I approached the door, a man sitting on the step said, “They’re closed today.” Of course. It was Memorial Day. “I guess the homeless get the day off too,” I sarcastically quipped to myself.
“I know of another place not too far away.” The man rose and came over to me. “Food’s good and I even have a bed there.” He was about my height, unkempt, with a long gnarled beard. His face and hands were dirty and I didn’t have to guess when he’d last showered. As we walked together, I noticed the gray clouds gathering overhead. My new friend initiated some small talk about the weather, and then asked me where I was from. I didn’t lie when I told him Chicago, my most recent departure point.
“And where are you from?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “I came to earth on the Mother Ship in 1956….I am the Archangel Gabriel.” He was dead serious. Just then, as if the celestial powers were verifying his story, there was a loud clap of thunder and it started raining. For the first time since my pilgrimage began, I was truly scared.
I knew that many homeless people were mentally ill and unable to afford medication or take good care of themselves. What if my new friend was bi-polar or schizophrenic? A girl friend of mine in high school was killed by her schizophrenic aunt when she was 18 years old. I prayed to God that this madman would not hurt me. We spent a couple of hours going through dumpsters to find soda cans, redeemable for a nickel apiece. From time to time, “Gabe” would smoke partially smoked cigarette butts he picked up from the street, making my empty stomach turn.
At around 5 p.m., we finally arrived at a shelter near the Des Moines River, adjacent to some train tracks, and joined a single-file line of mostly middle-aged men. The line moved fairly quickly, and soon the staff was interviewing me as they ruffled through my backpack, looking for any weapons or drugs. I gave them as little information as possible, tempted to pull out the letter from my novice director, but resisting the urge so that I would not receive special treatment. My wish was granted; since all the beds were filled I was left to sleep on the cold linoleum dining room floor in my wet clothes.
If there’s one food item at which Methodist Church-run homeless shelters excel, it’s the casserole. And it truly was casserole heaven in this shelter. Ravenous after a long day with no food, I heaped the cream of mushroom concoction on my plate, grabbed half a dozen cookies and sat down sheepishly by myself. When I finally summoned the courage to look up from my plate at the man who sat down across from me, I noticed a familiar face—one of the part-time residents from the Catholic Worker House! He did not speak English very well, but we smiled at each other and I immediately felt better.
As the lights went out that evening I lay on the cold floor, thankful for small blessings, like the fact that the shelter volunteers had swept and mopped up. But a clean hard floor is just as uncomfortable as a dirty one, and I did not sleep at all that night. As I lay there in my clammy jeans, wedged between two dinner tables, stuck somewhere between consciousness and sleep, I contemplated the fate of the homeless in America. I was looking forward to going back to Chicago in a few days, to a warm bed, daily hot showers, and decent food. None of the men and women whom I had encountered during my brief pilgrimage had that option. Never again would I be complacent about my less fortunate brethren. I began not only to understand, but to feel, both physically and emotionally, their plight. It didn’t matter that I would soon be leaving their world. For now—this night, this hour, this moment—I was one of them.
During my two memorable weeks on the street, I began to understand the depths of hopelessness into which a human being can sink. There were times when, yes, I wanted to get drunk, so that I would not feel so wet and cold, or so that at least I wouldn’t care so much that I was. I had always been wary of giving money to panhandlers because I figured they’d spend it on alcohol, but if someone had handed me spare change or a couple of bucks, I might have blown it at the nearest liquor store myself.
One of the luxuries a non-homeless person can afford is hypocrisy. A stressed-out businessman stops off at the bar on his way home from work and downs a couple of martinis to help “take the edge off.” Yet we condemn the homeless when they feel the need to anesthetize themselves just to make it to the next day. No, it is not a healthy way to proceed and no, it will not help them with their problems. But they certainly are not the only ones in our society who abuse alcohol. Their sin is that they just don’t do it with class.
At 5 a.m. the lights went on in the dining room. The Salvation Army truck had arrived with food and coffee. I quickly got up from the floor, asked for my bag, grabbed some coffee and a day-old danish and hightailed it out of the shelter before Gabe had a chance to find me.
The rest of my pilgrimage was fairly uneventful, and even pleasant at times. I “cheated” once by showing an elderly nun the letter from my novice director so that she would let me into her house for the night in exchange for cutting her grass. She gave me dinner; I never knew tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich could taste so divine. As I sat at her small dining room table, dressed in clean, dry clothes, fresh as a daisy from a nap, I felt as though I were eating at The Four Seasons, or maybe at Our Lord’s banquet table in heaven.
And finally it was time to beg my way back to Chicago. Uncomfortable about asking a stranger for money, I decided instead to ask someone to take me to the bus station and purchase a one-way ticket for me. This way, any middle-class white American concerns about my spending a handout on drugs or booze would be allayed. Unwilling to tackle one more difficult assignment, like begging for rides at truck stops or hitchhiking, I found a priest who was more than happy to drive me to the Des Moines Greyhound station, where he placed his plastic down on the counter without flinching, handed me a ticket, shook my hand and wished me well.
On the bus ride back to Chicago, I reflected upon what I had experienced as a homeless person—or at least a quasi-homeless person. The word that kept coming to me was “demeaning.” Here I was, an educated young white man with no criminal background, who had lived little better than an animal for two weeks. Granted, it was my own decision, but it bothered me that there are not better resources out there for the homeless. A society should care most about those who are unable to take care of themselves.
Since my pilgrimage, I have tried to treat the homeless with the same dignity they afforded me. I now offer them, at the very least, a smile and a handshake, an acknowledgment of their personhood. I have gone into restaurants with a homeless man or woman and bought them a meal. Above all, I’m careful to let them know that while they may have lost a job, a home or their savings, they need not completely lose their dignity.
As a society, we have a long way to go before we can wear the badge of true Christians with honor and honesty. It’s not enough to mouth the words of Christ; we must, like him, walk with the poor, in their shoes, or, if they have no shoes, barefoot on the stones and shards of their hard road. Only then can we begin to give them the most precious gift of all, the gift of compassion. Only then can we begin to truly know God.
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A former Jesuit, David Nantais is director of the “Magis” program for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Midwest. He has written for America, Studies in Jesuit Spirituality, and Company, and he’s a regular contributor to BustedHalo.com, a website for young adult Catholic spiritual seekers.
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