Practicing the ministry of presence

Layman's Minute
Typography

By Ted Furlow

 It was 6 a.m. on a cold Saturday morning when I saw him wrapped in a dirty blanket and sitting on a concrete planter. I first noticed while we were unloading gear from my car; setting up to cook breakfast for the homeless people in Lincoln Park, and even from the curb I could see that he was emaciated, shivering in the cold, covered with nasty lesions, and alone. 

 

 I don’t know what made me do it but I walked over, sat on the planter, put my hand on his shoulder, and began to talk with him.

 He was well advanced with AIDS, dying, and he knew it. As we talked he began to cry, not tears of pity or anger, but that which comes from resignation. He neither pled his case nor made excuses for living a life which would soon end on the back stoop of some building or in a gutter on a cold night. He only wanted to know if there was something else.

 We talked for a while and I can’t tell you what I said… I’m not sure I even know what I said. It was one of those moments when it wasn’t me talking but the Holy Spirit channeling a message of hope through me. Eventually two of his street homies showed up, so I got him some eggs and OJ from the food line, gave him a hug, promised to pray for him, and went back to work. 

 It sounds a bit cold, but the streets have their own rules.

 I was Confirmed in 1958, back in the dark ages when we still Confirmed grammar school kids. For me it was a coming of age ritual, a Catholic Bar Mitzvah where I didn’t get a fountain pen, but a rosary. Over 50 years later, I still have that rosary along with a unique and infused presence of the Holy Spirit. I believe that God is within us from the moment of our conception and that presence is made known to us through prayer, our participation in our faith, and the enabling grace of the Sacraments. 

 Hopefully, like the experience to come for the thousands of teen-agers, young adults and adults who have recently found their way to Confirmation through classes and RCIA in our Diocese, the moment of Sacrament that I experienced as a 12 year old matures as I mature. It is a process of becoming; becoming a person, becoming a believer, becoming aware of the God within. When I went over to the planter that morning, I was called to do so by that presence of the God within. 

 Beyond recognition of the fear and anxiety of death, there are no metrics or benchmarks for talking with someone dying of AIDS. He was as unchurched as he was unwashed and believe me he was really unwashed. It was a moment not for teaching or reproach but for simply being present, and the sacramental presence of the Holy Spirit gave me the words of hope that were not my own. 

 Two weeks later, picked up in the streets in the night, he died at a county hospital. I think of him often.

Ted Furlow is the Director of Pastoral Planning for the Diocese of San Bernardino.