Somewhere In Utah

a one-stop shop for Jason Piccolo's photography updates. fine art color and black and white photography.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Christians should pay attention...

it's easter for some. i took it upon myself to make my parents dinner was lovely. then we saw In Bruges with Colin Ferrell...I recommend it.

well, it is easter and i take this opportunity to ask a question of religious hypocrites...Hypothetically of course since i'm the only one who reads this...

why does our country have homeless people if we're a 'christian nation'? it's a fundamental question that why, if our nation is so great at following the lead of the J-man, why are we allowing so many to just suffer and rot?

poverty and homelessness are our number one sins in this country, and they should be the cornerstone of the Progressive movement in my opinion.

any way, here's this...

Christians seek to follow Jesus on homeless retreat

Seven men accept challenge to live among disadvantaged in effort to grow spiritually.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

It begins on Palm Sunday evening at Wooldridge Park under a sky so heavy they can smell the rain. It will end here, too, on a gusty, bright Wednesday afternoon.

Each year during Holy Week, which began a week ago on Palm Sunday and concludes today on Easter, Alan Graham, 52, a co-founder of the homeless ministry Mobile Loaves & Fishes, leads a group on a three-day retreat on the streets, an opportunity for Christians to connect with God. To strip away the comforts of home and the assurances of a full wallet and clean clothes. The participants leave behind their money and cell phones and set out with a knapsack and a sleeping bag.

In this year's seven-person group are a formerly homeless man, a philanthropist, a theologian, a father and his 20-year-old son, an avid outdoorsman and a business owner. They are struggling to live out Jesus' call to love others and to understand the sacrifice he made on the cross. They're not expecting a grand revelation, but, they say, they feel they must walk among the poor as Jesus did. Doing so, they say, gets them closer to grasping the power of the resurrection.

"It's kind of a strange thing to do for spring break," said Te'Paul Gautier, who uses the Cajun nickname when around his father, Paul.

His dad, who has been on four retreats, had called him at school and invited him to participate during his Holy Week spring break from the University of Dallas, a Catholic school. In his backpack, Gautier carries "Imitation of Christ," the 15th century book on spirituality by Thomas a Kempis, which he decided was "more food for the soul than the smutty John Updike novel I'm reading."

His father, 46, who runs an investment bank in Austin, says he's driven by a primal yearning to connect with God, though he doesn't have specific expectations. "I can't control how God reveals himself to me," he said.

The seven gather at the well-worn green space next to the jail and the county courthouse on Guadalupe Street in downtown Austin. It's a popular gathering spot for homeless people and, this week, for a group of Christians making a street retreat, a spiritual trek along society's fringe.

Remembering meaning of Lent

As they discuss what might lie ahead for them, the Mobile Loaves & Fishes truck is wrapping up its nightly food delivery. Some of the people who have gathered at the park are playing a radio and drinking beer. There's a festive spirit here.

A sun-burned woman with dirty feet approaches Graham, who is known and loved by people on the streets, to talk about her boyfriend getting arrested.

Te'Paul Gautier hangs back and talks with a quiet intensity about the symbolism of the penitential Lenten season, when Christians are called to reflect on their sins. "We're made aware again just how much of a chasm there is between who we are and who we could be," he says, adding that Holy Week is the last buildup, the last leg of the journey to the cross.

Before he can continue, a white sport-utility vehicle from a group called Food Not Bombs drives over the sidewalk and down the grass banking to the park's gazebo. The retreaters line up with the homeless people for rice, lentils, vegetables and fresh fruit that will be served from the gazebo.

The homeless people recognize Graham and some of the other retreaters β€” who volunteer with Mobile Loaves & Fishes β€”and welcome the group like old friends.

Frank Morris, 48, a business owner who attends St. Austin Catholic Church, sits on the steps of the gazebo with his plate.

For him, this is a perfect way to begin Holy Week, the days leading up to Easter when Christians reflect on Jesus' last days. Morris, a father of five, wants to "see Jesus in the faces of people who live here permanently."

Since doing the retreat two years ago and experiencing a detachment albeit a temporary one β€” from materialism, he said, he sometimes "feels like standing on a mountaintop and shouting 'Don't you see where the peace is?' "

After they eat, they take a Capital Metro bus east of the city to a homeless camp where they spend the night.

Understanding God's work

On Monday, Graham lies on his back under a gray sky at Wooldridge Park, rosary beads wrapped around his fingers. The retreaters, including John Nicklos, a rugged outdoorsman who is a Protestant and unfamiliar with this Catholic tradition, begin to pray the rosary, a series of traditional prayers and meditations on the mysteries of the faith. As they recite the Hail Marys, late afternoon traffic grinds away on Guadalupe Street. A man in a too-heavy coat sleeps like a shipwreck on a nearby bench. A meter reader writes tickets. More homeless people trek in like pilgrims with their gear and sink down under a tree to rest.

"Oh, my Jesus," the men continue praying, "forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell and lead all souls into heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy."

When they finish and get up to stretch, a man in biker shorts seems to recognize Graham. Patting him on the shoulder, he warns, "You're out here with the cannibals."

The retreaters shrug off the comment.

Graham, who says he rarely encounters problems on the streets, believes all people have an ugly sinfulness inside, whether they're crack heads or the founders of Mobile Loaves & Fishes. That, he says, is what makes the Christian story so powerful β€” that God would, in spite of that, love him and the crack head equally.

Bill Penn, 68, a retired theology professor with curly white hair and a wide smile, has been thinking about that lately, about the randomness of his situation versus the situation of the person he will sleep next to tonight.

"You meet people in the world who are really powerless," he says, pausing. "The shoe could be on the other foot."

He says Mother Teresa, the late nun and Nobel Peace Prize winner, talked about Christ "in his distressing disguise. ... What more important way to think about Holy Week and Good Friday than to share in that, in the intimate way (Jesus) shared in the human condition?"

Seeking shelter in a storm

On Tuesday, the skies unleash a whopping rain.

The men huddle under the awning of the Faulk Central Library on Guadalupe Street. When the skies clear, they catch a bus downtown with passes Graham has provided and get out at the New York Avenue Christian Center at the buzzing corner of 12th and Chicon streets in East Austin. This is a ministry and shelter for street people.

The retreaters are in good spirits. Some of them made ponchos out of garbage bags. Morris carries an umbrella. Penn wears a heavy-duty red jacket. They talk outside with people from the street. Eventually, the wet chill pushes them inside, where they eat meatloaf. The shelter is packed tonight. The cook runs out of food.

After dinner, the retreaters take seats in the prayer hall. The room is open with chairs scattered about. Duane Severance, who runs the Christian center, stands on a stage, strumming his guitar and praying in a soothing voice. He wears a shirt with a red, white and blue Jesus fish and the message "Jesus saves."

A man in a wheelchair with an air of urine slaps himself and calls out responses to Severance's prayer.

"God doesn't hate you," Severance tells the crowd. "He's not going to kick you to the curb if you don't get it yet. He loves you with an everlasting love."

The retreaters nod enthusiastically.

Learning and looking ahead

On Wednesday, the group reconvenes at the park to go home.

John Nicklos, a first-timer, relates a story about trying to score some food from a restaurant where he has connections. Without money, he discovered he was not welcome. The others nod knowingly.

The group encounters Severance, who is returning from visiting an inmate at the jail, and Patrick Hagger, the cook from the shelter.

Hagger moved to Austin last year and serves as a spiritual leader in a homeless camp where he lives. He says Graham inspired him to pursue his own ministry and to show people God loves them "no matter where they came from."

Graham announces he has accepted Severance's offer to minister to them in the park.

"I'm tired; I'm dirty," Penn jokingly whines to Graham. "I've done my penance, brother."

They've been out here for almost 72 hours. What's a little more time? This, Penn says, is part of the ongoing pilgrimage toward Easter.

For him and the others, there has been no defining moment in the past three days that they think changed their lives forever. It's all part of the road toward understanding Jesus.

"Faith," he says, "isn't just putting a coin in a machine and you're done."; 445-3812


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