Photo: Felix Carroll
Eric Mahl ministers to a homeless man in a Boston subway station.
'Our Lord Is Speaking to Our Hearts'
Eric Mahl and Lewis Brooks shop for warm clothing to distribute to the poor in Boston, Mass.
While ministering to the poor this past January, Eric Mahl found time to visit the Missionaries of Charity at their house in Boston. He gave them a Divine Mercy image printed by the Marians in Stockbridge, Mass.
This article appears in the spring issue of Marian Helper magazine.
By Felix Carroll (Feb. 27, 2014)
Paper wrappers, plastic bags, empty cigarette packages — all manner of rubbish blown aimlessly from Dumpsters and overturned trash bins — smack against the legs of a homeless man in Boston, Mass.
It's January. The thermometer on Centre Street registers a single, sinister digit: 6 degrees Fahrenheit. Factoring in wind chill, meteorologists say it feels more like negative 12.
On a stone bench outside a Back Bay subway station the homeless man, who identifies himself with a name that sounds like E-loy, breathes into his gloveless hands creating vapors that promptly vanish like ghosts. What does the name Eloy mean?
"Nothing," he says. "My mom made it up."
One of the members of the Marians' newly formed ministry for the poor sits down beside him, presents him with a pair of thick wool gloves and explains to him that Eloy — the man — is far from meaningless in the eyes of Jesus Christ. The gloves are appreciated. The need for warm clothing requires no discernment. But to believe that a Merciful Lord knows us by name will require more than warm hands.
Indeed, fixing the gloves upon his fingers, Eloy gets distracted when a woman, upwind, lights up a joint. He sniffs at the air. At this moment, if a choice were to be made, temporal temptations probably would win out over abstract ideas of eternal salvation.
The cold hard truth of 6 degrees Fahrenheit can do that to you.
Such can be the challenge of street ministry — of appealing to the goodness and yearning of the downtrodden, disillusioned, and sometimes dangerous souls for whom faith, friendship, health, housing, happiness, meaning, and money often prove as ephemeral as breath vanishing in icy air.
A Plight in Plain Sight
Add up the factors — unemployment, rising housing costs, broken families, and substance abuse — and the results are staggering. Despite signs of an economic recovery from the 2008-2009 recession, an estimated 47 million Americans still live in poverty, 600,000 of which are homeless at any given time.
Responding to those needs, last summer the Marian Fathers expanded upon their many apostolic undertakings to include bringing consolation to the poor through the message of Divine Mercy.
The efforts are twofold. Joined with a network of charities and religious communities that serve the poorest of the poor, the Marians have so far distributed free of charge more than 1.5 million top-quality Divine Mercy images, prayercards, pamphlets, and books. The project relies 100 percent on donations. (To learn more, visit giftofmercy.com.) Congregations that help distribute the images have reported conversions through these Divine Mercy images.
The second part of the new initiative includes street ministry led by Eric Mahl, a Marian lay aggregate who lived with and ministered to the homeless in Cleveland, Ohio, before joining the Marians last spring. The ministry's task, says Eric, is to take the light of faith found at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy and introduce it into the lives of those in greatest spiritual and material need.
"Our Lord is speaking to our hearts, telling us not to be simply a light in a room that's already lit," says Eric. "We want to be a light in someone's own darkness within their lives. We want to be a light in the darkness not so that we are seen, but so that people can see Christ."
The ministry includes a number of young men, some of whom live and work with the Marians in Stockbridge. All of them, including Eric, have been called to service through the Divine Mercy revelations of St. Faustina, for whom glorifying Christ's mercy became the exclusive task of her life. From a tender age, Faustina saw Jesus in the poor. For her — and for the Marian street ministers — those in greatest misery have first priority to God's mercy.
It's Tuesday, Jan. 7, 4 a.m., outside the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy. The ministry van is warming up, the window defrosters blowing full blast. Eric and a young man named Lewis Brooks, who is discerning a religious vocation and living with the Marians in Stockbridge, have packed the vehicle with religious articles, coats, hats, socks, and gloves, and now they're Boston bound.
After a two-hour drive, the mission begins at the convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in the Dorchester section of Boston, where the two join the sisters of St. Faustina's order for Holy Mass.
"The sisters have taught us so much about the power of prayer," says Eric. "There are so many needs in the world, and the sisters know they cannot physically address every need, but they always bring up how we need to pray, to pray, to pray — we need to pray for God's mercy."
Even in Boston, one of America's most well-to-do, well-kept cities, it takes little time to find a homeless person: a woman with scratches on her face, panhandling on Newbury Street; a Puerto Rican immigrant with a Rosary around his neck, only ankle-high socks, waiting for a bus at the Boston Common and in search of a computer job. Most of the city's homeless bounce from shelter to shelter.
The Marian street ministers know that tidy, dramatic deliverances seldom present themselves, as evidenced with the case of Eloy and several of the two or so dozen men and women they'll encounter this day. Some will thank them, even hug them, for the warm clothing and prayers. But rejection, such as Christ Himself was rejected, is a hazard of the job.
A man named David will yell at them as they minister to homeless who have taken shelter in a subway station. He'll put his face up to theirs and say awful things about Jesus. Their choice is to either learn to love and pray and then leave things to God or recoil and retreat to more comfortable climes.
Their coat collars pulled up against the stiff wind, members of the Marians' street ministry decidedly eschew comfort.
In the frost-bitten flats and canyons of Boston's streets, powdery sheets of snow glide like giant air-hockey pucks. Even a font of holy water has frozen over in a vestibule of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, where they stop for a quick prayer.
At noon they meet with a young man named Patrick who joins them for the afternoon. In many unexpected ways, God has been providing the ministry with men who seek to serve. By dusk, their supply of coats, socks, hats, gloves, and prayercards are nearly depleted.
Back at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy, they'll bring the intentions of those they met before the Blessed Sacrament. They'll pray for David especially. They'll fill their hearts with the Holy Spirit. They'll once again refill their van with hats, gloves, coats, and prayercards.
It'll be a long winter.
Pray, pray, pray.
To learn more about the mercy for the poor ministry, visit giftofmercy.com.