I was immensely curious to observe not only his unique style in this approach to a hardened crowd but also to observe the reaction of the people “on the street.” He has no protection of his collar or the inbuilt reverence automatically given to Catholic priests by an adoring laity. We are stationed in front of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Roosevelt Hospital on 10th Avenue and 58th Street in New York City.
I was startled by his easy technique of greeting every passerby. They were mostly young or youngish; college students, office workers, telephone repair or construction workers, largely darker skinned than I.
Hi and hello there and hi guys were his greetings as he held, over his significant stomach, a large sign inviting them to share THEIR form of spirituality. Sometimes he held the sign high above his head in the manner of some Liturgical procession where Holy Books are held over the heads of clerics. But everyone seemed to be rushing as If there would be some catastrophic consequence should they be late for their appointment! The famous New York studied resolve never to meet another’s eyes and to pretend to see nothing lest one get involved was obvious!
Some did look, however, in the manner of cows interrupting their grass munching who look vacuously at a passing train but immediately resume their munching. Some were involved in their cell phones and saw nothing. Others gave the faintest of patronizing smiles and quickly moved away. For the most part it was as If he wasn’t there. Yet he kept resolutely to his inspiration and greeted this mass of human beings with friendliness and dignity. He had, apparently, some “other” source of support which could sustain these repeated rejections. He who was used to the sacerdotal red carpet, was treated almost like a street hustler selling “hot” tickets to a Giant football game.
I am his assistant today. I offer “handouts” explaining in some detail Fr. John’s message. I am 94 years old, sit in a walker chair and wear an officer’s cap from the USS Enterprise. I am a licensed clinical psychologist, an associate professor emeritus from a graduate school in New York so I ask myself whether or not I have gone “bananas” sitting on a walker hawking some brand new kind of Evangelism! People approach me not to share their spiritual experience sans organized religion but to thank me for my “service.” I stammer some kind of evasion and offer them John’s brief write-up about what he does.
But Fr. John is undaunted. He is cheery, unshakable. Before we begin, he warns me about the “no results” possibility. So prior to our “work” we pray that our efforts will redound to the glory of God regardless of tangible results. My own inner questioning was immediately dissolved as this simple prayer gave a focus on how to deal with the absurdity of nothingness, the futile practice of spinning wheels. We had already won before we began.
Was our hour and a half on the streets worthwhile? We thought so even though some of our colleagues almost sneered at our efforts. Others likened us to Paul and Barnabas on the streets of Corinth as they (and we) faced an enormous challenge. Although I am a dinosaur priest, I leaped at Fr. John’s invitation for a repeat. Besides my own Faith and trust in God’s power, I am also half Jewish and suspect that somewhere along the line of my generation there was a Jewish peddler hustling his pushcart selling his goods. Peddling God on the sidewalks seems like a good idea to me!