Photo: Unsplash/Brandi Alexandra

"These nuns are not afraid"

A Sunday morning with the Missionaries of Charity among the homeless. Gerald's coffee, Cyrian's gaze, the Gospel gifted among the tents... An account of a day of charitable work in San Francesco.

Sunday, 8 a.m. Frederick picked me up to go to San Francisco. Every other Sunday, some of the community follow Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity in their daily vocation: walking the streets of the city to assist the homeless. Before I left for California, I had heard all kinds of things about the homeless: "Stay away from them, they are drug addicts and you do not know what they can do to you"; "If they look at you, do not say anything and try not to make eye contact"; "Avoid those neighborhoods, I know of people who have been beaten up." Yet Federico explained to me that the sisters go twice a day to take coffee for breakfast, food for the week, medicine, and much more. And, most importantly, to be with them, listen to them, and talk to them explicitly about how Jesus changes lives.

We arrived in Pacifica, a small town near San Francisco, where the sisters have their institute, and after a quick prayer we were off. The first homeless man we stopped at is Gerald. He is about sixty years old, with unkempt beard, no teeth, not exactly squeaky clean. A nun explained to him that there is a problem with the bank: if he does not send in some documents, he will not be able to get the state subsistence with which he can survive. As she read the list of bullet points she had written, one of us called the bank to explain to them what is going on. But when Gerald realized the situation he started to scream in despair, "My life is a mess. This time I will drop everything and let myself die on the street." He repeated once, twice, three times that he will do nothing, that it is over. Suddenly the nun moved closer, twenty inches from his face, and said, "Gerald, that is enough now. Stop talking and listen to me." She is in her early twenties; in my eyes she is almost a child because of how tiny she is. Seeing her in front of the man was impressive. "God loves you Gerald. You must never doubt that. Do you understand? I stand here before you now, you know I love you. We are doing everything we can to help you, but the ultimate responsibility is yours. You have to make the call to the bank." Gerald completely changed his gaze. You could tell he trusts her; he looked like a child scolded by his mother, who accepted the scolding because he knew how much she loves him. We recited a Hail Mary together and the situation calmed down. Gerald calmed down, accepted a coffee, smiled and asked when the nuns would return to see him.

We arrived at another part of town that was even more messy and dirty than the previous one. As I walked between tents and caravans, the nun leading the volunteers took my hand and said, "I need to introduce you to someone special." She pointed toward to a tent not far away and told me Cyrian's story in a few seconds: "He would not look anyone in the face anymore. We do not know what happened to him. When we found him, for months he did not say anything, he would not even come out of the tent. Then slowly he looked up again." The nun called him, "Cyrian, this is Simone, he just arrived in America. He came here for you." The boy looked up, looked at me, his lower lip trembling. I was even more speechless than he was. The nun looked at us happily. I sat down, shyly asking about him.

After a few minutes, the same nun called me again, "I want you to meet the man who saved my life." I thought I had not heard correctly. I turned around and saw her hugging a big man who was two meters tall, who with a shove could have thrown her across the street. She told me, "One day, a big dog jumped on me. I thought I was going to die. But he jumped on the animal, hurt himself instead of me, while I did not even get a scratch. He is the bravest person in the world." At that moment, he was as happy as a boy in front of his first love.

We got back into the car and arrived at our third destination: a small tent city, near a crossroads. When I got out, the nuns told me that it was a new place: they noticed the homeless and stopped, but they did not know them yet. A nun introduced herself, and after no more than thirty seconds she said, "Today is St. Octavius Day, did you know that? If you want to pray together." The homeless people agreed to listen to the saint's story, and then told their story. The nun listened attentively, and then asked one of them, "Do you have a Gospel?" I was surprised: we knew nothing about this man, whether he was a believer, he just told us how he had lost everything and ended up on the street. The question seems out of place to me. Instead, he replied in a whisper, "Would you really give it to me? It would be great if I could have one." How many times have I at work, with my friends, with my family, with a passerby been afraid to say one word too many?

These nuns are not afraid. They are not afraid to tell the story of a saint to a stranger, to embrace a man who could kill them with a shove, to take the hand of a person struggling with drugs and pray together with him, to squat in front of the tent of a boy who has suffered so much that he has lost the ability to look people in the eye. I went home that Sunday and did not talk for hours. I just thought that whatever I was going to do in the rest of my stay in America, it had to be as good as that morning. I also wanted to have the courage of these nuns, their care, their joy.

Simone, Milan, Italy