St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, SoHo. The winter storm threatened to descend on SoHo at mid-afternoon, launch time for the mission, somehow got caught in traffic coming up the 95 corridor. So the day began cold, but still dry. At first, all was pretty quiet with just two missionaries on Prince and Mott, a couple more inside the church, and two priests. In the busy expanse of the neighborhood, it was like the soft tapping of a single drum. “Are you Catholic?” “God no!” …. “Are you Catholic?” “Hardly” …. “Are you Catholic?….” But soon, the first wave of brothers arrived from Cheshire with Fr. Bender, just a small patrol actually, but with the newly arriving lay missionaries the 6 of us multiplied to 12. A slightly louder drumbeat. “Excuse me, are you Catholic?” “Why yes.” “Would you like a rosary? It’s a gift from the pastor here at Old St. Pat’s. “Thank you?” “Have you had a chance to get to confession yet? Just a week till Christmas!” “Confession, not yet….” “But when? Now’s your chance….” By 4:30, the main division of seminarians, on a large bus, finally broke through the traffic jam on the Whitestone and arrived in force. Soon they scurried out of Mission HQ in teams of 3 and 4 to their posts throughout the parish. The drumbeat began to get louder. And louder still as the roving seminarian music group began making the rounds to each of the outer stations. A storm of a different sort had blown into SoHo. This is their story.
Into the Darkness
Bleecker and Mott, NoHo. Br. Carlos’s team of four brothers are manning the corner outside the abortion clinic. I’ve told them “no blatant evangelizing, just pray. Pray. And pray.” Brothers are pretty good at this, and when I arrive there about 5:10 they are hard onto another rosary. I join them. “Hail Mary, full of grace….” The corner is dark, almost sinister, but a circle of light seems to be shining on the young seminarians in their black winter coats and collars. Passersby try to ignore them but can’t. I overhear two friends. “What are they doing?” “Oh, the abortion clinic.” A thirty-something woman scurries past, snarling. “You should be ashamed of yourselves.” And then another, “You’re wasting your time! You should be helping little kids somewhere!” About that moment, a young woman, looking pretty groggy, and frankly downcast, stumbles out of the clinic, on the arm of her friend. The pair initially heads south, but then, for some inexplicable reason, they turn north instead, towards the brothers. Slowly, they pass by the light, seemingly drawn to it for a moment. As they pass, they hear three solemn “Hail Mary’s” and then walk off, into the darkness….
A Cross of Prayers
Lafayette and Mulberry, NoHo. Out on station 4, Br. Brian’s team is collecting prayer intentions outside the exit from the 6 train. As I approach, a passerby is nailing his prayer to the cross. It’s early in the evening, but already the brothers have a few prayers nailed up there. I encourage them to post their own, and mine, “for my sons”. (In New York, everyone wants to do what everyone else is doing, so we’ve found it best to get a head start on postings.) The brothers are engaging people joyfully, so I head off to station 4. … I can’t find the brothers out here! (Not completely unusual. I’ve told them to be guided by the Holy Spirit and if they see a better location, move to it.) I trust they’re in good hands and move on to station 12, where Br. Daniel’s team is hard at it, picking up a lot of pedestrian traffic along Prince near Crosby, mostly Christmas shoppers moving back and forth towards the SoHo shopping district west of us. All of the brothers are engaged. I ask Br. Daniel how things are going, “Awesome Steve! So many conversations out here! But we’re down to just two rosaries.” I resupply them as Br. Hector tells me about his encounter with a woman who says she’s “an existentialist.” Brother keeps asking her questions, prompting her to speak about herself and her confused spirituality. “It feels to me like you’re seeking God but haven’t found him yet,” Br. Hector intones empathetically. “That’s it maybe. You know, I think I’ve died 20 times already, but I keep coming back to life….” “Steve, I’m not sure, but that woman seemed very lonely to me. I think I was the first person to listen to her in a long time.” I move on down Lafayette, to station 10 outside the little park on Lafayette and Kenmare. We’ve stationed a small group of brothers there outside the Christmas tree stand, along with a second cross. One of the brothers stops a couple on the move. “Excuse me, do you have any prayer intentions you’d like us to pray for this Christmas?” The woman is in a hurry, but the man stops for a chat. “Why yes, I do….” He nails his prayer to the cross, while we hand them rosaries and talk briefly about Jesus’ coming birthday party. As I leave the station, I snap a quick photo of the cross of prayers. “Lord, pray for the intentions of these souls tonight, who paused for a moment before the approaching storm to seek you help. And pray for these brave, joyful seminarians who are seeking to do your will.”
Three Women Join the Dance
Mulberry and Broome, Entranceway to Little Italy. Down at the entrance of Little Italy, a small band of brothers mans the intersection, passing out love, joy, and rosaries. Like station 12, they’re nearly out of rosaries and I resupply them. “Steve, we’ve already brought 10 different people back to the church with candles!” “All the way to the church?” (“It’s 5 blocks from here!” I’m thinking.) Suddenly, we hear the music group approaching. “We want to wish you merry Christmas, we want to wish you a Merry Christmas, we want to wish a Merry Christmas, from the bottom of our heaaaaaaarrrrts!” A passing group of women join them, dancing. One of the brothers stops to talk with them at the stop light, inviting them to church…. Just then, another brother scurries by with a box of pizza that’s he’s brought down from 32 Prince. “Steve, did you see a homeless man pass here? We gave him a candle and he started crying. He said we were the first people whoever listened to him. I’m bringing him some dinner….”
Spiritual But Not Religious
Broome and Elizabeth, border of the Bowery. Further along Broome, at Elizabeth, Br. Alejandro’s team are having enormous success despite the seemingly quiet streets, now emptying earlier than usual as the wind and cold pick up. “Well wait a minute. There’s only three of you. Where is Br. Diego?” “He said the three of us had things under control, so he headed over there to find more Catholics.” (“Oh no,” I think. “He’s gone off to the Bowery. Tough neighborhood. Even a little dangerous. We sent a team there several years ago and it didn’t work out.”) They read my concern on my face. “Don’t worry Steve. We can see him. He’s right over there, on Bowery.” Later, I link up with Br. Diego after Mass. “How did you do out there, brother?” “Incredible Steve! I had this really special encounter with a very nice couple who were walking along the avenue. “Are you Catholic?” “Oh, no!”, one of the women proclaim. “We’re spiritual, but not religious.” But they’re interested. They’re seeking God. And yet, they feel unwelcome in a church, “outside the walls,” so to speak. A long discussion ensues. Gradually, Br. Diego wins them over with his sheer joy and love. For the first time in a long time, the couple feels welcome. The two women promise Br. Diego they will come to Christmas Mass.
Love Conquers Hate
Elizabeth and Spring, So Ho. Brother Emanuel’s team is hard at it at station 8. Suddenly, a middle-aged man jumps in front of Br. Mark. “Look who’s here, the pedophiles!” Br. Mark doesn’t take the bait. “That’s very beautiful of you. I see how concerned you are about the young people that were abused. That’s a very loving feeling, actually.” The man is taken aback; he was hoping for an angry reaction. A long discussion ensues. John is a born-again Protestant. He’s a pretty emotional guy, and charismatic Christianity has been his route to the Lord. “And how is your relationship with Jesus going?” asks Br. Mark. “Ok, not great. Ups and downs….” “Can I tell you a little about my Catholic faith?…” Eventually, John heads south down Elizabeth, but returns 10 minutes later. “Brother, I have something to say to you. I’m sorry about starting that conversation off so aggressively. What you guys are doing out here is pretty amazing, really. We need more people like you. I see the sincerity in your eyes. It disarmed me. Don’t let anyone scare you off this mission. This is a mission of love. Love over hate.”
The Little Drummer Boys Report In
Prince and Mott, SoHo. Back at Prince and Mott, business has been brisk all night, with fish big and small swimming in from their encounters with the brothers out in the edges of the parish. Doug Dewey and a new missionary, Veronika, have been working the back entrance to the church. During the short time I was with them, Veronika passed me three times leading souls in to light a candle. Doug reported, “Steve, it’s been like this all night. We’re literally just gathering people up and bringing them to church. Incredible.” Inside the church, the crew there is raking in the harvest. Evelyn has recruited additional missionaries to help her, with Lou and Marcella on candles, and Marie on confession prep. All six priests, including the pastor, Fr. Graebe, are busy all night long. All I can get from the priests later is, “Steve, incredible night! Lots of big fish. Really big ones.” Up on the altar, the cross of candles is burning brightly, prayers left by the dozens of souls who were caught strolling through SoHo on their way to dinner and ended up having a chance encounter with the Lord. How many were changed forever?
Late in the evening, during Mass, the Prince and Mott crew bring in one last family for confession. The group is from Brazil but fortunately also speak fluid Spanish. The missionary in the back of the church invites them to confession. The mother and daughter go, but the father is reluctant to do his confession face to face. Finally, she convinces him to do so. “The Lord already knows everything you’ve done, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about now. Confession is just like making up with your father after a fight. He just wants to know you’re sorry, then he wraps his big arms around you, and gives you a hug.” After Mass, the father asks if they could light a candle for their grandson, who is suffering from a malignant cancer that has recently metastasized. The missionary kneels with them, as does Br. Jesus. Br. Jesus leads them in this prayer:
Dios mío estamos aquí en tu presencia para confiar en ti. Te pedimos por esta Familia para que les des tu fuerza. Te pedimos por Austin para que sí es tu voluntad lo cures y le sigas dando tu fuerza a él y a toda su familia. Ayúdanos a confiar en ti que tu siempre haces lo mejor para nosotros. Te entregamos nuestro corazon. Madre te pedimos por Austin, lo ponemos en tus manos y en tu protección. Dios te salve…
Just after Mass, the brothers from the station across from the abortion clinic report in. “Steve, something really beautiful happened up there. As we were praying the rosary, a young lay person walking by quietly joined us. Then eventually a second. Then a third. A fourth. A fifth. Finally, a full half dozen. The little drummer boys up on that dark corner had become a band. A band of prayer warriors in the valley of darkness.
During Mass, I see two of the brothers from the music team bleeding from their hands. After, Fr. Bender sent me this explanation. “Br. Luis, what happened to your hands?” “Father, it was so beautiful out there tonight. We couldn’t stop playing. I felt like the Little Drummer Boy. ‘I have no gift to bring, to give our king. Shall I play for you? … I played my best for Him… Then he smiled at me, at me and my drum.”
December 17, 2019