ISJ Essay: Recommendation Letters From Heaven
St. Ignatius Parish recently hosted an event this past summer for City Relief, a mobile outreach organization that offers people experiencing poverty and homelessness some hot meals, socks and blankets, personal products, and connections to resources for housing, employment, and health care. Thank you, Father Yeslaonia and Father Hallinan, for providing parish facilities and your ongoing support for City Relief. A growing group of parishioners volunteer and donate to support City Relief. Our fellow parishioner, Nick DiOrio, had served with City Relief as Senior Officer and Community Outreach Director for City Relief. He is transitioning to new work.
I volunteer regularly with City Relief. I spoke at the event about my own City Relief experiences. When people ask why I volunteer, I think of Reverend James Forbes, a long-time rector at Riverside Church on the Upper West Side. Dr. Forbes often said that no one gets into heaven without letters of recommendation from the poor. That statement resonated with me long after I read it several years ago. I hope City Relief and our Friday Friends help me with those letters.
I often volunteer on Fridays at the City Relief 14th Street site. At the St. Ignatius event, I shared my stories about my interactions with my Friday Friends. I want to share with my fellow parishioners some of the most amazing people I have had the good fortune to know on a personal level.
A frequent guest is John, a college professor in Pennsylvania, when he took his students to New York City for an extended field trip. He fell in love with the Statue of Liberty and resolved to someday live in the Big Apple. He relocated to Manhattan, where he now lives near 14th Street. John compares City Relief to the US Post Office with its motto Neither Hail Nor Rain Nor Sleet Nor Snow Nor Gloom of Night Shall Keep These Couriers from Their Appointed Rounds. John tells me the time when New York City suffered a bitterly cold day with snow on the ground two years ago. He did not think City Relief would be out on such a brutal day. The easily recognizable blue and white City Relief truck made it in time for the 11 AM coffee and soup. John added, “City Relief is dependable and reliable, and I know I can count on them in hot or cold weather, in summer or winter.”
Another regular Friday Friend is Dennis (AKA Turtle Man), who often comes to 14th Street with a shoe box under his arm and his pet turtle, Danielle, inside. Imagine the scene when he opens the shoe box and takes out Danielle, who scurries along 14th Street. Only in New York on a hectic street will you see this treat. Dennis is especially proud that he nursed Danielle back to good health. Many of our parishioners reading this may know Dennis because he often helps dispose of trash on Park and 84th Street. When Dennis had a bout with cancer, parishioner Anne Melanson requested prayers for Dennis at all the Masses. Dennis is more than a Friday Friend. He is also our caring neighbor who makes life more pleasant for all of us. Thank you, Dennis, for being who you are and letting our parish know your sense of humor and friendly disposition.
Chris, another guest, travels from Brooklyn. He walks down 14th Street with that typical glazed facial appearance we all have as we meander the streets of New York. When Chris sees the City Relief truck and the tables and chairs all set up, he smiles because he knows he can count on a lively chat, hot coffee, and soup in an environment of respect and dignity. Chris may live an isolated and turbulent life, but he knows one constant — City Relief!
And then there is the friend who makes everyone laugh as he shows off his t-shirt emblazoned with Older Than Dirt, But Still Above Ground. I don’t even know his name, but he, too, in his own way, adds to the sense of family.
Another Friday Friend is William, a Navy veteran who served in the First Gulf War. William and I have bonded over our love of trains and schools in Queens County, where we grew up. If you know William, you don’t need City Mapper or the MTA Transportation App. He can tell you how to get from Point A to Point B in a New York minute. He will even tell you whether to get on the train in the front or back car. It is a gift, and he shares that gift so readily. What I admire about William is his uncanny knack for making everyone he talks with feel so special. He oozes gentleness and decency. Despite William’s many health issues, he is more concerned for others than for himself. That is William’s special gift to the world., and I am privileged to receive that gift when he visits Friday Friends. Thank you, William, for being you.
So what have I learned from my City Relief service? I have learned something no prestigious law degree nor Ph.D. could teach, and that is to never judge a book by its cover. Chris, John, the Turtle Man, and William are just a few of my Friday Friends. They have made me a better person. They helped me clearly see the Jesuit value of seeing God in all things and the whole idea of Jesuit accompaniment. I hope they will give me the letters of recommendation I need for heaven.
If you or other parishioners are seeking your own letters of recommendation for heaven, there are many available opportunities at City Relief (www.cityrelief.org). You can also contact me through our parish ministry, Ignatian Social Justice, at [email protected].
— Terry Quinn