Felix Carroll: A beloved son steps up for supper
Bouncing on his heels, he looks distractedly up and down North Street, chews at a fingernail and decidedly stays on this side of the iron fence, not that side.
On that side, they've set up the fold-out tables and chairs for their weekly little miracle.
On this side, the young man blows into his hands. It's 40 degrees out and falling.
On that side, they've set out the coffee, hot chocolate, a portable heater and a handmade wooden cross plugged into a stand with a little piece of cardboard jammed in there to keep it from wobbling.
On this side, he knows once they're done praying, food will be served, and he'll be welcome to it, like the others who choose to stay on this side of the iron fence.
On that side, each Sunday afternoon, no matter the weather, a bare lawn in front of St. Joseph's Catholic Church becomes the Cathedral of the Beloved — an outdoor, ecumenical service of prayer, singing, food and fellowship beginning at 2 p.m. By 3:30, it's gone, folded up and taken away, a bare lawn once again.
And so is he: gone for another week, down a side street, the hunger pangs abated. Maybe he'll have a place to sleep for the night. Maybe he won't.
This side of the iron fence is where this son of Pittsfield first tried heroin. He was in high school. At first, it was just "fun and games," he says. Then one morning he woke up sick, his body insisting upon more heroin and he obliging.
Between then and now, there was jail time, about six years total, he says. There was sobriety, a wife, the births of two daughters, a stable job, then marriage troubles and then the tapping upon his shoulder of an addiction that wasn't quite through with him yet.
On that side of the fence, about 30 people have gathered. Some came by car, most by foot, and they're passing a microphone around, offering prayers.
Someone's Uncle Dave is in the hospital in a coma. Someone's friend had to be airlifted to Albany Medical Center.
"I have an apartment. Yay! I'm moving in Dec. 1," says Jennifer Barrows, wrapped in a bright red Budweiser coat. She's been homeless for a year, since splitting up with her husband.
A woman named Maureen says, "I'm thankful my nephew had his baby boy."
"I'm thankful my brother is moving to Pittsfield," says Leon Reyome, whose brother, Emmett, raises his hand in acknowledgement.
A woman offers a prayer of thanksgiving for a new job she received at the local dollar store.
"And happy belated 66th birthday to Leon," Barrows says. "Gotcha! I didn't forget."
On this side, they listen in and wait. Some pick through the used clothing, blankets and boots for the taking that Pat Davenport, a volunteer from Peru, collected earlier in the week and has draped between the finials of the iron fence.
They listen to the words of the Rev. Jennifer Gregg, "Pastor Jenny," the Episcopal priest who began the Cathedral of the Beloved three years ago because of dire demographics. The generations of faithful churchgoers are dying off. For as many reasons as there are empty pews, fewer and fewer people are walking through the doors of these magnificent, noble churches of ours. So bring the church to the people. Put it right out there in the open. No walls. Make the church present — not as stones set in mortar, but as people set to the joyous task of serving others and judging no one.
Retell a good gospel story. Relate it to the present day. Build relationships. Invite clergy from throughout the community to participate, as the Rev. Joel Huntington, pastor of South Congregational Church, did this past Sunday.
And, by the way, it's perfectly fine with Pastor Jenny and the others that some people choose to stay in the periphery, out beyond that iron fence till the food is served. And besides, she wields a microphone connected to a speaker with a volume knob.
"It is our presence together that makes this place sacred," Pastor Jenny says into the microphone, upon lighting a candle to begin the service. "Let this gathering today be a sanctuary: a safe place from unkind and profane words or gestures, violent actions or intentions. Let this place be a safe haven where we can come wholly as we are, for fellowship, for assurance, for the hope that comes when we allow God's light to shine through all.
"All are welcome and all are worthy," she says. "Each and everyone is a beloved child of God. May our words and actions embody this truth."
"Amen," mouths the young man in the hoodie on the other side of the fence.
His name is Rich Daly. He's 34, tall, lean, red bearded, homeless for three months this time around, leading what he describes as "a tiring, worrisome life." He left Pittsfield for Texas several years ago to get away from the drugs and to live near his mother. The plan worked for a little while, then he returned.
"Nothing happened to me growing up. I wasn't abused or nothing. I had a good life," he says. "My parents split up, but there's no reason for me to be this way, except for I'm an addict."
His daughters, Kaylee and Kylie, 11 and 7 years old, now live with their grandmother in Texas. He's back in his old hometown, without a bed, without a plan, without a single form of ID, which he lost somewhere along the way.
"What do I want? I just want to live a normal life," he says. "Have a little place I can call my own: The simple things, but they're not that simple."
On that side of the fence, they're pulling out the food now — goulash provided by St. Stephen's Parish — served in a paper dish with an apple, a piece of bread and a baked treat. Pastor Jenny has everyone gather around the table, raise their hands out and bless the food with her.
The young man walks through the opening in the iron fence and steps up near the table with the others. Eyes closed, he joins the chorus, mouthing the words to the Lord's Prayer, which he learned back at Sacred Heart Parish on Elm Street, back when he was a little boy in his Sunday best.
Felix Carroll is The Eagle's community columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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