It’s 5:30 am and my middle daughter Marissa is flying in from Philly. We are taking a road trip for the holidays. While I wait for her arrival, I’m compelled to write this and get these thoughts off my chest before I start packing for our trip…
Life is unpredictable, and it can turn on a dime. My recent battle with cancer has taught me that if you have been thinking about doing something, you better do it because you have no idea what tomorrow will bring.
A Personal Hero
I want to talk about a man who has become one of my heroes. Nathan Gaston – aka Nate – is a staff member here at the shelter. Nate came to us about five months ago after clearing his parole board. Throughout his life, Nate has spent quite a bit of time in the penitentiary. Prison life can do many things to a man, not all good, but that is not the point of this blog. I’ve come to realize that it’s not life’s circumstances that mold us, but how we respond to those circumstances.
When Nate arrived at the shelter, he was recently homeless due to health problems. Cancer! Melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. He had just finished a round of surgeries that was supposed to have taken care of it. Not long after he got here, the cancer reoccurred. The surgeon removed another sizeable piece of meat from his arm. No, there is nothing pretty about cancer. Not long after that, another spot appeared, then another. The prognosis was not good. The cancer had metastasized and was spreading to other parts of his body and into his bones. Not a good diagnosis.
The Power of Compassion
Having experienced a similar situation last year, I knew what he was going through. Nate and I have had some very deep heart to heart conversations. I told him that no matter what happens, St. Francis Shelter would take care of him. There is not a more compassionate and more understanding place on the planet. When I needed help last year, people stepped out of the shadows and I found myself surrounded by angels. People jump out of the woodwork to help me keep this shelter up and running. I told Nate, “Whatever you need, we will take care of it. I understand your concerns and worries but you will never have to be concerned about where you will stay!”
Despite his condition, Nate is up early in the morning to do his chores around the church, something we have worked out with Sacred Heart to offset our rent. We eat breakfast, and most mornings we have our prayer time that includes a spiritual reading. Sister Jerry – the Jersey Tornado – visits and prays the Office of the Hours with us on Mondays and Fridays. Nate participates always, and then mans the desk at the thrift store. God bless him!! I’m gonna tell you when I was going thru my chemo and radiation, the last thing I wanted to do was deal with some retail customers. Nate is a strong man with a will of iron.
Talk about a guy who could possibly have an “I’m gonna get what I can while the getting is good” attitude, here is a convicted felon – who understands how little time he has left – who takes the responsibility to work the cash register at the thrift store, who controls the cash that comes through the store. And you know what? I can verify that every dime that passes through his hands hits the cash box. Nate is even apologetic on low sales days and will tell me,” Sorry boss. We did the best we could today, but the fish just weren’t biting.” Hell, I’m inspired that he has the will and the strength to rise from his bed and man the store nine hours every day.
Friends at the Desert House of Prayer
Although this is the St. Francis Shelter and we reside on Catholic church property, I think I’m the only baptized Catholic in our group, and while we exist in a Catholic environment, practicing Catholicism is by no means a requirement we place on our staff and guests. During one of my conversations with Nate, I asked him if he would like to talk with a priest even though Nate’s background does not include Catholicism. Nates response was, “You know, I was thinking about seeing a priest, but I just don’t know. He’s not gonna shove any Catholic shit down my throat, is he?” I let the moment pass and he added, “I think it would be good to talk to someone.” I smiled and responded, “I think I have just the guy.”
I called my old friend Father Tom Picton, the Director of the Desert House of Prayer, a beautiful retreat house out in our Sonoran Desert here in Tucson. Fr. Tom has been my spiritual advisor for many years, and we know each other very well. I explained the situation knowing that this is not the first time he has confronted a similar situation through his many years as a man of the cloth. The epithet “Altus Christus” – Another Christ – suits him well.
While the rest of the staff and I were on our annual camping trip, Father Tom and Nate met for the first time. What they discussed is confidential and none of my business, but when I returned, Nate told me they had a great talk and Father invited him to experience a private retreat out at the Desert House of Prayer, which he offers to all members of our staff. Shortly afterward, we took old Nate out for his retreat.
A brief look at the Desert House is in order. Every day there are 2-3 periods of group meditation in the Chapel. Liturgy of the hours occurs every morning and evening, and Mass is celebrated twice each week in addition to Sunday Mass. A beautiful and comprehensive library is available for the retreatants to use, and the property includes, picturesque desert trails and outdoor Stations of the Cross for those who choose this beautiful meditation. Meals are observed in silence with mild conversation permitted at dinner time. Spiritual advisers are available to all retreatants. I wasn’t certain how Nate would react, but from my personal experience, I believed the atmosphere of the Desert House could do him good. There is no pressure there to participate in any of the activities and the spiritual environment is very ecumenical.
The following Sunday, the St. Francis Shelter staff attended the 9:00 am Mass at the retreat. As we entered the chapel, we found Nate sitting in the front row. His face was aglow! As usual, before Mass began, Fr. Tom announced to the small congregation that the boys from St. Francis Shelter were joining them in the celebration and that their recent guest Nate was part of that community. Father Tom knows how to make the boys feel like celebrities when we attend Mass at the Desert House of Prayer.
The talk at breakfast after Mass centered on Nate’s days at the retreat. Nate told us he had never experienced anything like that and he – like most people – was unaware that anything like the Desert House of Prayer even existed. Most importantly was how he summed up the total experience in three, choice words, “It was wonderful!”
There is a new and noticeable bounce in Nate’s steps today. No one knows what the future holds for Nate just as we do not know what tomorrow holds for us. Of this we can be certain: all any of us have is today. If the St. Francis Shelter can make that day just a little bit better for anyone, in any way, we have accomplished our mission.
Change is on the Horizon
Major changes to the St. Francis Shelter are on the horizon. We do not know their exact nature or the timeline we face. Still, we have today, and for me, that means 12 to 15-hour days at the shelter, seven days each week. People ask why I do what I do. Frankly, I ask myself that question on a regular basis. The answer comes from years of experience serving the homeless community. Like my friend Nate, I want this place to be here for others. That is why we rise early and prepare the shelter every morning for another day, today.
“I’ve come to believe in this place,” Nate says.
I love this place, the people who work here and the people we serve.
Whatever the future holds for Nate, we are prepared to face it with him even if that means to arrange for hospice to attend to him in the shelter for his final days. Only my Friend upstairs knows those answers. I am living proof of the power of prayer and what it did for me in my time of dire need. I beg of you to pray for Nate in the same way. The simple fact that so many people held me in their prayers, sustained me in my darkest days. So please keep Nate in your prayers. And if I could ask, please send him a card. The physical presence of that can be miraculous… believe me, I know.
601 E. Ft. Lowell
Tucson, AZ 85705
May God bless and keep you all.
PACE E BENE
Carl Zawatski, Director, St. Francis Shelter