I live in a Focolare men’s house in Harlem, where all four of us are trying to serve the people around us. Recently, we took in a homeless Ukrainian woman for three weeks, followed by a young asylum-seeking couple from Congo who had traveled to the U.S. by foot from Brazil. They too spent a week with us.
Together with a group of young people, our Focolare house volunteers at our local parish, distributing food packages to more than 300 families every other Saturday. We also have a Harlem Outreach Project, which aims to create a community which can respond to local needs.
In addition, each one of us has had moments of personal outreach with the poor, the homeless, and those experiencing substance addictions in our neighborhood. I, too, have had various occasions where it was not enough to simply give “spare change” to a homeless person. These collective experiences of our Focolare house have been very beautiful, but also challenging.
Last month, I was at Grand Central Station at 5pm, waiting for a subway to go home after work. You can imagine how packed the subways are, at that time of the day. When the subway car pulled in, I saw a lot of empty space in the middle section. This usually means that someone smelly is sleeping in the seat, and other passengers don’t want to be next to them. This time however, a homeless person was sleeping sprawled out on the floor. This is unusual so the other passengers carefully avoided his area of the subway car.
I made my way to the empty seats and sat next to him. As I looked at him, I noticed a criminal court summons paper, lying on the floor. I began to wonder whether we should inform the cops at the next station to have him get off the floor or out of the subway car. But this was an express train, which only stops at a few stations.
Suddenly, the man began to vomit on the floor. This made the other passengers push to each extreme end of the car. He then started coughing and this time, I saw blood. I felt so much compassion and taking the tissues I had in my pocket, I offered it to him. Of course, the rest of the passengers were looking at us. He looked at me and said that it was the drugs (fentanyl) that messed him up.
He then asked if I had any spare change. I usually don’t give money, or at most a dollar, but at this moment, I felt that I could and should give more. So I gave him $20 dollars, but asked him if he could sit on the bench instead of lying there on the floor, mixed with his own vomit.
So he got up and sat next to me. As if a motion of gratitude, he bowed, leaned, and touched his head next to my shoulder. He shared how he had been in jail and how the drugs messed him up, trying to explain to the other passengers why he was in such bad shape.
I looked at him and told him what I felt inside, saying: “You’re a good man.” Both he and I were surprised—unsure where this comment had come from. He was moved and began to tear up. At that moment in time, I felt that this tragic subway scene had transformed into something sacred. He then composed himself, and I reached the 125th Street station, which happened to be his station too. We both got up and walked out of the subway, going our separate ways.
Looking back at that experience, I think about how he and I gave God’s presence and redemption to each other. We both parted ways, grateful.
This experience, together with our collective experiences here in Harlem, remind me of one of Focolare founder Chiara Lubich’s meditations, called “The Greatest Attraction of Modern Times.” It is—to be immersed in today’s humanity elbow to elbow, fused together with the divine.
P. C., New York