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NYC Cabbie: Pope Francis Rattles my Cage

January 7, AD2014


Pope Francis shakes me up. Not in a worldly, materialistic way like when I lost my twenty dollar  subway and bus pass last week, or when I totally forgot to pay my cell phone bill last month and got a late fee. But in a primal, profound way that I cannot shake – in a way that haunts me.

I’m talking about the things that he says, such as:

“I prefer a church that is bruised and hurt and dirty from being out in the streets.” (Evangelii Gaudium, paragraph 49).

“Bring the joy of Christ into every area of life, to the fringes of society, even to those who seem most farthest away, to the most indifferent.” (World Youth Day, July 28, 2013, World Youth Day Mass)

“I came here tonight to be filled with your contagious enthusiasm.” (World Youth Day, July 26, 2013, Angelus Domini, Archbishopric of St. Joaquin, Rio de Janeiro)

And he doesn’t just talk the talk.  He walks the walk. He has done all these things that he exhorts us to do:

When he was Bishop in Buenos Aires he would take the public bus every Sunday to the very poorest neighborhood to say Mass, and that was a very, very humble looking little church.

For his seventy-seventh birthday he spent it with the children in the Vatican Clinic and then had lunch with three homeless men and their dog.

He is known to sneak out of the Vatican some nights dressed only as a priest to feed the homeless.

He went to a juvenile detention center and said Mass in their chapel and then washed and kissed the feet of twelve youths, one of them Muslim.

He is so disarming with that warm grandfatherly smile and the soft voice. It’s as if you know that behind his back he is hiding a chocolate chip cookie for you. But the things he says so sweetly are hard doctrine, hard as a rock, the rock of Peter:

“Go out into their darkness, meet them where they are.” (World Youth Day, July 27, 2013, Meeting with the Bishops of Brazil)

“Come down, come down and serve them, become small among the small, and poor among the poor.” (Pope’s General Audience at Saint Peter’s Square, December 18, 2013) echoing “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.” (1 Corinthians 9:22)

“Don’t become pessimists. Don’t be sour pusses. Don’t let the world steal your joy.” (World Youth Day, July 24, St. Francis of Assisi of the Providence of God Hospital, Rio de Janeiro and Evangelii Gaudium, paragraph 85)

“Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space for the good seed to grow.” (America, September 19, 2013).

“Let beauty touch your heart so the goodness and truth of the risen Christ can radiate in it.” (Evangelii Gaudium, paragraph 167)

“Don’t postpone your evangelization mission.” (Evangelii Gaudium, paragraph 201)

“Don’t say that it has always been done this way.” (Evangelii Gaudium, paragraph 33)

“Don’t think that you have too much on your agenda to help the poor.” (Evangelii Gaudium, paragraph 201)

“Get out of your comfort zones.” (Prayer Service, Saint Peter’s Basilica, December 31, 2013)

“Go outside the churches and make a ruckus. Make a noise.” (July 24, St. Francis of Assisi of the Providence of God Hospital, Rio de Janeiro).

[Make a ruckus?—sometimes we’re afraid to say “Merry Christmas.”]

“Read the Beatitudes and Matthew 25 and you have your action plan.”  (World Youth Day July 25, 2013, Welcoming Ceremony to the Young People on the Copacabana waterfront).

One statement that Pope Francis said, “Do we stop to help? We need more good Samaritans,” (Twitter, December 9, 2013) really hit home to me the day after Christmas. In the wee hours of the night, I drove up to the Church of Our Saviour where I could stop and say a prayer of thanks for my vocation as a writer last year. I put on some Gregorian chant on my cell phone, dipped my fingers in a bottle of Holy Water that I carry, made the sign of the Cross, and was ready to kneel and say an Our Father and a Hail Mary at the church steps when I saw a blanketed figure sleeping against the rectory door. It was a young African-American woman wearing glasses. I thought I could give her some money if I wasn’t too obtrusive.

“Excuse me, Miss,” I said. Her eyes opened and I asked, “Could you use a few bucks?” She slightly nodded and held out her hand. I handed her a five. I didn’t just want to say, “God bless you” or “Jesus loves you” and walk off. I thought of Pope Francis’ exhortation to “engage people” so I said, “It sure is cold out here.”

“Yes, it is,” she said with a very educated sounding voice.”

“I wish they’d open the church door so you could go in.”

“That would be nice,” she said.

“They used to,” I responded.

“When?” she asked, sounding as if I meant a few days or weeks ago.

“Oh years ago, in the old days,” I said, “I wish they’d do it again.”

“Yes, I do too.”

I said, “Well good night, and God bless you” and headed back to my cab. I looked back and she was waving. I thought well I didn’t say a prayer the way I thought, but maybe that was a different kind of prayer.  I got behind the wheel, and she was still waving as I started to cry. I quickly drove off, because I didn’t want her to see me crying. I thought she could make it through the night with more peace if she didn’t have to be reminded of how destitute her situation was –  just sleep with some pleasant thoughts. That woman still haunts me.

Well that’s it for me tonight, right? I’ve done my good deed, now I can kick back with a collard green and soy bean salad and see what’s on my Facebook news stream, right? But here he comes on my cell phone radio, “Buena sera.” Then the news announcer says something like, “Pope Francis spent his seventy-seventh birthday with the children in the Vatican Hospital and then had lunch with three homeless men and their dog. He says we should go out into the night and bring the joy of the Gospel to the darkest corners of the world.” Food for thought. I can imagine him saying to me, “Share your food with the poor.”

And I can imagine my flimsiest of excuses, “But poor people don’t like salads.”

To which he says, “You know what I mean, mister ha-ha funny man guy?”

“Yes, of course, of course, Papa. I’m sorry. You’re always right.”

And does the good Lord reward me for my good deed by putting a hundred dollar bill on my back seat where I could find it, or giving me a long fare down to Princeton, New Jersey? Not exactly. Of course, I don’t do things for the hope of earthly rewards. I do them because our Lord tells us to do them. Our rewards are eternal.

So the Lord with his infinite mercy and infinite sense of humor sends me another poor homeless soul a few hours later. I was coming out of the all night Key Food on Fourth Street in the East Village with my spoils of victory bought with the money I had clawed out of the cold night—nine cans of collard greens and spinach, and two half gallons of unsweetened soy milk, when I see a poor fellow with a beard like Santa Claus sprawled on the sidewalk next to his walker.

I was in a hurry to get back to my cab for another quick fare and then call it a night, but I thought of Pope Francis’ words again, “We can’t just walk away. We need more Good Samaritans.” I often don’t stop for unfortunates, but tonight I was about to “break out of our comfort zones.” I walked over to the man and bent down and asked him, “Sir, are you all right?”

“No I am not! I can’t get up,” he said.

“Do you want me to help you get up?”

“No, I want to stay right here,” he said defiantly.

“Well, could you use a few bucks for some hot soup?” He held out a tough dirty hand and I reached down and placed two dollars in it and he said, “God bless you.”

Then he asked “Hot soup? Could you get me hot soup?” and handed me back the two dollars.

“Sure,” I said confidently, but I had never bought food for the homeless before. I had heard stories of other people doing it, but my charity had always been restricted to giving them money and saying, “God bless you” or engaging them in a conversation for a minute or two. Well there’s that Francis Effect again.

The Key Food had nothing hot whatsoever so I went to the corner deli named, as Fate would have it, the Buena East Market and ordered a hot bagel sandwich. “What do you want on it?” asked the clerk. I had to think fast. I never order sandwiches. I’m a vegetarian so I had no idea what to order. What do people, normal people, like? Roast beef? Well maybe, but the all-time favorite has to be ham.

“Ham,” I said.

“Do you want cheese on that?” asked the counter man. Oh my goodness I thought, of course, ham-and-cheese.

“Yes, cheese” I said. It is probably a venial sin in New York to order ham without cheese, maybe a mortal sin.

I returned and gave the poor soul on the sidewalk the sandwich and a large hot coffee and he was very grateful. I asked again if he wanted to get up to his walker and go in the Key Food or the bank ATM where it was warm and he said again, “No I want to stay right here.”

I gave him another two dollars and said, “Here’s something for your breakfast. God bless you and good night.”

“God bless you,” he said enthusiastically and as I walked away he called out again, “God bless you.” That man still haunts me.

I sat in my cab for a moment and thought Pope Francis really rattles my cage. He rattles every Christian’s cage. We are like sleeping lions and he bangs on the bars of our cages and says, “Wake up and be lions, wake up and roar. Wake up and be free.” Saint Augustine said, “The truth is like a lion: you don’t need to defend it. Let it loose and it will defend itself.”

When we free ourselves from the cages of our own restrictions, what a mighty force we will become.

© 2014 Jamey Brown.  All rights reserved.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Converted in 2007—the greatest day of my life—by the miracle of EWTN. Off the drink and drugs for 17 years—by the grace of God. Bible Study group leader and guitar player 5 years. RCIA assistant leader 2 years. Former atheist and then a crystal-gazing New Ager. Former musician (guitar) raised in Indiana, now I use the big bucks I make writing Catholic blogs to finance my dream of driving a cab in New York City.

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  • Lisa

    Beautiful, Jamey! Will always remember that quote of yours… will print it out and place it where it can remind me… With God all things are possible! Best to you, Lisa

  • LausDeo

    Wow isn’t it amazing what one man can do. I was feeling really disgusted reading all that was going on in our country and the world at large. What is beautiful is now ugly, and what was ugly is now beautiful. Then by God’s grace, I chanced to glance at the TV. It was news coverage on how politicians were working together for the poor — Thank you Papa! It’s often hard to walk the walk and talk the talk. But he does it. So the challenge is on.

  • Chris L

    The USA has spent trillions waging the war on poverty since LBJ declared it in 1964. Poverty rate was 16% then, 15% now.
    Our church has always served the poor & continues to do so very effectively. What I don’t understand is the “guilt” some in our
    church try to get those of us who by God’s grace made a success of our lives & do regularly support missions to the poor
    somehow want us to feel guilty that we are not doing enough.

    • Pat p

      Chris l
      It’s not the church that makes us feel guilty, it is our conscience. Other Therese said that if you have two coats in your closet, you have stolen one from the poor

  • centuryman

    I’ve been involved in Evangelization since Vatican II. Stood in front of abortion clinics {often alone} and witnessed my faith in the crime infested areas of three major metropolitan areas in the United States. All I can say is the wholesale rejection of Humanae Vitae by many clergy and laity along with the progressive Jado policies in the 70’s and 80’s devastated the American Catholic Church. I know I witnessed it.

    What a mess!

  • kneeling catholic

    Dear Jamey,
    nice post, but I would caution you about giving cash to homeless people. The net effect is that they gather it up to buy drugs. It’s much better to ask them what they need, other than drugs, and try to secure that for them directly. It’s a lot more trouble for you, and takes way more time, but can give them immediate benefit.
    I would also caution females who want to help the homeless not to do it in a secluded spot, or –if you must– do have pepper spray handy!

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  • Jamey, you are a walking breathing testament to the Scripture verse, “…yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.” (Galatians 2:20) You are an inspiration. May God bless you abundantly in this New Year. Peace be with you. Diane

  • Greg

    Wonderful insights, Jamey.

    Pope Francis rattles us in many ways, different from person to person. There is no doubt many, too many, who need to be served. That rattles some of us into asking, “Why is it so?”

    On this bountiful earth why are so many poor? Why do we sympathize with their plight but do so little to get at the root causes?

    Why do those of us who should know better meander along in silence, aware Satan is at work in the form of political ideologies, such as Marxism, that use deception to rob man of his freedom, his dignity, his religion, and his prosperity? Why do we do nothing and accommodating destruction of the culture and society, as if destruction were simply normal, something we should tolerate though it generates poverty, suffering, and attacks on faith.

    Rattled, we look for ways to make a difference when it comes to root causes. We hope and pray that as people become more aware of the poor, thanks to Pope Francis, they seek to know why things are as they are. We pray they learn the in’s and out’s of deception and destruction so they can help correctly point out the roots from which evil springs. We pray the faithful become truly rattled.

    • jamey brown

      It looks like our good Pope Francis inspires us in the same way Greg. So many poor and hurting, so little time.

  • john654

    Hey Jamey, I posted a song for you, “Jamey Brown”, on YouTube for you. It’s my Grand kids favorite. (Definitely not a pro recording!)

    • jamey brown

      Great song, Johnny Boy, and what a great voice! It inspires to be, with the good Lord’s grace, more like the man in this song.

  • John Darrouzet

    Oh yeah! Jesus is our Lion King!