An Encounter in Front of a Cathedral

Howard Duncan - Story


I was just standing there looking into the foyer of the Cathedral to see if the door opened as a man pulled the handle. It was almost midday in midweek and I wasn’t sure if it would be open. The door opened.

Do I really want to finish the last of my Starbucks tall Pike Place brew before I go in?

It would be inappropriate to carry the cup inside and there is no trash can anywhere in sight.

Okay, if I have to, I’ll just walk back outside and try and find a place to dump it.

I turned towards the steps and heard a voice say, “It’s too bad they closed, the people in there were really nice people.”

I turned toward the voice and saw a black woman about 40 or so, shorter than me, which is not uncommon. She looked healthy but dressed overly casual, not entirely out of place if you don’t work downtown. This part of the center of this old large city is a pedestrian mall and a pleasant, quiet place to kill some time.

Pointing towards the empty restaurant across the way she said, “Don’t you miss them?”

I answered, “I’m not from here, just visiting.”

“I really miss them, they were very nice people.”

I still am not used to this. My wife of 36 years was always the one that strangers approached and started talking to as if she was a friend. She always told me that she didn’t know what it was, but people would just start talking to her in a friendly manner out of the blue. Anywhere, in a grocery aisle, while sitting on a bench, or just standing around or walking. I have seen it many times, just as if they had been friends for years.

Well, this lady just seemed to want to talk to someone. I don’t know how we ever got there, but she told me that she had accepted the Lord and that her life was full of addiction even now. She said she had an HBO addiction. I didn’t have any idea what that was and didn’t want to pry, so I thought I could wait until she wanted to tell me more. (I searched Google later; I think she was referring to the HBO show from 2007 on drug and alcohol abuse.) She continued telling me about herself. When she was younger she never learned to read out of stubbornness, but could now. She was angry because people were not usually nice to her. Did I think she was a sensitive person? When I told this story later to a relative, she asked if I thought the woman was incoherent at all. I said no, she seemed to be perfectly normal except that she had a lot of things that bothered her.

I’m just a guy standing in front of a church and she had an awful lot to tell someone. There was a priest near us on the sidewalk who was posing for a group picture in front of the cathedral sign. Pointing at them, I told her that that man probably could give her better advise than I could, assuming she understood I meant the priest. She glanced that way then looked at me again waiting for an answer.

“Do you think I’m a sensitive person?” she asked.

“I don’t know you at all,” I told her.

She insisted, “But religious people seem to be able to tell what another person is like.”

Give her an answer, but make sure that it is honest and not insulting, she will know both.

“Yes, I think you are sensitive. I get that impression of you.”

I looked closely at her eyes to see what her reaction would be. They were moist now. They had a familiar look and I knew that I had given her the right answer – because it was the right answer. That was the only emotion she had shown besides a simmering anger, during this entire very personal conversation. Her anger revealed itself from slight annoyance to frustration as she talked about more than I am telling you now (or what I would have been willing to tell a stranger). I suppose that the reason was a combination of being near a church and priest and an ordinary person who showed an interest in going in the church. When you combine all of this in our society, your chances of being near to God are pretty good.

She asked me why God made people so mean. She asked me why didn’t He like her because she suffered from mistreatment as a young girl. I was really hoping that the priest, who did look over at us once, would come over and say something.

Pleeeeeze…..Father…..I‘m just a guy standing in front of a church……how can “I” help this woman?

Okay, what do I know from my Catholic teaching?

I said to her, “You cannot do anything when someone is mean to you except to control your reaction, you don‘t have to be angry. God loves you, you are important to Him and you don’t need other people to tell you that you are important. Look around at all of these people here. They have problems in life to different degrees. Are you free from your addictions?”

“Well I try, but why won’t God help me?”

“Pray every day, ask for His help and you will be given strength by Him so that you will go in the right direction, even if you are not free from the temptations. I am going inside now and I will pray for you?”

“You would do that for me?”

“Of course, what is your name?”

She told me her name and then said, “People tell me things all the time and they don’t do them. How do I know you will do that?”

“You cannot know for sure, you have to trust me. Do you trust me?”

I don’t think she knew how to answer, but I did get a “sort of” nod as I walked up the steps.

The church was completely empty except for the organist doing what sounded like tuning the organ. I dipped my fingers in the holy water, crossed myself, found a pew that I felt comfortable in and knelt getting ready to say a prayer. As I settled in I caught out of the corner of my left eye some movement and what looked like the same lady walking into the church. I can‘t be sure, it was a large church in dim light. She stood behind the back of the last pew on the opposite side of the church, the only person besides the organist and me inside.

I said my prayer, including asking God to help this woman, and got up to leave. As I walked towards the door I looked around and saw that the church was completely empty, again except for the organist still tuning. As I walked down the steps I glanced a look in both directions. The priest and his group were gone and she was not in sight. I was heading to an event just a few blocks away, but as I passed other people, I wondered what problems they had that God could help them with, and would they even ask. Does a person have to experience the bad news before the Good News makes sense?

I will tell you that the name she gave me was Sharon, so you can pray for her too.

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11 thoughts on “An Encounter in Front of a Cathedral”

  1. Pingback: Pastoral Sharings: "The way is narrow.." | St. John

  2. What a touching story Howard! You did great just ‘standing around the church.’ It doesn’t take much to give people hope which is what you obviously did. I will pray for her too!

  3. Thank you for ministering to that poor woman! God bless you. You will not know till Heaven the impact of your prayers and kindness. I will pray for Sharon, too.

  4. It warms my heart that you took the time to talk to this poor woman. Having worked in the inner city, and having had many take advantage of my young but naive kindness, I tend to avoid the folks that look like they are addicted or homeless. I know this isn’t the way to be, but I have had some VERY scary encounters.

    Your story shows me that perhaps it is worth the risk sometimes, to just open ourselves up to another person we don’t know, especially when in need. I try to help those that are genuinely in need but I usually want to know them first. The important thing that we can do for every person that we meet in apparent need, is to pray for them. Pray that God is able to draw them to the Catholic Church for their eternal salvation and pray that with that new strength one draws from our faith, they can overcome whatever causes them to remain in their sad circumstances.

    1. Yes I know what you mean by scary. Not being a mental health professional, I can only try and read the signs given by body language and subtle admissions verbally (sometimes loud scary outbursts). Understanding and accepting human imperfection as taught by the Church though, gives a person an amazing insight into the variability of behavior and thought processes of others. Armed with the attitude that this knowledge can promote, we hopefully begin to identify more closely with the soul of another and therefore appreciate it’s value as it is appreciated by God.

      I was walking with a friend about 3 years ago on a downtown street in this same city (I live in the country where this is seldom seen) when an extremely dirty derelict was walking towards us. You have seen these men before, an easy guess is that they have a few weeks to live at best if the weather turns. His nose was dripping long strands of snot. I looked at his eyes as he passed and the thought that went through my mind was, “Could I hug this person if that would help him?” I still could not answer that question.

  5. Thank you John.

    james, during the few years before my retirement my wife and I traveled the country while I worked on a contract basis. We lived in hotels, motels, resort cabins, and apartments for weeks to the longest stay of 1 1/2 years. After a while I started calling her “the patron saint of hotel maids” (they probably had one already but I was not Catholic then). She could tell me their children’s names, ages, and kept to herself but often lamented about their very personal problems that she was hearing.

  6. Pingback: Egypt Vexed Christians Show Anger with U. S. Policies -

  7. ” My wife of 36 years was always the one that strangers approached and started talking to as if she was a friend. She always told me that she didn’t know what it was, but people would just start talking to her in a friendly manner out of the blue. ”

    Some people have auras that others can see and it is very common for those who see it to gravitate towards the SOURCE: this inner light of faith that shines like a city on a hill.

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