Friday, October 1, 2010

Tony and Pam

Today is the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Four years ago, I spent four days in this tiny French town. I often think back to that trip as one of the most poignant experiences of silence, prayer and culture of my short lifetime. If you don't know much about St. Thérèse's life, I'd encourage you to check out this biography and to read Story of a Soul.

St. Thérèse is a fantastic model and patron for us.

This Sunday we're going to be talking about loving our neighbors, those closest to us. St. Thérèse spent her 24 years doing exactly this. She's the patron of missionaries, though she never left the convent! Her patronage highlights the importance of Christ's command to "love thy neighbor;" it also strengthens us to witness to Christ's love to the people we encounter everyday.

The whole "love thy neighbor" theme became especially important to me during my freshman year of college at John Carroll University. Here, I got involved with a local outreach called the Labre Project. For the first time in my life, reaching out to my neighbors became significant. Meeting the people in Cleveland, in my hometown during that year of school, where they were, seeing their conditions and forming friendships with them was simple and profound. What we were doing in Cleveland was much more than passing out food, because relationship transcends physical condition.

When I transferred to Franciscan, I hoped to replicate my experiences in Cleveland.

If any of you have ever been to Steubenville, you know it to be all things "Rust Belt." If poverty reigns, drugs reign supreme. Homelessness, violence, vandalism, arson, prostitution. All have consumed the once-glorious downtown area. LAMP Ministries runs a soup kitchen out of the Cathedral basement in the downtown area. I signed up to help out almost as soon as I arrived, and was blown away in my conversations with the poor about the conditions of the small town.

The Beauty of Relationship

I met Tony at LAMP one morning in the Fall of 2005. He was a middle-aged man of Hispanic decent who looked far older than his years. A mental illness and family break-up left him on the streets of San Diego at a young age. Eventually, drug addiction took hold and he somehow ended up in Steubenville with his wife, Pam, and some friends. When I encountered Tony, he was living in an abandoned downtown building, and was struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction. An unoccupied, abandoned building is a nice find for a homeless man. It is so hard for me to imagine what it would be like to have been without a roof over my head, a place of to call my own, for so long that the shelter of a dilapidated building would cause me great joy. But, such was Tony's demeanor. His biggest problem now was not having a sleeping bag.

So, Katie and I picked up one at Walmart, and met him at the post office to deliver it. This was the beginning of our friendship.

During our time in Steubenville, we met frequently with Tony and Pam. We'd bring socks, clothes and some food, but most of all, we brought ourselves...fellowship. This was the most important thing for Tony.

While we were there, Tony continued to struggle with drugs. At one point, he took himself off of his schizophrenia medication and committed a crime that landed him in jail for over a year. Somehow, in the midst of addiction, his struggle to find a place to lay his head, and time in jail, we were always able to keep tabs on where he was.

New Beginnings

At almost the exact same time as our wedding, back in December of 2008, Tony and Pam flew back out to California. Tony and his brother reconciled their differences, and his brother bought them one-way tickets to San Diego. Now, they live on some land about 45 minutes from town, surrounded by mountains and the beauty of nature. Typically they say that changing your environment, or escaping your old environment, doesn't help you to break addictions. But it has for Tony and Pam. No drugs, no alcohol, no violence.

It has been amazing to see the power of relationship over the past five years. Tony and Pam are our good friends and we typically chat with them over the phone once a week. They love to hear about our life and the ways we're fixing up our home. We enjoy hearing about what they're fixing up on the property or new wildlife they see. Incredibly simple stuff, but thus is the beauty of relationship.

I thought it would be cool to share this story because it highlights the "love your neighbor" point. Tony and I just ran into each other at a soup kitchen, but reaching out, the effort on both sides, to understand the other and to seek a friendship, has made this more than a random encounter that you forget about the next day. Every week when we talk with Pam and Tony on the phone, we're reminded of the ways God has been present and used us in this friendship. We're also reminded of how much God has taught us through Tony and Pam.

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