St. Al’s Backpack Ministry to the Homeless in Detroit
BY TONI CASHNELLI
Br. Michael Radomski shoulders his backpack, steps out into the Detroit sunshine – and stops in his tracks.
“First, we pray,” he says, then asks the Almighty for wisdom to help those in need. For the next two hours he will seek them out on streets and in parks, offer them a sandwich and encourage them to talk.
On behalf of St. Aloysius Neighborhood Services, friar Michael is channeling God’s love to the reclusive homeless, those too skittish or embarrassed to say, “I’ve lost my way.” A member of the parish’s Backpack Ministry since 2008, he is there, he says, “to be present to people” who are sad, vulnerable, alone and afraid.
Just listening doesn’t sound like much. But to those who have nothing, it means everything.
Michael’s roomy red backpack is stuffed with gloves, wool caps, t-shirts and hand warmers, all in demand on this bright but brisk afternoon. He fills a collapsible wheeled crate with bottled water and sandwiches donated by local parishes. “We try to have PB&J and some sort of meat sandwiches. If there are extras left over, we sometimes go to the library and pass them out to patrons who are homeless. Today we have homemade cookies, praise the Lord!”
The route he takes varies, “depending on the needs that present themselves. It’s not so much about giving out stuff as being available. We don’t preach to them. We’re there to pray with or for them.” In a world that is often indifferent or disdainful, “It’s a chance to affirm their dignity. They don’t often get that.”
Everyone has a story. “Many have had a difficult life,” derailed by drugs, mental illness or a dysfunctional family. “We have certain regulars we’ve gotten to know and have seen for years,” then, out of the blue, “They’re suddenly gone, off the map, and we don’t know why.”
Walking in groups of two or more, “We try not to let bad weather stop us,” Michael says of St. Al’s 25 backpackers, most of them lay volunteers who come once a week. “If it’s not nice for us, it’s not nice for the folks stuck out there, either.” The worst day ever? “Oh gosh, when the snow was up to our knees.” They actually found people waiting for them along the route. “Warming centers are great, but when we go out in the cold and snow, those we minister to have a sense that they really are loved.”
There’s a strategy to this, he says. “You approach people who are loners, less likely to go to a shelter. We try to give them the ‘once-over’” to find those truly in peril. “Our priority is those who don’t have the safety of a warm apartment to go to each night.” Since backpack supplies are limited, “We try to explain that we’re holding tight onto items for people in dire situations. It’s a tough thing to do, but it’s a necessary thing to do.”
Michael heads north on Washington Boulevard, sidetracked by an unshaven senior sitting in the median of the street. He hails the friar, introduces himself as “John” and holds out his hands. John not only needs gloves, he needs help putting them on. “I had a stroke,” he says. Michael fishes a pair of gloves from the backpack and tugs them over the man’s gnarled fingers. “We’ll keep an eye out for a pair of mittens that would be easier,” he promises John.
“Brother Michael!” he hears, and turns to spot a friend. “Carla, you doin’ all right?” he asks a smiling, white-haired woman with a walker. She turns down a sandwich, preferring to catch up on the news while a small crowd gathers around them. Soon they are engaged in a lively conversation. “We often have a good time when we go out,” Michael says. “It’s a joy to meet people like Carla who are filled with joy” despite their circumstances.
At a construction site, a guy with a street-cleaning machine wants to talk. After being paroled from prison, the man spent four years looking for work. He would like to pray and give thanks with a man of God for the positive turn his life has taken.
Michael says his habit is rarely recognized. “Most of the time people are like, ‘What are you dressed up for?’ Most of them just know we’re ‘church guys’.”
Up the street, he turns into Grand Circus Park. A dozen men are sitting around the drained fountain, hip-hop vocals blaring in the background. Faces registering anger, boredom or hopelessness, they come to life when Michael walks into view. “When we get to a certain part of a park, they come from other parts,” he says. “It’s like they have antennae.”
A short queue forms quickly. “Got any socks?” a young man asks. Michael pulls out half the contents of his backpack before announcing, “There are no socks.”
“I’m allergic to peanut butter,” says another when he’s offered a sandwich. “What about chocolate?” Michael says, offering a cookie. These guys may be hungry, but they don’t seem destitute. Scanning the park, Michael points to a bench across the way. “That man is homeless. He’s wearing a coat that folds out into a sleeping bag.”
A middle-aged man named Aaron comes forward, face contorted in pain, and says he needs to pray. A dam of despair breaks loose as Michael petitions God, with Aaron sobbing, clinging, sinking to his knees. For the next few minutes there are no answers, only questions, but it’s obvious that this desperately sad soul has found comfort and catharsis. He wipes his eyes, gets to his feet and stumbles away.
“There are a lot of them like that,” according to Michael. “It’s hard to say, ‘My time’s up. Gotta go.’ You just can’t do that.”
Alone and confused
A bearded man with a finger wrapped in bandages wanders by looking so dazed that Michael is concerned. “You got a place to stay tonight?” he calls. “On the road,” the man says in heavily accented English. An immigrant from Nepal, he is alone in America.
“What do you believe in your God?” he suddenly asks Michael. “God loves you and me” is the friar’s response. “Some say Allah, some say God the Father; it’s all one God.”
For the next half-hour while the man sits quietly on a curb, staring blankly with his upturned hands on his knees, Michael is on his cell phone, trying to find lodging. Coming up empty, he scribbles a list of names, places and phone numbers.
“I wish there were more I could do for you,” he says, handing them over. “I will hold you in my heart and pray throughout the night. God will look out for you. Place it all in God’s hands.”
Armed with a bag of hand warmers, mittens, sandwiches, and directions to a shelter, the man sets off across the park. “I feel so unable to help in any way,” Michael says. “It aches to not know what happens to them. That’s the only part of this ministry I don’t like.”
Some days, there are rays of hope. “Periodically we meet somebody who is back, better, who has a house and has found work. One such person is Angelique, a young, timid woman who was ever gracious and appreciative” of the help she received. “She kind of disappeared for a while. Then one day we were out and someone called, ‘Hey guys! Hey, St. Aloysius!’ It was Angelique,” greeting them with a smile and a hug. “She got a home, lined up a job and got her life back on track. It was wonderful to see.”
With his load lightened, Michael heads for St. Aloysius and his other duties. He will be back here next week, praying for more happy endings.
(To learn more about St. Al’s Neighborhood Services and how to make a donation, visit stalsdetroit.com)