I was in an angry, hurried rush. Who calls a 7am meeting on a Monday morning anyway? I was madly sipping a coffee, and rushing to meet the train in the park. That was the first time I saw him – a 15th century friar sitting in the park watching the dogs play. He seemed like a very robinhoodesque character to be sitting amongst playing dogs and their owners busy instagramming only the cutest pictures before getting on with their day.
The doors pulled mechanically shut on my train and I stared back at him sitting so blissfully in the park. What was a friar doing sitting in the dog park on a Monday morning at 7am? Shouldn’t he be off praying somewhere? I found myself thinking way too much about it. “Just sitting in the park?” asked my friend at work.
“Yeah – it was odd. no coffee. no backpack. like there is a monastery somewhere in Green Heights. It was totally like Friar Tuck on a movie set and he was taking a smoke break.” I said laughing.
“Turns out there is!”, she said, showing me her phone.
“The Franciscan Friars of The Renewal”, I read outloud. “Right there near the park. How have I lived there for a decade and not known of a friary right down the block? That is crazy!”
“Well lets see – you are a white, militantly agnostic fag living in San Diego. You are, despite your love of penis, high on the power pyramid, you make good money – so you never need a soup kitchen or a clothing pantry. I’d guess his kind is relatively invisible to you.”
I don’t think she meant it in a hurtful way – but her concept of invisibility stuck with me hard. Particularly in this age of divisiveness, it was easy to surround yourself with everything that agrees with you and ignore that which does not.
Now – it’s not that God and me have a beef going on necessarily – I just don’t see the whole thing as something to center my life around. If there is a God, I just don’t think about it the way Christianity chooses to. As a gay man I had certainly seen my share of religion being used as a weapon. One needs only look at the millions the Catholic Church and the Mormons teamed up to spend on Proposition 8. Understandably, most men like me have a dim view of organized faith of any sort.
I looked out for him each morning walking through the park in the mornings – and even circled back through the park on my way home. But no luck. So, I made a plan. I got up the next Monday, just the time I’d seen him in the park the week before.
I put coffee in a pair of to go cups and headed to the park. Sure enough, like a ghost, there he was at his same location. I hovered opposite him in the park for a moment, embarrassed at the loss of my normal extroverted nature.
“Good morning,” I said tentatively, walking up to the bench.
Like I’d said magic words, his face lit up into a beautiful wide, warm smile. His head was meticulously shaved – making his fluff of a brown beard all the more pronounced. What had looked like simple robes from a distance were full of layers and detail.
“Do you mind if I join you, Father?”
“Oh.. no – of course,” he said scooting over on the bench, “I’m a Friar. Friar William.”
I explained how I’d noticed him the previous Monday, and found out about the Friars in the house in the neighborhood.
“I am usually out seeing people but on my way home I always stop here. I usually take jam sandwiches up to the homeless that rest up in the rail yards. But the dogs are God’s creatures as well, so it does my heart good to stop and watch. A dog wouldn’t work out well in fraternal life, particularly if I am the only one that wishes for a dog. So this is my time to enjoy their energy.”
“I brought you a coffee. Do you like coffee?”
“I am called to poverty, chastity, and obedience. , but I can still enjoy a cup of coffee, yes.” he said with a warm smile, taking the cup from me.
“Do you have a dog?”
“I used to – and to be honest, since he died I haven’t spent a whole lot of time watching the dogs here.”
“Isn’t it interesting how we render things that used to be so central to our life, invisible when they no longer hold that special place?”, he said, unintentionally mirroring the conversation with my coworker.
It rendered me silent for a moment. Was I that blind to the world around me?
“I had never noticed you before, how long have you been in the neighborhood? How many of you are there?”
“We’ve been here a few years. We originally began in the Bronx. We are just eight of us – and we spend a lot of time out amongst the poor on the street, we open a soup kitchen once a week and have a pantry of donated clothes. What we do is very simple as we rely on mostly donations for our own livelihood as well as what we can provide the vulnerable.”
“I am little embarrassed to realize that I’d never noticed ya’ll here in the neighborhood. A coworker suggested since I don’t look to charities for food or shelter, that it had rendered ya’ll invisible. Maybe I’m just not a very observant person.”
“I’d like to think that finding the fraternity and serving as we do, makes sure that others that might be less visible become our shining and clear focus,” he said with a chuckle, “The homeless here are an interesting lot, they still live in this beautiful city. but they struggle with addictions and battles that many of us will never know or understand. I learn so much from them. I had a homeless man explain to me plainly one day that being invisible was an important skill. It makes people more comfortable about the homeless. We are only eight men, but we do what we can. So don’t be too hard on yourself – it is part of how the world works. It doesn’t make it “good” or “bad” whether you can see the homeless or a friar on a bench – or even simpler, see the dogs in the park on the way home. Human nature lets us all use invisibility in our own way.”