Sharing spirituality with the chronically homeless taught me to trust the future to God

Estimated read time 5 min read

Imagine reading the Gospel and sharing a eucharist in a beautiful waterfront park. Having intellectual discussions with your friends about what it was like to be an apostle learning from Christ’s words and deeds. You might be surprised with who that experience was shared. Sharing a ministry with the homeless reminded that none of us can fully control our own destiny. We must trust that to God.

Christian tradition drawn from scripture tells us that all of mankind are children of God equal in His eyes. Christ in his ministry always focused on the poor, the outcast, the shunned and isolated. In fact in Matthew 19:21, Jesus says, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me”

For some years starting about 15 years ago I was a lay missionary volunteer to St. George’s Episcopal Church in Riviera Beach, Florida. This approximately 130 year old community had seen many changes since the early days of pioneer settlements to create a small port and fishing village. Like most of the American south it was a segregated community with a majority African American population. For a decade before my arrival the small church had lost a steady congregation of working class folks including Bahama immigrants, African-Americans, and lower income marine workers. Over time the waterfront has become increasingly gentrified from its origins as fishing shacks to multi-million dollar condominiums.

Surrounding Episcopal Churches in cooperation with other faith groups basically transformed the church into a charity mission with the major function being giving meals and support to a population of homeless persons numbering in the hundreds in the winter season. Large areas of waterfront beaches, parks, and industrial areas mixed with a poor inner city environment provided them with lots of hiding places to sleep and hide from law enforcement.

For a time the part of me trained as a neuroscientist tried to see homeless as an illness. There were certainly some folks down on their luck without employment for which homelessness was temporary but for most of them beginning in early adulthood it become a chronic acceptable social adaptation. Many times family ties where severed. What substituted for family was a “code of the street” where upon information about resources was shared and a nonconfrontational attitude to one another mostly but not always existed among fellow homeless. They lived day to day carrying out routines for survival such as where they got their food or where they slept.

As a voluntary missioner I saw them frequently at meals or when they needed clothes or something else at St. Georges. We had a very small church that barely held fifty people and I tried to get them interested in church. Doing a free breakfast on Sundays after church service afterwards did help but sometimes they just wanted to eat and run. They were used to volunteers providing food and other necessities but I sense they did not feel that they were seen as equals to the charity givers.

I had requested to be visiting eucharist lay minister and had begun to do so with the Bishop’s permission for a few elderly in the neighborhood. Also I would lead daily prayer sessions from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer at St. Georges with poor attendance by the homeless.

How the idea come in my mind to share eucharist outside in a nonconfined space with the homeless I cannot exactly recall. I spoke with the local Riviera Beach police, representatives of the mayor’s office, and the Priest in Charge, Rev. MacManus. Everyone agreed that we could do it at Phil Foster Park on the Intercostal Waterway one day during a weekday.

Once a week at about eleven in the morning about ten to fifteen homeless mostly men would meet with me at a picnic table. We would read the scripture together and then have discussion about the readings. Many of my new found friends remembered going to church as children. They related to Jesus as someone who wandered like them trying to live day to day. Sometimes the discussions would go on for an hour or two while we shared soft drinks and chicken after the eucharist. I saw them as friends who have chosen to live in a different way. It was not my duty to criticize or belittle them. They were children of God’s making and in that way no different then me.

Those times were some of the most spiritual I have ever shared. Often they shared insightful experiences of spirituality. They did not worry about tomorrow and did not seek to have many possessions. This reminded me of Matthew 6:26 which says, “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them”. Then continues, “Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?”, Jesus teaches us that gathering possessions and material wealth is not important. This rang true for my friends.

I am not idealizing their chosen of way of living but on the other hand I do wonder if those of us living “conventional lives” are too dependent on our material wealth and too sure we can control our destiny. Many of us fall into a pattern of what is called “the illusion of continuity” where we think can control everything that happens to us. Can we learn something about trusting God to care for us from the homeless?

Unfortunately our weekly times together came to an end when I decided to answer another call to start a medical ministry in Ethiopia.

Professor Tony Magana

Dr. Tony Magana is Professor Emeritus in Neurosurgery who spent many years doing international teaching and research including 10 years in Ethiopia. Over the past 15 years he concomitantly intensified his Christian faith through study and worship through the Episcopal Church. He grew up in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. Attended Texas A&M University, Harvard Medical School, and trained at the University of Miami. Additionally he took the University of South Education for Ministry as well as attending the Southeast Florida Episcopal Diocesan School for Christian Studies.
Professor Tony Magana, a seasoned neurosurgeon, has not only dedicated his life to medical practice but also embarked on a profound spiritual journey. Over the past 15 years, he has deepened his Christian faith through study and worship within the Episcopal Church. His experiences span international teaching, research, and a decade of service in Ethiopia
Dr. Tony Magana’s writings blend faith, compassion, and wisdom, inviting readers to explore the intersection of spirituality and the human experience. His journey serves as an inspiration for those seeking deeper connections with faith and humanity.

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