From just looking at Brother Michael Ignatius, one wouldn’t suspect it. But the 61-year-old Carmelite is homeless.
For several months, his bed was a bench on a bike path near San Diego International Airport. Later, he discovered that he could get a few hours of sleep every night by taking a round trip on the San Diego Trolley’s Green Line.
And there were times when he was so hungry that he scrounged for food in dumpsters. Experience taught him that those in the Point Loma area were the best, because they often contained fresh seafood.
Brother Michael, a postulant with the Carmelite Order, voluntarily embraced homelessness as part of a one-man ministry to those living on the streets.
“Honestly, I really don’t know why I’m doing it, except for I get so much joy from doing it,” he said.
Last summer, he was working at a soup kitchen in Denver, when he felt called to serve the homeless in a more radical way. In conversation with his spiritual director, he realized what this would require.
“I needed to become homeless,” he said. “I needed to go through what they go through.”
Widowed nine years ago after almost 29 years of marriage, and with his four children already grown to adulthood, there was nothing to hold him back. He gave away essentially everything he owned. Last June, he boarded a bus to Los Angeles with his few remaining possessions, a handful of items that included a Bible, a breviary, a backpack, three changes of clothes, a sleeping bag and a blanket. After a trek north to Santa Monica, he embarked on a six-week journey by foot to San Diego, arriving there in early August.
Along the way, Brother Michael relied entirely on God’s providence — and his trust was constantly rewarded. He recalled occasions on which strangers or newfound acquaintances gave him money without his even asking; once, praying for food after going three days without it, he found a coconut lying in the beach sand and a bag of limes that had washed up on shore.
“This is the way God has been this entire journey of mine,” he said. “Anytime there was a need, it was provided.”
Brother Michael said that his is “an evolving ministry.” At the outset, there was no fixed plan for all that it would entail. But, by being open to God and the opportunities that He has presented, the ministry took shape.
During the day, he encounters people of all sorts, including young adults discerning what to do with their lives, older people who envy his freedom, Christian street preachers to whom he shares his Catholic beliefs, and, of course, the homeless themselves.
For him, engaging in ministry can be as simple as spotting a homeless person on the street and striking up a conversation. Sometimes, his interlocutor will ask if he can spare a few bucks.
“I don’t have any money, but I do have a passage for you from Scripture,” he will tell them, pulling out his Bible, reading a few verses, encouraging them to reflect on the meaning of those divinely inspired words, and concluding by asking if he can pray for their salvation.
Sometimes, at fast-food restaurants, he will pick up discarded receipts that include a “Buy one, get one free” coupon. By offering to share that second meal with a fellow homeless person, he has found yet another way to start conversations.
He has become so familiar with the homeless community that he can tell who is new to the area and who has been there for months. He recognizes their faces and, in many cases, knows their names and their stories.
Through his personal appearance, Brother Michael hopes to come across as the sort of person to whom others would feel comfortable talking. A cross and a scapular are the only telltale signs that he is a religious brother.
But, while he tries to blend in with his homeless brothers and sisters, he draws the line at growing unruly facial hair, looking dirty or wearing unclean clothes. He has made an effort to find those public places where he is able to shower regularly.
“I try never to look soiled, or beaten, or worn,” he said.
Brother Michael believes that many of the local homeless are unaware of the wide array of services available to them or how to receive them.
He recounted how he had been walking down C Street one day and saw two homeless men sitting on the sidewalk with a sign that said they were hungry and needed help. They were unfamiliar with the many local soup kitchens and didn’t know that, only a few blocks away, they could sign up for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which would enable them to purchase groceries. After Brother Michael helped them sign up, the man named Jerry was so grateful that he hugged and kissed him.
While conversing with the homeless, Brother Michael also tries to connect them with organizations that will nourish their souls as well as their bodies. He will often invite them to join him for Sunday worship at one of the many churches he has come to know. Because not all of the homeless are Catholic, he has established relationships with Christian pastors and churches of various denominations.
As part of his own spiritual routine, he prays the Divine Office and tries to attend Mass daily. He spends an average of three hours a day in prayer. This coming October, he hopes to take vows as a novice.
Full story at The Southern Cross.