A man without a home helped him map out his sabbatical, a man without a home showed him the face of compassion, and a man without a home suggested all of us — all of us — are beggars.
Even Paul Mast, a native of Delaware and a priest in the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington. The 68-year-old encountered these men and many others during a six-month sabbatical spent in search of those who have no home as he embraced the title of “contemplative beggar.”
That wasn’t his first plan. He had no plan really for this sabbatical, only to pursue something he was not accustomed to doing as a way to address a recent diagnosis of early-stage memory loss. The theory was that by living outside of his normal routine, his mind could map new pathways and, perhaps, slow the decline and recover function.
It was Dwayne, an Iraq War veteran begging for money near a Washington, D.C., train station, who shaped Mast’s sabbatical plan. When they talked, Mast told him about the time he would soon have for reflection and asked if the man had a suggestion. Sure, he said. Find and listen to those who are homeless.
Mast took that recommendation, gathering lessons and stories in Wilmington, San Francisco, Dallas, New Delhi, Munich, Milwaukee, and Hawaii. He wrote about his experiences in a self-published, unedited book, “Street Sabbatical,” released last month by CrossBooks.
Though his travels sometimes took him to shady areas, he was never threatened by anyone, he said. He was never assaulted. What he encountered more often was the neglect, abuse, and ridicule directed at the homeless.
He found confidence in humming a Catholic hymn to himself: “Be not afraid, I go before you always. Come follow me and I will give you rest.”
Many of Mast’s street encounters were with panhandlers, the modern name for beggars.
Panhandlers can be intimidating, may use whatever money they get to buy drugs or alcohol, and many lie about their true circumstances to evoke sympathy.
But Mast chose not to define his responses that way, opting instead to talk to those who asked him for money.
“I deleted the voices that asked, ‘Am I being taken for a fool?'” he said. “And when I deleted those, I was able to grow compassion.”
His first response, “Hello, my name is Paul,” was to give his name, at least. Then he asked how much they needed and what the money would do for them.
The answers varied. It might buy a bus ticket or a sandwich. He hardly ever gave money out, he said, but he would put money on a subway card or look around for a nearby “canteen, 7-Eleven, bodega or whatever.”
One time, he took a man into a shop to order a sandwich and later, after they parted, he saw the man split the 12-inch turkey sub and give half to another man.
He learned much from these encounters, he said, and especially from those willing to share their stories. One man, Anthony, whom he met in San Francisco, told him he had never been spoken to respectfully on the streets, where he had been begging for four years after losing his construction job.
“I have never had anyone like you introduce yourself to me by name or give me a handshake,” the man said. “I have never spoken my name or had a conversation with people who give me change. They offer it, then walk on. I’m only visible to them for a few seconds.”
Mast, a priest in the Wilmington diocese since 1972, usually explained his quest to those he spoke with.
He took a different approach at the Friendship House shelter known as Andrew’s Place in Wilmington. He spent two nights there last November at the suggestion of Bill Perkins, its director, who said living the life for a few days might offer a different perspective.
For a while, no one but Perkins knew Mast’s identity or purpose while he slept in a bunk bed at the shelter and kept his belongings in a small locker.
“When he first came in, I interviewed him like everyone else,” said John Owens, manager of Andrew’s Place for the past 17 years. “My boss knew, but he didn’t tell me right then. We did everything like I do for everyone else. The first night, he just observed everything. The second night, he started talking to the guys and talking to me.
“He was not intrusive, not trying to get anyone’s life story. And when I found out who he was, I knew he went about it the right way. He wasn’t trying to get any secrets out of them or preach to them.”
Mast awakened with the men early on Thanksgiving morning, and left at 5:30 a.m. for a 15-minute walk to Friendship House on Walnut Street for coffee and doughnuts. Staff and volunteers at both sites treated him with warmth and respect, he said.
Mast revisited Andrew’s Place this month, finding several men who had been in the shelter when he was there.
He spoke to them briefly, told them about the book, thanked them for the lessons he learned from them, and promised to send T-shirts.
In most encounters, Mast asked the people he spoke with what they wanted others to know.
“Tell them that if they don’t trust me with money, a greeting or wishing me a good day means just as much,” a man said.
“Tell them to look beyond the mess that is me and find God hidden somewhere inside,” a former crack addict said.
“Tell them I didn’t plan to make this my life,” another man said. “I have so few people believing in me the drugs sometimes win.”
He collected many lessons, he said. Among them:
- Good things happen when the inner voice of fear is turned down and the inner voice of trust is turned up, “enabling two beggars to bond through the power of storytelling.”
- The more comfortable you are as a beggar yourself, the more at home you are with the God hidden in the homeless who beg.
- Having fewer things means more contentment.
- Not every house is a home.
- If you want to address the problems of the homeless, ask them for input.
- You can find spiritual direction from a beggar on the street.
- Compassion is a game changer.
- One lesson, especially, pulled them all together, Mast said.
- “Practice is a contemplative attitude toward life,” he said. “‘Don’t walk by this person,’ God says. ‘I’m hidden there and you will miss me.'”
Information from The News Journal of Wilmington, Delaware.