No food. No money. No phone. A group of 26 men — including 22 members of the Knights of Columbus — hit the Austin streets in an elemental manner. For three days and two nights in March, they set aside comforts, carrying only a backpack with toiletries, medicine and a sleeping bag. They slept outdoors and made cardboard signs to beg for money to buy food.
The first such “street retreat” took place in 2003, organized by Alan Graham, a member of St. John Neumann Council 10836 in Austin and founder of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a nonprofit serving the city’s homeless. Since 2006, this retreat experience has become an annual rite of passage required of all candidates enrolled in the diaconate formation program in the Diocese of Austin.
“When men follow the words of Jesus to take ‘no food, no sack, no money in their belts’ (Mk 6:8), we have found that a great outpouring of grace takes place in their lives,” explained Deacon Guadalupe Rodriguez, associate director of the formation program and a member of St. Mary Cathedral Council 14055 in Austin.
Together with a team of three other permanent deacons, Rodriguez ate, slept and begged alongside the candidates, shepherding them through the long hours in which the men saw life from a new perspective.
“A lot of these men are very successful engineers, doctors, lawyers,” explained Rodriguez, who has helped organize the retreats since 2013. “But on the streets they learn to be very vulnerable, to depend on the Lord.”
The men began each day with Mass at St. Mary Cathedral and then fanned out to intersections with their handmade cardboard signs. They met with people living in “tent cities” and ate most meals at a homeless shelter. The group also spent time together talking about their experiences and praying during a daily Holy Hour. At 10 p.m. each night they evangelized by handing out rosaries and pamphlets in Austin’s busy entertainment district.
The sting of casual dismissal was the toughest part of the weekend for Robert Tavarez, a charter member of St. Vincent de Paul Council 13927 in Austin.
“Rejection after rejection after rejection — everybody walks past,” Tavarez said, describing his experience panhandling as well as attempting to share the faith and hand our rosaries. “It was very saddening that so many people did not care.”
Nevertheless, Tavarez found the group discussions with his fellow retreatants fruitful.
“Hearing what they encountered, how God touched them, how the Holy Spirit was driving them was very inspirational,” he said.
Hector Medrano, a member of Father O’Gallagher Council 4868 in Smithville who manages the landscaping around the State Capitol, said that living homeless for a weekend has made him rethink his relationship with material possessions.
“All of the things that we think we need … we don’t need them,” he said. “I didn’t need a bed. I didn’t need anything at all. It was a great experience. I felt like I was living as a disciple of Christ.”
An immigrant from Mexico, Medrano recounted a striking encounter he had with a homeless man who is in the process of becoming a citizen.
“He told me his story coming from Slovenia to Germany and then the United States,” Medrano recalled. “And he also told me he inherited a bad habit, which he is working on. I was so humbled because he asked me to pray with him about it, and it was just beautiful.”
Kyle Hammons joined the Knights in 2002, right out of high school. A member of Rockne-String Prairie Council 12642, he said the weekend retreat opened his eyes and heart to the homeless.
“They have a voice. They cry out and who listens? As Christians, as children of God, we all need to listen to one another,” he said. “One of the most profound things from the weekend is just the simplicity of God and the fact that he is love. Being among the homeless was just such a blessing. We’re God’s children, and we’re all connected.”
Although taking to the streets may seem extreme to some, Deacon Rodriguez said the men have never suffered any accidents or significant problems while on retreat.
“The benefits and blessings that a man discovers by relying on God, divine providence, outweigh the risks and the dangers,” he said.
Noting that “deacon” comes from diakonia, the Greek word for service, Deacon Guadalupe added that the Church’s documents about diaconate formation say that a man who wants to be a deacon should have a natural inclination toward service.
“And you see that natural inclination to serve in the Knights, even before they’re called to be a deacon or even to be a priest,” he said. “That’s just a beautiful connection of how Knights are bearing fruit in the Church.”
FRED AFFLERBACH is a freelance journalist and a member of St. Margaret Mary Council 7600 in Cedar Park, Texas.
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