“Without cost you have received, without cost you are to give.”
My phone told me it was three degrees when I woke up at 7 A.M. This was the gospel reading at Mass, which seemed fitting as I prayed my holy hour afterward. Once I was done, I set to making the sign I had thought of just a few days before – a large white foam-board rectangle that read, “Free Blessings.” My friend Deacon Brian and I clumsily affixed a wooden handle to it with a combination of glue, nails, and duct tape, and then shoved it in the back of my truck.
We arrived at Holy Name Cathedral around 1:45 P.M. We offered a prayer inside and then made our way three blocks east to Michigan Avenue. From there we headed south, where we found a convenient place to set up shop away from the street performers and in front of a jewelry store. There were some cops standing on the corner, and if there was any doubt about the legality of what we were doing, all that was put to rest once one of them walked by and took advantage of the offer.
“What’s your name?”
“Officer Burns,” he said sternly.
“Is there anything specific you want to ask from God?”
He looked confused.
“How about safety?”
“Always safety. Every day.” His authority returned to him.
I prayed for him to God, and blessed him. He walked back to his confreres who were waiting for him and continued his beat.
The first few hours were very slow. It was cold, and people were shuffling by in hordes after walk signals were given. We held up our sign and invited people to stop. “It only takes a second! A blessing to keep you warm!” Many would glance to the side and read the sign, look down at us, and quickly return their gaze to the empty space in front of them. When we spoke directly to someone, they would often say, “Thanks” or “I’m already blessed.” Many couldn’t even be bothered to return a “hello” or “have a nice day.”
“I wonder if this is how God feels,” Brian said. We were cold, but we never felt discouraged. And the first few hours were not without their bright spots. Shortly after we arrived, a security guard came out of the jewelry store with four bottles of water – two in each hand. He walked out to us, and I asked if he wanted a blessing. He shrugged agreeably and backed in to the threshold, out of the cold. I gave him his blessing and he turned back inside.
A young couple with their baby bundled up in her stroller stopped and asked to have their family blessed. They were from out of town and were enjoying the life of the city. After a while the husband returned, looking lost. I didn’t recognize him, and I asked if he wanted a blessing. “I already got one, but now I’m looking for my family.” He didn’t seem too worried, though, and after a few minutes they passed by again, all together. This time the woman carried two cups with her: hot chocolate she had bought for us.
Brian and I joked with each other and laughed at the thought of what people were thinking. “What the heck are they doing out here?” We were not the only ones making fun of us, though. A rebellious looking twenty-something with three rings in his lip and a wild look in his eyes was passing by with his girlfriend. “Do you want us to bless you?” He veered off course and spread his arms to the side in dramatic fashion. He approached Brian and said cynically, “Yeah, I need to be saved.” Brian was calm as he started to pray: peace, joy, happiness, God’s love and embrace. The young man had continued his play acting by falling to one knee, but as Brian continued to pray, the sarcasm was slowly dispelled. Brian finished his blessing, and the man stood up. He didn’t have that frantic look in his eyes anymore. His girlfriend, who had been giggling at the man’s irreverence, now expressed sympathy for us, “You guys are gonna be so cold!” They both thanked us, and we wished them a Merry Christmas.
One young man came up to us eagerly, perhaps on a dare, while his friends stood back and took pictures. He asked me to pray for the Kentucky Wildcats.
“Anything for yourself?”
“No, just the Wildcats.”
Some fellow Catholics stopped and wanted to commend us on our courage and ingenuity. A self-proclaimed minister wanted to take our picture and put it on Instagram. A college kid in a Cubs hat stopped while his friends continued walking and bowed for a quick blessing. A man whose claim to fame was having Obama on his radio show was interested in having us on as well. He didn’t seem very interested in the blessing I gave him.
At one point something strange happened. While Brian was blessing a group of women, another group came up behind them. This was the only time all day that we had a line. I saw them out of the corner of my eye, and as Brian continued to pray, I turned to them.
“Are you waiting for a blessing?”
There were three of them, two young women and a child. The woman in the middle nodded her head. The little girl who held her hand could not have been more than six years old. I asked their names, and as I squatted down to meet the little one at eye level, she pulled her scarf down to tell me hers. The mother watched her with a smile on her face. I asked if they had anything in particular they wanted to ask for from God today.
“A home,” the woman said.
My heart sank, but I could not help feeling happy that they had asked me to pray for them. I realized they were probably not unused to waiting in line for blessings.
“Alright. Let’s pray that God gives you a home.”
After about two hours, Brian and I decided our toes needed a break. We walked back the way we came, while the oncoming foot traffic all peered up at the sign above my head. We passed by a homeless woman sitting on a stoop, huddled with her head almost at her knees. She wore a grey scarf over her hair and face, like women do in the Middle East, and her cardboard sign was mostly indecipherable aside from her name: “Saiam”. As we passed by, my heart pulled me toward her, so that I could not walk more than ten feet without calling out to Brian. I tried to talk to her, but she only knew enough English to tell us she couldn’t speak it. We gave her a coat someone had left outside my room. Maybe she could use it as a blanket. She signaled gratitude with her eyes and carefully folded it and put it in her backpack.
In front of the Cathedral a bus was unloading some well-dressed wedding guests. We walked in shivering with our sign, and an usher looked at it and said, “There’s a wedding in here.” We made our way to the side of the vestibule and warmed ourselves by the vent. I texted a friend and asked her to pray. We stood for about fifteen minutes, until all feeling had returned to our extremities, and then headed back.
This time we went north. We stopped just in front of Water Tower Place, near a scrolling ad marquee that flashed images of Kim Kardashian and half-naked models hawking cologne or something. Brian saw a young man sitting on the corner and decided to approach him. A few minutes later I followed. He looked very young. He had a scruffy half-beard that stuck out of the hood of his sweatshirt and three green dots tattooed next to his left eye. The cardboard sign at his knees said, “I need a miracle.” I stuck out my hand and introduced myself.
“I’m Deacon Connor.”
“Are you cold?”
“Meh, not really. It was really bad this morning.”
“Where do you stay?”
“Well, when it was still hot out I was just staying out here on the streets, but now I’m in an abandoned house with some people.”
He was only twenty-three years old. He had been on the streets since he was eighteen. He grew up in Cleveland, but he apparently hadn’t been back there recently. We offered to get him something to eat, but he wasn’t hungry.
“How about a cup of coffee?”
“Oh yeah, that’d be great actually. There’s a place right over there.”
We set to walking, and he told us about how he liked to play guitar and drums. He hadn’t played in over a year, since he had to “ditch his stuff” in North Carolina a while back. He opened the door to the coffee shop, and as the warm air hit his face, I could see his countenance change. “Oh man, that feels good.”
“We’re closed, guys!” The woman said behind the counter. Frank’s face fell again. I don’t know if it was the disappointment in our eyes or the two Roman collars and the dirty coat that Frank had on, but suddenly she changed her tone. “Wait, what do you want?”
“Coffee,” we said.
“Oh, go ahead.” She handed us three cups. I pulled out my wallet. “No, just take some. I’m about to throw it out anyway.”
Frank filled his cup to the brim, poured about six sugar packets in, and stirred it meticulously. I asked if he wanted to sit inside for a bit, but he said he had to get back to his stuff on the corner. As we walked back, he started to open up a bit. “My family and I are so different. I can’t go back home. They lock the door when they know I’m in town. It pisses me off, because I’ve never even stolen from them.” In the last five years he had been all over the eastern United States, but he had stayed here for the last five months. He said that Chicago was his favorite city.
As we got closer to his corner, we saw a young girl standing where he had been sitting. His backpack and blankets were there. He got excited, “Oh man, I was supposed to meet this girl. She’s so awesome. Sorry guys, I’ve gotta go. Thanks a lot!” The girl looked to be about nineteen. She was wearing sweatpants and a coat that wasn’t quite heavy enough for the weather. He looked happy to see her.
“That’s the reason he’s staying here,” Brian said.
We returned to our station with the sign, and suddenly things started to change. We still got the awkward glances, and not a few “I’m already blessed’s”, but people’s attitude seemed different. Santa Clause rode by on a bicycle and everyone, including us, waved at him. A big group of women smiled and said, “God Bless YOU!” People seemed happy we were there.
A young couple came up from behind me and looked at me very intently. The young woman had strawberry blonde hair and was very pretty. She stood right in front of me. The man beside her was Asian, and had a name I couldn’t pronounce. “Do you want a blessing?” I asked. She nodded and looked at me as if the question was superfluous. It was clear they didn’t know exactly what it all meant, but they wanted what I was giving away. They took it very seriously, and as I finished they thanked me and walked back in the direction they had come.
Another man came up who looked like he had rushed over from across the street. “Igor.” He didn’t speak much English, it seemed. I blessed him and he went on his way.
A group of black women were walking by and pointed at our sign. They smiled and paused for a second. They kept walking but not before yelling, “God bless you!” I smiled at them and turned toward a new group of pedestrians. Then out of nowhere one of the women came up to me. She had left her group to investigate. “What’s this you’re doing here?”
“I’m just praying for God’s blessing over whoever wants it.” Now two of her companions had joined her.
“Well we believe in JESUS!”
“Me too! So do you all want a blessing?”
“Yeah we do! And then we’ll bless you!”
I started to pray, and as I said the name of Jesus, the women said “Amen.” I started to say his name more often, and every time the “Amen” was louder. I felt the Spirit in me swell, and I could tell they felt it too. I just kept praying, and even asked God to heal the woman’s back and knees which she had complained about. The more daring the prayer, the more generous the blessing, the more excited the group got. “Lord you said that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed we could move mountains. Take this prayer as our act of faith, for we believe that with you nothing is impossible.
When I made the sign of the cross over them, they seemed only to know that it meant I was done, and before I could put my arm back down, all three of them grabbed it and started praying.
“Lord JESUS, we praise you. Lord JESUS, we thank you. Bless this man of God! Bless him with strength and courage, this man whom you told to hold a sign, a simple sign that speaks of your blessing, Jesus! Bless him in the name of JESUS!”
The sun had set by the time we left our post. We started back to the Cathedral, and on our way we saw Terry, a man we had prayed with earlier in the day. He was sitting on a stoop asking for money. “Hey, there are the deacons again!” he yelled from across the street.
“Hey, Terry. You staying warm?”
“Oh yeah.” His breath stilled smelled of booze. “Hey, can we say another prayer?” he asked.
Before we could agree, he closed his eyes and bowed his head. As he said the Holy Name, once, twice, three times, I heard in his voice the ladies who had grabbed my arm just minutes before, the arm I had used to bless dozens of people that day. He asked God to protect us. He never asked us for money.
We got back in my car, and Brian said a prayer of thanksgiving. As we drove back, I thought of Brian’s question: “I wonder if this is how God feels.” I wondered if He is sad to hear us say, “I’m already blessed.” I realized that I had come to try and move people to see things differently, but maybe God was trying to get me to see what he sees. I stood there waiting most of the time. I caught a few people’s eye, fewer said “Hi” or “Thanks”, but fewer still took any time whatsoever to see what this blessing business was all about. Those who did made me happy. I mean truly happy. I wanted to hug them. I wanted to kiss them. I wanted to tell them how much I loved them. I wanted to sit down with the homeless and hear their story. I had left the seminary that morning with dreams of preaching to throngs of people, but when I was in the midst of all those people, all I wanted was to love them.
The thing is, I could see myself walking by these two guys on my way somewhere, feeling cold, annoyed by the people walking slowly in front of me. I probably wouldn’t stop. I don’t blame them for walking by. I’d be one of those people waving and giving a vague “keep it up!”
Being ordained now, I’m starting to get what all this “in persona Christi” stuff means. It’s not me holding this sign, it’s not me wearing these clothes, and it’s not me giving these blessings. It’s Jesus. I’m Jesus. These feelings that are deeper than words are not even my feelings. It’s Jesus loving the world through me, like a furnace moving a turbine. Then who am I? I’m a deacon. And God told me to hold a sign.
Deacon Connor Danstrom is a student at Mundelein Seminary.