Last of a five-part fiction.
The story so far: Journalist Josh Ransom has realized he's spun a bit out of control after losing his job just before Christmas. To regain his bearings, he decides to check in with someone he admires.
'Josh! Good to see you!"
Sister Martha McGonagle zipped across the lobby and threw her arms around Josh Ransom as though he were her brother, not a cynical journalist she hadn't seen in years.
"Same here, Sister Martha," Josh said as he disentangled from the one person in his world he considered a surefire saint. Nothing against Martha, but Josh operated on a rule of "there's no hugging in journalism," akin to "there's no crying in baseball."
"Come, come, let me show you the place. You've never seen it, have you?"
Josh had in fact already toured the glistening building that rose incongruously from a tough, treeless street. But he couldn't resist Sister Martha's cyclonic enthusiasm. He felt guilty being there on false pretenses - not to write a story about how to help the homeless at holiday time, but to finagle Sister into shedding holy light on his dark dilemmas.
So he trooped dutifully behind as the nun, in jeans, sweatshirt, and close-cropped gray hair, showed off the wired classrooms, the plush media lab, and the noisy gym of the Peter House Digital Learning Center, a kids' haven from the gloom and threat outside.
"Come, Josh, I rounded up some friends to answer your questions."
Sister Martha bounded up a stairwell. She had to be in her late 60s but had the energy of a teenage gymnast. For four decades, she'd been applying Gospel joy (and Gaelic stubbornness) to the tasks of healing lives, outwitting politicos and bigots, and sweet-talking rock stars into pouring scads of money into her citywide network of transition houses and learning centers.
She was the real deal - a powerhouse of faith in horn-rimmed glasses.
Josh followed the nun into a bright classroom. Sitting at a table were three men.
"Guys, this is Josh Ransom. He's a journalist who's always been a great friend of Peter House and of mine."
"Hi," Josh said, feeling the full weight of his imposture.
Sister Martha prompted the three to "tell Josh a bit about yourselves." Isaiah and Thomas were the older guys, J.J. the younger one.
Each had endured homelessness this year. Each was now living in transition housing, attending regular "inspiration sessions" here, and working hard to get clean. The reasons they had lost their homes varied - a layoff, a breakup, a parental eviction for coming out as gay - but the thread connecting their stories was the poison of addiction.
Their tone was matter-of-fact - no self-pity, no dramatics, no grievances or alibis.
Isaiah's voice broke one time: "The love I've felt here at Peter House, the respect I've been given that I never got anywhere from anyone . . . I can't tell you . . . this woman," he pointed at Martha, "this woman . . . she and the others here, they save lives. They save lives with love."
Sister Martha waved her hand, "Oh, Isaiah, it's not me. It's not us. It's God working in you - and a little bit maybe through us. It's He who does it all."
"Each day is a blessing," Thomas said. "I'm just trying to be the man God wants me to be, finally, not the one I kept choosing to be."
"Ahhh, Thomas, I love how you put things. . . . So, guys, Josh here had a question that I thought you're better qualified to answer than me. Go ahead, Josh."
Josh wobbled through his question, feeling guilty and foolish: You've been on the streets; you've lived that desperation. What was it you wanted most from the well-dressed people hurrying by?
Isaiah: "Just acknowledge me. Just show me that little bit of respect that you see me as a human being. Just say hello."
Thomas: "We are each other's mirrors. The way you look at me reflects me back to me. Look at me like I'm invisible or like I'm trash, then I'm going to feel I'm trash."
Josh typed notes furiously on his MacBook - even though he wasn't writing a story.
"What about giving money?" he asked. "All the times I've walked the streets of this city, I'm still not sure what's the right thing to do."
J.J. raised his hand: "Dunno, man, seems like often that cash is just going to go right in someone's arm, or a pipe, or the State Store. People get robbed, too, a lot, the weaker ones."
Isaiah then: "True, true, but fact is, you get awful hungry out there, awful hungry. Want to make a difference, man, just take somebody into the store, buy 'em a sandwich, buy 'em some soup."
Sister Martha decided to jump in, sum up:
"You heard the guys, Josh. Above all, look people in the eye, acknowledge them, offer respect. Second thing, we've got little cards we got made up, anybody can carry them, see here" - she pulled one out of her pocket - "with all the vital phone numbers to get help. It's a big thing, to get them in touch with us or other people doing this work. If they just stay on the streets, we can't help them like we can here.
"Third thing, and this isn't perfect because sometimes the stores don't treat everyone with equal respect, but still, you could get a supply of gift cards, five or 10 bucks, from, like, your Wawas, your 7-Elevens. That's enough to make sure a person gets a cup of soup, a sandwich, something decent to eat."
Josh shook his head: "Wow, that seems so obvious. It makes sense; it's doable. I feel like an idiot for never having thought of that."
"So . . . uh, did you say, sir, you're a writer?" Thomas.
"Uh, yeah. That and I edit other people's writing."
"I write, too. Started here at Peter House. I try to start writing something coming out of our inspiration meetings, finish it up to read the next time. Want to hear my latest?"
"Uh, sure, happy to."
Thomas pulled a rolled-up pocket notebook out of his sweatshirt pouch. He began to read:
"We're not all from the same place, or in the same place. Some of us sleep on down, some on sidewalks. But whether we see it or not, we're all in this together. The walls between us, the walls that keep us from seeing each other, they are not as strong or high as we make them out to be. Walls can come down; wounds can heal. Things are not that hard to fix if you come from a place of love."
Thomas read some more, finished, closed his notebook, looked at Josh hopefully.
"You, my friend, can write - more than just a little bit. That's really, really good, Thomas."
"Really. In fact, I'd love to get a copy so that, if you'd like, only if you'd like, I could make a few little suggestions to help you perfect it."
"I write stuff, too," J.J. said. "Fact, most of us in the inspiration meeting do. Just didn't bring mine today."
"Well, I'd like to see that, as well."
"Tell you what, I just had an idea," Sister Martha said with a sly smile.
"Josh, could you come regularly to the inspiration sessions - it's Wednesdays 4 p.m. usually, for their group anyway - and maybe help the guys with their writing? Not everyone can write like Thomas, but some, if they could just talk to someone, tell their story to a person who knew how to write it down, that would be so good for them."
Josh felt the impostor's weight lift off his shoulders. "I could do that. I . . . I've got some time now."
Sister Martha squeezed his shoulders. "Deal! This is so great. So great. Ahh, look at the time. Guys, you need to get across the street for dinner and I've got to go change." She rolled her eyes. "Fund-raising party for Catholic Charities. Hate getting dressed up, but they help us fight the good fight."
As Josh reached the sidewalk outside, his cellphone launched into "Bad to the Bone." Christie calling.
He put the phone on speaker.
"Babe, where are you?" He could hear Wrigley barking in the background.
Fat snowflakes had begun to fall on North Philly; they plopped on the iPhone screen, glistened for an instant, then vanished.
"At Peter House. Just got done talking to Sister Martha."
" 'Bout what?"
"Maybe what I'm gonna do next in this life."
"I'll explain when I get home."
"Well, hurry. We have to get to McLains for the block Christmas party in 40 minutes. Where are you again?"
"Don't worry," Josh said. "I'm on my way home."
Epilogue. "OK, OK, who wants to go first reading what they wrote off of last week's prompt? Daniel, how 'bout you?"
Josh gestured at one of the six men sitting around a table at Peter House. Over three months of steady effort, he'd been able to seed enough trust among this writing group that its members rarely hesitated to read their work aloud.
Before Daniel could start, a door clattered open. Sister Martha's gray hair poked through:
"Josh, got room for a new writer? This is Wes; he just completed the welcome program with flying colors."
In other words, he'd begun the hard work of staying sober.
Josh turned as the newcomer edged across the classroom, knit hat clutched in front of him.
"Oh, my God," Josh murmured.
There was no doubt. Josh knew the man. For a frantic time, this face had haunted his days.
Wes was Charlie Parker - the street sage who months ago had eerily presaged Josh's firing.
Wes extended his hand: "Wesley Richardson. Pleased to meet you, sir."
The man's eyes, set deep in a lined but clean-shaven face, betrayed no sign of recognition.
Josh squeezed the hand, tamping down an urge to blurt, "But of course we've met before."
Instead, he said, "Welcome, Wes. Glad you're here. Daniel here is about to read. So grab a chair and settle in. In this group, we're all working to find our way home."
To comment on this holiday tale, contact the author at email@example.com. Thanks to Chris Krewson and the gang at BillyPenn.com for helping in the research for this story. Thanks and admiration always to Sister Mary Scullion of Project HOME - and to the men of St. Elizabeth's Recovery Residence in North Philadelphia for their generous candor.