By Ed Harpring
“Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs, or anything else — God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.” – Pope Francis
Recently I attended the burial service of a homeless man and friend known to many as Guido. He taught me a valuable lesson about what Pope Francis talks about a lot — “seeing the person first.”
I met Guido downtown while doing “sidewalk counseling” at the local abortion facility. Several of us attempt to talk to expectant mothers about pro-life alternatives as they enter for abortions five days a week.
Guido, a street person and homeless man, began showing up regularly during the 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. time frame over 15 years ago as we were counseling on the sidewalk.
Guido fit the description of many homeless men and women we have all met from time to time. His shoulder-length charcoal hair was oily and unwashed. He wore tattered clothing most of the time, revealing his bony ankles that were many times open to the cold biting winter weather. Guido was not a fair-weather street person.
He was on the sidewalk year round — rain, cold, heat or sunshine. He had several opportunities to live in homeless shelters, but most of the time he simply preferred the freedom of the streets to the rules of a shelter.
He could be engaging and quite entertaining. He would bring much needed humor to a place that none of us really wanted to be.
Guido was the king of the downtown thrift shops because he brought a constant supply of trinkets, toys and other unusual “collectibles.” He would sometimes bring baby dolls and set them at the foot of the door (to the clinic) or bring us religious pictures, statues and books.
He dressed in a wild assortment of clothing — unique hats, mismatched shoes, sunglasses, hospital scrubs, a woman’s mink coat and cowboy hats. We cringed and laughed as he brought a child’s out-of-tune pink guitar and played several of his rock and roll favorites, without a chance of hitting a true musical note.
Yet despite his clowning, and silliness, Guido prayed with us on occasion. He shared with me many times that he prayed early in the morning before we even got there.
We had given him a rosary that he usually wore around his neck and said that he couldn’t remember all the words he heard us pray, so he made up his own prayers for his rosary.
What I found most intriguing about Guido was the fact that he rarely complained about his plight in life or his homelessness. Instead, he wanted to know how you were doing and what you were up to — a street person caring more about others than himself. He would always notice the way I was dressed on Fridays because it was “dress-down” day at work.
He would say, “Hey little buddy, you’re dressed casual today. Are you going to work?” And he would always ask about Donna Durning, one of the other sidewalk counselors.
“Where’s the little red-haired lady? I need to talk to her,” he would ask. Donna was his best friend on the sidewalk, and she would take Guido out to breakfast or lunch on many occasions, which he always looked forward to.
And yes, he occasionally asked for money, but we always had an agreement that he would buy food or coffee with it. He demonstrated his commitment by going across the street to Subway or White Castle.
I had some engaging conversations with Guido, at times about God, his attempts to get off the street and his thoughts on abortion and the need to defend life. A few times, Guido quit drinking, but he never made any noticeable progress to get off the street.
Looking back, I realize I still subconsciously viewed and labeled him first and foremost as a street person without much of a future or hope.
But this perception of Guido changed a few weeks ago, only a few weeks before he died.
We were talking one day and he told me a story that astonished me.
Several years ago, Guido said, he was at the abortion center early, probably about 6:15 a.m. None of us were there yet, except Guido and a young mother waiting for the doors to open.
Like Guido does with many of us, he began a friendly conversation with her. After a few minutes, he asked the pregnant mother if she was there for an abortion. When she said she was, Guido asked her, “Why not go next door to A Woman’s Choice Pregnancy Resource Center and check them out first?”
He told her that she should give her baby a chance to live, and after all, they would do a free ultrasound and provide almost any kind of help for single mothers.
Somehow, she was disarmed by Guido, a homeless person with no agenda.
Guido, seeing her as a real person and her baby as a gift, changed her heart. She actually went next door to the Pregnancy Resource Center for the ultrasound.
About two years later, Guido said, he was at a grocery store and that same mother recognized him (you would never forget Guido). She told him that she decided to keep her baby that day.
But, there was even more to the story. She said that Guido not only helped her to choose life for her baby girl, but that baby girl had a twin sister, as well.
Suddenly, with this implausible life-saving story sinking in, I was awakened to the realization that I was now seeing Guido not as a hopeless street person.
I was seeing Chris Boyer (his real name), a man who had a wife and two daughters, a man who served our country in the Navy and a man whose life, although drastically troubled with homelessness and addiction, was also still unconditionally loved by God.
And even though he may have been out of society’s sight most of his life, he was never out of God’s sight. It showed me that God can work through anyone he chooses.
Last Thursday, Guido was buried at Meadowview Cemetery, a cemetery mostly for indigents. But this homeless person did not die alone. There was life present there. Fifteen of us who are sidewalk counselors and friends of Guido were present, along with a dozen or so young men from St. Xavier High School and the St. Joseph Arimathea Society.
I commend these students for their ongoing commitment to the value and sacredness of human life by sacrificing their personal time to provide a dignified burial for so many of our homeless, including my friend Chris Boyer. May he rest in peace.
Ed Harpring is pro-life coordinator for the Archdiocese of Louisville.