While plugging a parking meter in downtown Green Bay recently, I heard the voice of someone walking in my direction. I initially didn’t know if the man’s words were directed at me.
“How much did they get you for the tire?” he asked, drawing closer.
I soon recognized Thomas. We met this past Thanksgiving Day. I had been downtown that day as well. A family member on the way to our home had a flat tire, so I drove to Jefferson Street with a plan to put on the spare. My youngest son joined me.
Many of you can probably relate to one of the issues in our task. The small jack provided with the spare tire didn’t have a very sturdy base. Thomas was on the corner across the street. He carried a backpack, a large duffl e bag, a blanket and a box — his belongings. He walked over and offered to help. Thomas supported the vehicle near the jack, to prevent it from slipping. Unfortunately, the fl at tire was so tight that we could not remove it. A tow truck was called.
I thanked Thomas for his help. He shared a story before crossing the street to stand near his belongings about a flat tire he had experienced on a truck he once owned. I knew that the arrival of the tow truck was at least a 30-minute wait, so I crossed the street to talk with my new acquaintance.
“Homeless,” “unhoused” and “unsheltered” are debated terms used to describe those without a physical address. I don’t know all the details about Thomas’ situation, but I think it’s fair to say that he’s living on the margins.
That day, he did most of the talking. I listened. I learned that he lived and worked in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Work involved weeks away from home. His marriage fell apart and he told me that his children “hate” him and have not spoken to him for years because he was never around. He described a physical altercation at a bar with another patron that led to a criminal charge. The incident should have been well in his past, he said, but missed court dates created additional charges. It was his story to tell.
I wished him well as the tow truck arrived. I appreciated his assistance that day and the conversation. I will forever be amazed that he recognized me nearly two months later.
Years ago, I likely would not have connected with Thomas. Through writing stories about homeless shelters and services for those on the margins and by participating in eff orts such as StreetLights Outreach, a ministry of presence for those on the streets of Green Bay, I’ve learned the value of simply listening to those in need.
The other day, I was reminded of Thomas while reading a story about the 2023 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington, D.C. About 500 people attended the event, which featured the theme “Blessed are the Peacemakers.” I was struck by the words of Auxiliary Bishop Bruce Lewandowski of Baltimore who spoke at the gathering.
Jesus’ friendships were “with people on the margins, the outcasts, (who) broke the rules,” he said. “Jesus calls everyone friend.”
Bishop Lewandowski explained that Jesus’ friendship “makes heaven possible for those with no hope, no future, perhaps no friends, those on the margins, those set apart, those who are lost.”
“I know it seems a bit simplistic to reduce Jesus’ ministry to friendship, but I think sometimes we make things too complicated,” he added.
A national television news story about everyday heroes echoed Bishop Lewandowski’s message. One of the networks rebroadcast a past story about a soup kitchen volunteer in Philadelphia, in connection to the Eagles playing in the upcoming Super Bowl on Sunday, Feb. 12.
The woman acknowledged that most people cannot donate monetarily or volunteer time to support the meal program, but everyone can take a short moment during the day to think about those on the margins.
It’s a simple request. I often think about Thomas, my friend.