One day, while I was consumed with meeting a particular deadline and trying to reply to endless emails, I glanced up and noticed a man in his mid-thirties eating his lunch. His hair was long; his face was unshaven; his clothes were not too clean. But what I noticed most were his eyes. They were this bright blue color, but they were watery and puffy. He looked as though he had just stopped crying. Initially, I wanted to stop what I was doing and talk to him, but I was so caught up in my own issues I didn’t have time for him—at least, that’s what I thought.
At one point, I left the office to get some much-needed air and a drink of water, only to be stopped by this man. He said, “Father, God bless you and the work you people do here.” I thanked him, and before I could ask him his name, he told me how we already knew one another. He looked deep into my eyes and I in his, and somehow I recognized him, but I wasn’t sure from where. What I was sure of, though: it wasn’t from the mission.
He looked at me and told me that his name was Sean. At that point, I paused. He reached out and hugged me, sobbing uncontrollably, and calling me by my secular name. At that moment, I realized who he was. When he was 14 years old, I was his primary care worker at a group home for troubled youths, which I had worked after I had graduated after university. I still couldn’t believe how our paths had crossed 24 years later. I invited him into the office. We sat down and caught up. He told me how his parents and grandparents passed away quite a few years ago, and he was now homeless and had nobody in his life, that is, except for drugs and alcohol.
For some reason, unbeknownst to him, he ended up at the mission. He had never been here before, nor did he even live in the area. It was at this point he reminded me of how, when he was 14, he considered me his big brother, and I was the only connection he had to his father, via our Greek roots. He told me that once I had left the group home to pursue my graduate work, he, too, left and went back home to live with his mother. Unfortunately, a year or so later she passed away from a drug overdose. As a result, he ended up living with his grandparents, but they, too, passed away a few years later.
At this point, Sean was 18. He had no education, no money, and no family. My heart just broke. I remembered him being an extremely bright and intelligent young man who had aspirations of joining the military, but his dreams never came true. He said after his mother died, he followed in her footsteps and got involved in drugs and then, in his words, it was downhill from that point.
Suddenly, during our conversation, Sean just couldn’t control his emotions any longer. He stood up and began to speak out loudly, directly to Christ. He said, “Father, I messed up my life. I messed up really bad. Please help me. I believe in you and know you love me, but I just can’t love back any more.” Sean then turned and hugged me, and just kept repeating, “I want to love God, but I can’t love back any more.” With that, he wiped his eyes and said he had to leave, but he promised that he would return one day.
Once he left, I sat alone in the chapel and felt a huge heaviness in my heart. I wondered how and when we failed Sean. The cross he was carrying was huge. Not only was he homeless and alone, but he also lacked love. More importantly, he knew God’s love for him, but didn’t know how to love him back. What surprised me, however, was that, in his struggles, Sean didn’t blame anyone except for himself. As a child, Sean was abused, and when I had met him, he had already been suffering greatly. I supposed I had hoped that he would have found healing all these years later.
While I was preparing a sermon the following week after I had met Sean, I came across a story that made this all too-real. There was a monk who despaired of the cross God had given him and complained about it constantly. God finally relented and offered him a chance to pick another cross. He led the monk into a room filled with several crosses from which to pick. The monk was appalled by what he saw: huge crosses, bloody crosses, crosses with nails. As he wandered through the room, he finally saw a small silver cross tucked away in the corner. He picked this cross, held it up, and said, “I’ll take this cross.” God simply replied, “But that is the cross you already had.” I thought to myself, “Do I embrace the cross God has given me or do I try to take salvation into my own hands?”
It’s been many months since the day Sean and I had met, and unfortunately he has never returned to the mission. I often look for him, hoping to see him, but I don’t. I do thank God for bringing him back into my life, though, even if it was only for 30 minutes. I especially thank God for reminding me that I was ordained to serve the people, not my laptop. And even though I often feel that my cross is heavy, I have to thank God for the light cross I actually do bear. I pray for Sean every day, and I pray that he is alive and well and that his cross gets lighter and that mostly he is able to love once again.