The National Catholic Review
Drew Christiansen

We buried Joe Hacala two days short of his 62nd birthday. Joe’s last job was as president of Wheeling Jesuit University. It was a natural fit, because Joe was a native West Virginian, deeply committed to his home state and the poor people of the Appalachian region. Joe and I came together in Washington in 1991. He had recently joined the bishops’ conference to head the staff of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. I arrived shortly after to direct the Office of International Justice and Peace.

 

There were four Jesuits on staff then, with three of us heading offices. We were good-humoredly warned not to take lunch together lest someone smell a conspiracy. Half the year Joe and I commuted to work together. The other half Joe was on the road, handing out grants for C.C.H.D. (driving in the East and flying to the West), and I took the Metro to work—most uncomfortably, wearing my tight white collar in Washington’s torrid summer heat.

The scriptural Rosary at Joe’s vigil was interspersed with the mourners’ reminiscences of Joe. Never one to leave the last word to others, Joe wrote a letter to his friends as he lay dying that was distributed at the funeral.

My own favorite recollections of Joe have to do with his love of the poor. He taught me how to relate to street people. For Joe, a casual meeting with a beggar on the street was always an encounter. “Hello, brother, how ya doin’?” he would ask. Then there would follow a short exchange. The point was never just to pass along some pocket money, though that did happen. It was to meet the person eye-to-eye, acknowledging his or her dignity. That was followed by, “God bless ya, bro’; God bless you, sista’. Say a prayer for me.”

Leonard Neale House, where we lived, was located in the DuPont Circle area of Washington. In the early 1990’s the neighborhood was only partially gentrified. Street people were still a part of our life. They were an especially big part of Father George Dennis’s life. George, now in the Jesuit infirmary at Los Gatos, Calif., is one of the world’s leading Byzantine historians. But George had two other ministries, one to middle-class teens in Upper Northwest Washington and the other to street people downtown.

A cyclist, George pedaled round the city and got to know the bicycle messengers who, along with the street people, hung out in the park surrounding the DuPont fountain. At that time we had a strange phone system at Neale House. When it rang, it sounded in every private room in the house, all 14 of them. When the phone rang at 2 or 3 in the morning, you knew it had to be for George. A street person or a messenger would be calling from the local police precinct or the emergency room of a hospital looking for George’s help.

Perhaps because of George, the street people knew the fathers lived at the corner of Riggs and New Hampshire, and panhandlers would come knocking at the door. At one point, their visits were so frequent they provoked a crisis. How to respond to needy callers became a topic at our community meeting. Each of us had his own style for dealing with the needy; we found no policy on which everyone could agree.

On the street, my custom was to empty my pockets of change, and, after walking some with Joe, hold a short conversation and offer a prayer. When a petitioner came to the door, I would go into the kitchen and quickly make a sandwich for him. George, a taciturn man of action, kept his own counsel, but there was no doubt that of all of us he was closest to the people calling at the door.

When it came to callers, Joe became a social work bureaucrat. He kept cards in his wallet listing all the neighborhood shelters in the city. He would hand one to the caller and, especially in the winter, offer to drive the needy individual to the nearest or most suitable shelter.

Love of the poor is a special mark of discipleship, but deeply committed people will have different ways of showing their love. Some work in kitchens or overnight shelters. Others may work for living-wage laws, help unionize low-wage workers or promote fair trade products. Yet others may tutor or teach night classes. A few, like Catholic Workers, choose to live with the poor. What’s important to Christian moral development is not only to find our own style of commitment, but to test it regularly, so it grows and evolves, making greater space for the poor in our hearts and in our lives. Then the gift of pocket money turns into a conversation, the conversation into mutual prayer, and prayers into accompaniment at the bedside or prison cell.

Drew Christiansen, S.J., is editor in chief of America.

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