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Extraordinary People - the Friars of NY

Recently I had the pleasure of joining my daughters in NYC for one of their more unique performances, where they played for a packed house at Catholic Underground, which is hosted by the Franciscan Friars of Renewal at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Manhattan. Normally we would stay in a hotel, but we were invited to stay at the friary, where we got a chance to get to know our hosts and get a taste of their humble but incredibly hospitable and gracious lifestyle.

I had the opportunity to interview two of the friars, Br Mark-Mary (far right in the picture above) and Br Malachy (center, in the back), and gained a peek into their extraordinary world and how they found their callings.

One of the rooms we stayed in at the friary.

Prayer schedule on a card in each room.

Super fun video of the friars playing basketball and rapping.

Br. Malachy, where did you grow up, and what was your family like?

I was born in Augusta, Georgia, my parents named me Larry, and I grew up in a large family with very religious parents. They both had experienced deep conversions in their lives through a movement called the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. I am the second of eight kids in my family; the first six were boys and last two were girls. The boys in my family were pretty wild and adventurous, so my childhood was filled with a lot of camouflage, tree forts, backyard wars and anything sports and outdoors you could do. We grew up hunting, fishing, camping - all the good redneck activities a southern boy should be involved in.

One great blessing was that my Dad was with us, teaching us, and leading some of our crazy adventures, like having bottle rocket wars on the 4th of July! Mom wasn’t so happy about that one, especially when one blew up under my youngest brother's bare foot (shoes were somewhat optional in the summer time). My mom was such a gift to us as well, with her faithful presence over so many years of loving service (tons of laundry and food) and more importantly, her spiritual impact. I can remember her and my Father leading us in family prayers and each night both of them blessing us and her kissing us goodnight. There were plenty of struggles with a large family, and I know it was a great sacrifice for my parents to have us all and raise us well, but I am grateful to God for them both and for my siblings.

Your teenage years took a dark turn into drugs and alcohol. How did you go from that to becoming a friar?

Even with all the blessings of my family life growing up, the teenage years were really tough for me. I wanted to know who I was, and I looked to others around me for the answer. A number of my friends got into the whole partying scene, and since I didn’t want to be left out, and it seemed like they all were having fun, I joined in. In high school you have to choose who your group is going to be, and I landed with the “skater-punk” crew. Since I wanted an identity, I went all in! I got the DC shoes, the punk-rock band t-shirts, the baggy jeans, chain necklaces and wallet chains, and of course I went everywhere on my skate board.

Unfortunately that road led to me being expelled from school because of problems related to drugs, which had become a part of my life. As I neared the end of high school I realized that I wasn’t as angry at the world as many of my punk-rocker friends were, and I didn’t like to fight all the time. So I made a big switch and jumped over to the hippy crowd. Since I was all in, I traded skater shoes for Chaco sandals, got tie-dye t-shirts, hemp necklaces, and I always had my hacky-sack with me. I was a new man! So I thought… The reality was that I was still searching for the answer to the question of who I was and all the outside trappings of a new look left me unsatisfied. So I tried to fill the void inside with more drugs and one relationship after another.

As I transitioned into college, I was living at home and my folks only made one request of me – that I go to Mass on Sundays. Free room and board for an hour a week investment seemed reasonable to me, and truth be told, I knew there was something to the whole God thing that I didn’t want to let go of completely. At one of those Sunday Masses I remember several seminarians got up before the final blessing to share their stories of how God had called them to be a priest. As one of them was speaking (and I was standing in the back annoyed at the delay on Mass ending) I heard in my heart a clear question, “Larry, would you be willing to be a priest for me, too?” It was so startling that I looked around for a moment and then I tried to shake it off, but it returned again to my thoughts. At that point I was freaked out and walked out early, jumped in my car, and drove away saying out loud, “I don’t know what that’s all about, but if that’s you God, I don’t want anything to do with you!”

Life took a definitive shift for me after that, and in the absence of a spiritual life, I scrambled even more to fill the void inside. The result was addiction and also a growing frustration with this voice that seemed to haunt me while I sought escape from the emptiness inside through pleasure. I knew something had to give and so I decided to leave town and live on the road following around rock bands in the southeast. My hope was that finally I would discover what I was looking for and have the peace my heart desired. A couple good buddies and I lived in a van and sold all-organic veggie burritos outside the concerts to make enough money to live off of. We were living the dream!

It was during one of the concerts that I experienced another invitation from God. I was dancing in the midst of a crowd with glow sticks flying, beach balls bouncing, a wild light show and amazing jam music going, when I found myself stopping and looking around in a moment of unanticipated sobriety and realizing that the joy I saw was a shell, and that the same emptiness in me was in them, and that I didn’t belong there. My heart knew God was calling me to come follow him, and at that point I gave a resigned, “Well, whatever it means it must be better than the hell my life has become.” Then I walked out and began a journey home to Augusta.

Though I had made a step towards God, I still was caught in the sins and addictions my life was filled with. Unsure of what to do next, a missionary priest who was home visiting after years in Africa called me up to ask if I wanted to have lunch. He was a family friend and knew some of my story from the urgent prayer requests of my mom. So we had lunch and I gave him the stock answers about my life plans and future that most college kids tell the aunts and uncles at family gatherings. As I was preparing to leave, however, he looked at me in the eyes and asked, “Is there anything else on your heart that you want to talk about, anything at all?” I felt like he was superman looking at my soul with x-ray vision! I couldn’t bear his gaze and quickly said no and bolted out the door. He was persistent though, and I again agreed to lunch, with the same routine and same response on my part. Finally, the third visit with him I said, “Yeah there’s a couple things.” We went and sat inside a room with a piano in it, and I began for the first time to open up my heart. Within a few minutes he asked, “Do you want to make this a confession?” I was already beginning to cry and said, “Sure that's fine.”

There I was after five years of not making an honest confession pouring out all the crap that was inside. When I finished I couldn’t raise my eyes. I was weeping and thought surely this guy must think I am the worst person he’s ever met. After all the blessings and gifts God gave me in my family. After knowing so much about Him, I had done’ so much to hurt Him and the people who loved me. In front of my face at that moment was a dark wall of shame and hatred for who I had become. Then I heard the last words I expected. The words of Jesus to me at that moment coming through this priest, “Larry, I always knew you had a wonderful heart.”

My heart was in shock, and I couldn’t believe those words as a sense of the overwhelming love of God washed over me. In so many things and different ways I had tried to find the answer to who I was and what my identity was. There in that confession Jesus revealed to me the deepest truth about who I am; I AM LOVED! He saw everything I hated about myself, and yet He loved. He knew all that darkness within, and still He loved me. This experience of unconditional love and the words of Fr. Ted as he absolved my sins broke something inside, and I was free and alive!

I seemed to float out of that room, and life looked like it was suddenly in High-def.

This new relationship of love with Jesus Christ truly brought me into a new life. A desire to pray emerged along with a hunger to know more about God. I stopped using drugs and shortly after stopped drinking, too. I moved away from unchaste relationships. I wanted to tell others about Jesus. It was crazy! And some of my friends thought I was nuts, had lost it, took a “bad hit” or maybe was doing it for a girl. They just couldn’t understand that I had met Someone who knew me better than myself and who loved me unconditionally. That Love was alive in me, and so I needed to respond to it.

The journey to the friars from that point is another story I think. But this encounter with the love of God in confession is where it all began for me. And what do you do when you fall in love – you give yourself totally to that person! I suppose that my religious vocation is just a continuation of my first attempts at responding to the love of God I experienced when I was 19 years old.

You friars serve the poor of New York City in various capacities. What exactly do you do?

Our community has two main missions it is involved in: evangelization and work with the poor. The friars began in NYC in 1987, moving into the South Bronx, or the Boogy-down BX as locals call it. Since then several ministries with the poor have developed both there and in the other houses we opened in the tri-state area. We have a homeless shelter that serves 35 men year round called St. Anthony’s Shelter for Renewal. We also run a youth program in the BX, Youth for Christ, which includes after-school programs for tutoring and playing sports at the school gym, as well as a weekend program for elementary school kids.

Br Malachy with some of the children that he and the other friars serve.

Most of those we are serving come from broken families in the projects. For us, being a stable loving presence for them is one of the greatest gifts we can give them. Showing them the love of Christ by investing our lives in them is what the Youth for Christ program is about. In addition we have food hand-outs for holidays, a soup kitchen in Harlem and across the river in Newark. We likewise go out on “Jesus Runs” in the city once a month to bring food and clothing to the homeless living on the streets of NY. For us it is a privileged place to encounter the presence of Christ. He told us that whatever we do to the least of our brothers, we do to Him! What a mystery! God is actually present in and with poor waiting for us. We are so blessed to share our lives with these brothers and sisters here in the city.

What advice do you have for those who are dealing with addiction or have a family member dealing with addiction?

This touches so close to home that my heart is already heavy as I think about the horror of addiction and what this disease does to people and the loved ones around them. I spent several years struggling with addiction, and for me it was truly a miraculous grace that brought me freedom. I don’t understand it. I don’t know why this happened in my life and not in the lives of many friends and two brothers who still struggle with addiction. I only know that it was real and the fruit of that grace has been lasting. So I praise God for His mercy to me!

But what about the many who walk a long and difficult path of recovery and relapse and trying to begin again? My advice for the addicts and family members alike is that your best weapon in fighting this disease will be hope. Hope in One who is greater than you and greater than your addiction. Hope in inexhaustible possibility of beginning again because the mercy of God knows no limits. Hope is the firm conviction NOW that what I don’t see in front of me, but has been promised me by One who is trustworthy, is going to come to fulfillment. The God who has told us that he is “with us always” and that “All things work for good for those who love Him". God has promised us that he “makes all things new,” and although for us it may be an impossible situation, for him “nothing is impossible.” This is the same God who told us that the “Light has come into the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it!”

The darkness of addiction wants to try and eclipse our vision so that hope is extinguished and we give in to despair. And believe me, when you are carrying your brother for the second time into an ER hoping he doesn’t die because of his overdose, and when the response for saving his life is hatred and anger, it can be hard to see the light.

An experience I had two years ago crossing the Throggs Kneck bridge in NY gave me an insight into this struggle. One early morning as I drove across, I looked to my left to where the city was, and the night sky was black still and the city lights were aglow with energy of the “city that never sleeps”. When I turned to my right I saw on the horizon without any buildings the faint hue of dark orange signaling the coming sunrise. As I drove I realized that depending on where I fixed my eyes I would say it’s night or it’s morning. The Lord showed me then that the darkness of night and the glitter and glitz of the lights try so desperately to attract our eyes. It’s as if evil and darkness are screaming out, “Look at me!” While subtly and steadily the power and presence of the real light of the sun is coming and when it does, there will be no more night and the flickering lights of despair will be consumed by the Light of the World. Immediately the Lord asked me the question, “Where are your eyes looking? The darkness or the faint hue, which is the promise of hope that dawn is coming.” When dealing with addiction, we must continually turn our eyes back to the light of hope that we have in our Higher Power.

Now for some nitty gritty practical advice: if you are a believer, then pray and fast for the one who is addicted. Never enable the addict! It is not love to help someone with an addiction to avoid facing the harsh consequences of their choices. I would encourage anyone to seek help and support through 12 step programs. AA or NA for the addicts, and Al-anon or Nar-anon for the family and friends. I personally have benefited greatly from going to Nar-anon at different points along the road to my own struggle with my brothers' addictions.

If you are wondering about whether what you are doing for a loved one with an addiction is enabling, ask yourself one question, “Would they be able to do this for themselves if they were not an addict?” If you answer is no, help away, if the answer is yes, make the hard decision to love them by saying no. Remember that the answer to their problem is not you, it is God. He alone can heal and restore what has been lost and destroyed by addiction. He is the source of our hope. And if we keep our eyes on the Lord, we will never be overcome by the darkness.

When we were hanging out with you in NY, you told me an amazing story that happened down on the border near San Diego. Would you mind re-telling that?

As I stepped out of the van onto the hot asphalt, my heart pounded with excitement and fear while my eyes drank in the summer sky of an afternoon in Tijuana. I saw two of the local missionaries disappear over the edge of the concrete canal that marked the northern edge of the city. The rest of the Missionaries of Charity with us started directing us to set up the mobile serving station for the crowds of emaciated and pocked faces that slowly came up out of the canal from their hellish homes down in the city drains. They were all drug addicts of the worst kinds: meth, heroin, or crack. I was a boy from Georgia who was on a short term mission trip to Mexico, and even amidst the confidence and joy of the other permanent missionaries I felt apprehensive and nervous. What do I say? What am I doing here?

We served a hot soup we’d made back at the Convento and café or jugo with a smile; some returned the smile while other stared blankly and took the food back over the edge of the holes they had emerged from. Their humanity was hardly recognizable after so much suffering and the destructive effects of drugs. Many were there because they had been dropped back into Mexico with no money or identification, and in their attempts to survive, they found themselves sucked in by the drug trade and spit out as addicts on the street. I was there because I had met the Lord and I knew I wanted to share Him with others, but here was a suffering I could not have conceived of in the worst of my nightmares. And to be honest, I was afraid and felt it was a victory of grace to simply stand there and hand cups of café to them and say, “Dios te bendiga.” God bless you.

As we left that day, I was frustrated by the weakness of my own love, my poverty of true charity for these people who were suffering so deeply. I read a reflection by Mother Teresa about the thirst of Jesus for our love; she spoke of the gift that God has given to us in the poor, a place where we can satiate Jesus' thirst for love by doing acts of love for the poor. When I read that my heart responded with a resounding, "YES! this is what I want." I prayed for the grace to try and respond to the Thirst of Jesus.

Three days later we were in the van heading back to the canal, and as we neared I asked one of the brothers if I could go down into the canal to the drains to help invite people up to the meal we were serving. We slid down the incline till we splashed into the dirty rivulet of water that lined the edge of the cement canal, which otherwise was dry from lack of rain. The local missionary, Roberto, led the way and we began walking down to the drains that protruded from the side of the massive canal. As we peered into the darkness of each drain, we saw old mattresses, pallets, and trash. The stench caused me to immediately recoil my head. Looking in though, as my eyes adjusted, I could make out the movement of those skeletal bodies moving slowly out; some, however, retreated back into the drain at our appearance.

We were nearing the time to head back up, and I spotted a drain on the opposite side of the canal that we hadn’t gone to. It was a good football field length from us, so I turned to Roberto and said I was going to check it out, and off I ran. When I made it to the dark entrance a haggled young man emerged and immediately began apologizing, “Lo siento, perdoname.” I couldn’t figure out what was going on and thought maybe my Spanish was failing me, so I asked why he was apologizing. He said, “I’m apologizing because you have to come here and see us like this.” Holding up his hand he showed me a needle filled with the next hit he was fixing to take and said, “I don’t want this. I don’t want this, but Satan has me by this and I can’t leave. But thank you for coming and seeing us.” He then pointed up to a catwalk that traversed the canal directly above the drain he lived in and continued, “Everyday they walk by, those people, they look down and all they see is trash; but you came here and you see us, you speak to us, you bring God to us. Thank you.” My eyes streamed with tears and my heart was shattered before this man. Looking him in the eyes I asked him what his name was and he responded, “Jesús Emmanuel” – Jesus, God-with-us. I took his hand and we prayed. The stench had disappeared, the darkness was gone in that moment, and I knew I was standing before God in the flesh, waiting for me, waiting for you to stop walking by on the catwalk above, but to rather reach out and touch his flesh. As he walked back into that drain and I walked away, I knew that was where I wanted to live my life – looking into the darkness until the eyes of my heart adjust enough to see the humanity of the poor and suffering, to see that God is there waiting and saying, “I thirst.”

I still get shivers when I think about that story! Anything else you'd like to share?

I just wanted to mention a very brief bit about why my name changed from Larry to Br. Malachy. When we enter our religious community, part of the initial process of discernment is to pray about what “religious” name you believe the Lord is calling you to take. Some brothers choose to keep their baptismal/birth name. Others like me, however, choose to take on a new name. The process differs from community to community, but with ours you offer three possible names and the superior of the community chooses one of them for you, which you receive at the same time that you get the habit (aka grey robe) we wear.

The spiritual meaning of a new name is something that goes back to the Bible. In the Old Testament you have Abram and Sarai being renamed Abraham and Sarah. Also, Jacob becomes known as Israel after he wrestles with the Lord. In the New Testament, the two most famous examples and Simon becoming Peter and Saul being renamed Saul. In each of the examples, and throughout Christian history, the new name reflects a new calling or mission in the life of a person in relationship to God. That tradition has been enshrined in the religious communities of the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

So my “new” religious name that I have gone by now for nine years is Br. Malachy Joseph.

Br. Mark-Mary, where did you grow up, what is your family like, and what inspired you to be a friar?

I grew up in Orange County, California, and I have one sister named Stacey, who is five years older than me. She’s married, has two beautiful daughters, and lives near my parents’ house in Anaheim Hills, CA.

One of the greatest gifts that God has given to me are my parents. They’ve been married for forty-four years, and they were always very good to my sister and me. My father is a very successful lawyer, uniquely bright and hard working, and due to his success, we grew up with an abundance. From a young age I was taught that material things were not everything. My parents taught me that relationships, character, integrity, etc, were more important than money. It was these initial lessons that sowed the seed for my eventual life and vow of poverty/simplicity.

I have always been a sports fiend. My very first word was “ball”; I played baseball, basketball, soccer, football, golf, bowling, you name it, I played it. Sports didn’t get me a scholarship, or fame and fortune, but it taught me a lot. It was really through sports that my father mentored me. He used it as the vehicle to teach me sacrifice, hard work, a “team” mentality, how to live with success and how to live with failure. I say it somewhat jokingly, but I still really approach life in almost the exact same way I would a basketball game as a point guard. The way I assess a situation, the way I recognize what I'm working with, the need to lead by example, are all skills I picked up on the court. Certainly, sports can become an idol and can get out of hand, but it can also be a great school for forming young men and women in various virtues.

Br Mark-Mary doing one of his favorite things since childhood, playing basketball.

Although I was raised Catholic, it was in my freshman year of college that faith became the central part of my life. The big change came when I was talking to a girl who was a self-proclaimed atheist at a dorm party. I started defending the faith and the Word of God, and something clicked in me. The Lord gave me a gift of faith and understanding, and I knew that I really believed, and that this belief needed to affect every part of my life.

I started praying more, reading the Bible, going to Mass even during the week, and going to confession. One day when I was helping with a youth retreat, a speaker mentioned Mother Teresa. As I listened, I just knew that what Mother was doing was exactly what I was made for. I wanted, no, I needed, to give my life in a radical way to the poorest of the poor. I wanted to be a missionary.

Then, as I learned more about the faith, I began feeling the desire to be a priest. I was looking for a place where I could serve the poor full-time and also be a priest, celebrating the Mass and hearing confessions. One night while having a late night snack at In-N-Out Burger, one of the guys I was with mentioned this group of Franciscans who were “hardcore.” They had beards, slept on the floor, and worked with the poor. It piqued my interest. I went home, did a web search, found the friars’ website, and read what they were about. It was everything I was looking for.

Between my sophomore and junior year in college, I went to South Africa for a year, where a friend and I taught at a Zulu High School. It was wild. I had a class of 75 8th graders, who were from 13 to 22 years old. I was the math teacher, but we only had 15 math books. It was a profound experience of what poverty looks like and the way it affects those who live in it.

When I came back to the US, I finished up my degree at the Franciscan University of Steubenville and then moved to New York to join the friars in 2009. As a friar, I’ve lived in Harlem, Newark, NJ, the Bronx, Honduras (2 years), and Yonkers. May 22, 2016 I was ordained a deacon, and God willing I’ll be ordained a priest sometime in 2017.

What is life as a friar like?

It’s a great life. I love the prayer, I love the brotherhood, I love the chance to serve my brothers and sisters in need. It’s a life filled with love, sacrifice, purpose, and joy. What more could a person ask for? For me, it’s the best. I’m happy. I’m fulfilled. I’m doing something worth doing and daily learning what it means, what it really means, to be a son of God, who is the best of Fathers.

Talk about Catholic Underground. What is it, how did it get started, and why do you think it’s so successful?

Catholic Underground was started by a couple of friars nearly fifteen years ago. There is an old tradition in the Church of having the first Saturday devotions. The initial inspiration was to bring back the first Saturday devotion in a way that people today would respond to and be fed by. It started very simply in the Church next to our friary. It grew and grew, and we had to move to a bigger location; it grew some more, and then we had to move again.

Catholic Underground is like a modern day re-living of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In the first part of the evening, we have a music-led time of prayer and adoration before the Eucharist. While this is going on, lines of people fill the aisles waiting for their opportunity to return to their loving Father as the son does in the parable. This encounter is made possible today through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. At each Catholic Underground we have about 10 different priests hearing confessions for a couple of hours. About 175 people go to confession each month. Then, as in the Parable, this time of encounter with our loving Father, is followed by a great celebration. We head underground, to the basement of the Manhattan-based Church, for a concert and a time to enjoy one another’s company. Probably 800 people or so attend each month.

I think it works because it is so Catholic. Through the Church, the Lord has given us the most perfect means for encountering him and his goodness and mercy. At Catholic Underground, people encounter the mercy of God, the overwhelming beauty of God, the intimacy of God, but also, they encounter the joy of the Church, the joy of a family and community. It works because it corresponds to the wants and needs of the human heart.

Our Lady of Good Counsel in NYC about an hour before Adoration and Catholic Underground started for the night and the church filled to standing room only.

I was really struck by the number of people who showed up for Adoration (standing room only!) and how incredible the atmosphere was. It seemed like an oasis of peacefulness and beauty in the middle of the frenetic pace of NYC. Could you explain what Adoration is and why it’s so special?

During the Last Supper, and perpetuated in each and every Mass, Jesus gave himself to his disciples, and continues to give himself to us, in the form of bread and wine. During the Holy Mass, through the working of the Holy Spirit, the bread and wine are substantially changed. The substance changes into the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus, while the appearance remains the same. This is called Transubstantiation. The Church, recognizing that this gift of himself that Jesus leaves us is so profound and so extraordinary, has developed the devotion of Eucharistic Adoration. It is a time for us to sit with God, to worship God, and to speak with God, who is truly present in the Holy Eucharist. We spend so much time searching for goodness, truth, and love. When we sit in Adoration of Jesus present in this Holy Sacrament, we rest in the presence of He who is Goodness, Truth, and Love.

What’s in the future for you and the other friars?

What’s my future look like? Well, that’s a great question. Part of the adventure of friar-life is not really being able to answer this question. I know I’ll always be living with my brothers, I’ll always have my life of prayer, and I’ll always have a chance to serve those most in need. What city, or country I’ll be doing that in, only God knows. The trick is that as long as I have my time with the Lord, my time with the brothers, and a chance to serve, I’ll have everything I need. I don’t have to worry about the future I don’t know because of the God and Father whom I do know.

If you'd like to learn more about the friars, check out this trailer for a documentary made about them. You can also read more by clicking here.

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