By Michael J. Sullivan
New York City couldn’t look more beautiful than it did on that crisp, cold December night in 1983. The Rockefeller Christmas tree stood majestically, illuminating the starry-eyed faces of little children holding their parents’ hands. A few minutes later I sat down on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and wondered what Jesus was doing. Would he even answer my plea for help this evening?
I dragged my green garbage bag of belongings back to the subway later that night, banishing myself to the end of the train to absorb what little warmth came from the heating vent. I stretched my hood as far as it could go over my face, trying to avoid eye contact. A feeling of helplessness hit me as reality set in – I was homeless.
A few nights later, desperate for a place to sleep without worrying someone would rob or beat me on the train, I attended a New Year’s Eve service at a church in Queens. As people fled to their parties and the Pastor said his last prayer, I waited for the maintenance workers to look the other way. When they did, I slid beneath a pew in the back near the organ, praying for a night of rest and peace. The sounds of the door shutting and locking echoed throughout the old structure. I was alone, except for the wind howling its fierce battle cries in the night.
I was relieved. I had found solace and shelter from the evening’s other fallen members of society. For the first time I had a quiet moment to reflect on the events of the past two years. My friend Joe had drowned upstate while swimming in front of his girlfriend. My mom — my protector against a stormy relationship with my father — had suffered terribly before dying from breast cancer at the age of 48. A final verbal confrontation with my dad eventually led me to the streets.
I walked to the front of the church and sat down near the makeshift manger. I stared at the baby Jesus and wondered again, “Where are you? Are you there for me? Why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this? Do you know I’m even alive and in pain, with nowhere to go? Do you care?” I whispered so many thoughts that evening, stopping periodically to listen to the wind rattling the stained glass windows.
I asked God to forgive me. I asked Him to have mercy on my soul for waiting until my mother was two weeks from dying to finally tell her, “I love you.” I cried that night as I reflected on that hospice memory, wanting to hurt myself for being so afraid to express my true feelings.
My heart, filled with so much sorrow, needed to release its heavy emotions after so many years of building barricades. I took out my most valuable belongings – my notebook and pen. I began to write down some of my childhood and adult experiences that had moved me the most.
I wrote quite a bit that night trying to connect with that faith, even pausing once to pick up the baby Jesus and cradle Him much like I would do with my daughters many years later when they were born, giving a small kiss on his cheek, hoping He would hear and feel my anguish. Then I wondered how Mary and Joseph felt when the Christ child was born, realizing the tremendous responsibility they had in protecting God’s only Son.
I continued to write as I rode the E-train for a period of three weeks, allowing myself to escape into a different world. A second plea to an aunt and uncle allowed me to flee my homeless plight and my second chance at life began. After marrying and helping raise two daughters, I revisited the now dusty bytes on my computer and finished my novel.
I look back on that period of time as one of transformation. If it were not for my experience during those three weeks without a place to live, my compassion and understanding of this world could easily have been abandoned. During that particular night in 1983, I found that my relationship with Jesus Christ is the most important one I’ll ever have. And it’s up to me to make sure it stays strong and true to the ideas of His teachings.
Michael J. Sullivan is the author of Necessary Heartbreak: A Novel of Faith and Forgiveness. He lives in New York with his wife and daughters. He is currently working on the sequel entitled The Greatest Christmas.