Learning to Trust: Matthew Lieser
By France Griggs Sloat
On April 15, 2010, Matthew Lieser boarded a Greyhound bus bound for Spokane, Wash. He carried a book bag holding four changes of clothes, a Swiss Army knife to open bottles and cans, a rain coat, a Bible, a journal and a spiritual guide. No phone, no bank cards, no computer.
Two days later, at 5:00 p.m., he checked into Spokane’s Union Gospel Mission, where he was required to take a breathalyzer test before being allowed to participate in his required evening chores and chapel. Then he was handed a bundle of pajamas and told to get in line for a group shower. Petrified, he thought of fleeing to the safety of the Jesuit residence at nearby Gonzaga University, but in deciding to stay, he met Chuck, a homeless man in a wheelchair who lost a foot to frostbite. Chuck wanted to visit the cathedral in downtown Spokane. With nothing on his agenda the next day, which began with a rude wake-up call at 5:00 a.m. and an order to leave the shelter, they took off, Lieser wheeling Chuck the two miles to the cathedral and back.
While there, Lieser got permission from the priest to speak at the morning Mass. His talk focused on his pilgrimage and so captivated the congregation that many waited in line 40 minutes to speak with him afterward. He received invitations of places to stay, money, a rosary and a small diamond ring to keep him safe. It’s inscribed “In Christ Always.”
The gifts made it difficult for Lieser to stick to his goal “to encounter discomfort materially and to learn to trust in God’s will.” In planning his journey with his spiritual director, Lieser chose to challenge himself by experiencing homelessness and poverty. He would stay in homeless shelters in every city on his journey, but he would not ignore God’s generosity from the people he met.
“In every city, I met people who took me out of the shelters and gave me food and offered me money,” he says. “I ended up making over $2,500 from people’s generosity. One lady bought me a plane ticket.”
From Spokane, Lieser traveled to Portland, Boise, Denver, Chicago and Cincinnati before heading home to Detroit, using the money people gave him to pay for bus tickets and an Amtrak train trip to Chicago. In Portland, he visited his cousin, a Catholic priest, and worked at the parish in exchange for a few nights’ stay. People he met at a church in Boise practically fought over the chance to take him in. And in Denver, he spent the night at a shelter that did not screen for alcohol or drug use with people who were “high, drunk and fighting.” Frightened, he moved to a cheap, dirty hostel for a few days and then to the Jesuits’ Regis University to rest up before moving on.
In Chicago he visited a Jesuit community where he lived for six months before joining the order. He gladly helped with mowing,
painting and in the soup kitchen in exchange for three nights on the rectory floor. And finally in Cincinnati, he came full circle with the place where his discerning about becoming a Jesuit began, when he was a student at Xavier and an employee of Chiquita. He stayed at the Drop Inn Center shelter in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, visited his brother, gave away the rest of his money and shot back up the interstate to Detroit.
It was his experience in Portland, however, that sticks with him as the most traumatic and transformative. Finding every shelter already full, he went to the cathedral and pounded on the door. When no one answered, it dawned on him that he would have to sleep outside.
He didn’t get a wink of sleep, he says. But as he waited on the ground, wondering what would happen next, he got a glimpse of what life’s like for people who are always homeless and scared. It met a goal of his pilgrimage: “to be in solidarity with the poor and experience poverty but not to ignore God’s generosity… and his care will sustain you.”