Thursday, December 19, 2013

Blessings Experiment: I Wonder If This Is How God Feels

What happens when two seminarians stand in the middle of downtown Chicago with a sign that reads "Free Blessings"? Deacon Connor Danstrom, a student at Mundelein Seminary, recounts his experiment in spreading God's mercy and shares the many lessons he learned.

From Word On Fire

Without cost you have received, without cost you are to give.”

My phone told me it was three degrees when I woke up at 7 A.M. This was the gospel reading at Mass, which seemed fitting as I prayed my holy hour afterward. Once I was done, I set to making the sign I had thought of just a few days before – a large white foam-board rectangle that read, “Free Blessings.” My friend Deacon Brian and I clumsily affixed a wooden handle to it with a combination of glue, nails, and duct tape, and then shoved it in the back of my truck.

We arrived at Holy Name Cathedral around 1:45 P.M. We offered a prayer inside and then made our way three blocks east to Michigan Avenue. From there we headed south, where we found a convenient place to set up shop away from the street performers and in front of a jewelry store. There were some cops standing on the corner, and if there was any doubt about the legality of what we were doing, all that was put to rest once one of them walked by and took advantage of the offer.

“What’s your name?”

“Officer Burns,” he said sternly.

“Is there anything specific you want to ask from God?”

He looked confused.

“How about safety?”

“Always safety. Every day.” His authority returned to him.

I prayed for him to God, and blessed him. He walked back to his confreres who were waiting for him and continued his beat.

The first few hours were very slow. It was cold, and people were shuffling by in hordes after walk signals were given. We held up our sign and invited people to stop. “It only takes a second! A blessing to keep you warm!” Many would glance to the side and read the sign, look down at us, and quickly return their gaze to the empty space in front of them. When we spoke directly to someone, they would often say, “Thanks” or “I’m already blessed.” Many couldn’t even be bothered to return a “hello” or “have a nice day.”

“I wonder if this is how God feels,” Brian said. We were cold, but we never felt discouraged. And the first few hours were not without their bright spots. Shortly after we arrived, a security guard came out of the jewelry store with four bottles of water – two in each hand. He walked out to us, and I asked if he wanted a blessing. He shrugged agreeably and backed in to the threshold, out of the cold. I gave him his blessing and he turned back inside.

A young couple with their baby bundled up in her stroller stopped and asked to have their family blessed. They were from out of town and were enjoying the life of the city. After a while the husband returned, looking lost. I didn’t recognize him, and I asked if he wanted a blessing. “I already got one, but now I’m looking for my family.” He didn’t seem too worried, though, and after a few minutes they passed by again, all together. This time the woman carried two cups with her: hot chocolate she had bought for us.

Brian and I joked with each other and laughed at the thought of what people were thinking. “What the heck are they doing out here?” We were not the only ones making fun of us, though. A rebellious looking twenty-something with three rings in his lip and a wild look in his eyes was passing by with his girlfriend. “Do you want us to bless you?” He veered off course and spread his arms to the side in dramatic fashion. He approached Brian and said cynically, “Yeah, I need to be saved.” Brian was calm as he started to pray: peace, joy, happiness, God’s love and embrace. The young man had continued his play acting by falling to one knee, but as Brian continued to pray, the sarcasm was slowly dispelled. Brian finished his blessing, and the man stood up. He didn’t have that frantic look in his eyes anymore. His girlfriend, who had been giggling at the man’s irreverence, now expressed sympathy for us, “You guys are gonna be so cold!” They both thanked us, and we wished them a Merry Christmas.

One young man came up to us eagerly, perhaps on a dare, while his friends stood back and took pictures. He asked me to pray for the Kentucky Wildcats.

“Anything for yourself?”

“No, just the Wildcats.”

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