"He taught us that everyone we walk past deserves to be recognized as a real person, even if their appearance is deceiving," said the deacon, in his sermon. "If Pete had sat in silence, looking down at the sidewalk, or if he'd called for our attention with less friendly, less charming, words, we would probably never have gotten to know the Pete inside there. ...
"We've been walking past his vacant spot under the tree for a few weeks now ... each day growing a little more accustomed to the emptiness there, and that unheard greeting. Over the years we had come to take Pete's presence for granted. And now, we're reminded that we're all just passing through this life."
When Bis first visited St. Joseph's, he was neatly dressed and well groomed. He took Communion in Mass and seemed in control of his life, although he remained quiet.
Things were different when he returned months later, limping and "using an empty wheelchair for a walker," said Bockweg. "Then the wheelchair started to fill up with bags and books. And then suitcases piled on top of that. ... He also grew more talkative, and we got to know him."
His friends remember him fondly, but with a touch of guilt. It's hard to know how to help the homeless, especially those fierce in their resolve to go their own way. That was Peter Bis.
Yet something also drove him to reach out, to accept some gifts and offer others the gift of his memory and attention, said parishioner Joe Jones, who sang the Irish lament "Danny Boy" at the end of the Mass in honor of his friend.
"Peter Bis was a gentle soul. ... There was certainly much more there than a grunt and a curse word," said Jones. "The last thing people do today when talking to a stranger is call them by name. That's how Pete connected. ... He called us by name and that slowed us down. That made Pete real to us."
(Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.)
(c) COPYRIGHT 2012 United Feature Syndicate
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