One year, I lived in a soup kitchen in Chicago.
It happened almost by accident. As I considered masters programs near the end of my undergraduate program in Oklahoma, I felt pulled toward something completely unfamiliar to me—a full-time Catholic volunteer program at a Franciscan soup kitchen. That year became a rip in the veil of my sense of reality. Now, almost ten years removed from the experience, I still struggle for an adequate vocabulary to describe just how fundamentally changed I was after the program.
How does someone pinpoint conversion? Is it possible or necessary to name a particular moment or spark? Are there places or people to which we can cling as reminders or signposts? Is that enough?
When I first lived in the kitchen, my primary contribution was relational. I struggled to catch on to food preparation, but I quickly earned the nickname Lady with the Names. Many of the guests treated my housemates and me as something like equals, eager to share their lives and other gifts. In a very real sense, several of the men who ate regularly at the kitchen became like father figures, though there was always a certain distance that was difficult to navigate appropriately. When a man with blue eyes like moons who called me “Oklahoma” got cancer, I offered to visit him in the hospital, lacking any awareness of the awkward position that would have created for him (or me) if he had accepted. When a Chicago native brought me books about baseball and the Bible, I accepted them without questioning where or how he acquired them, just as I never found a way to ask about the alcohol on his breath. These experiences of somewhat artificial intimacy often produced a loneliness that was raw, deep, and long. But I also discovered a growing ability to listen, to embrace the silence and hear what was left unsaid as the guests opened themselves up to me.
At some point, I began to intuit my inevitable conversion to Catholicism. It would be impossible to explain how radical a shift that was for me. A cradle Southern Baptist from a town with one Catholic parish and fifteen Baptist churches, I had been raised to see the two faiths as opposing forces. Any hint of the sacramental I’d experienced as a teenager had been tainted with a kind of guilt or confusion over whether or not God could in fact be as present—as touchable—as Jesus said of himself in the Gospels. Almost no one in my family showed much enthusiasm about my choice or interest in my motivation. Instead, they seemed to fear that I was heading down a dangerous path. A few weeks before I moved into the kitchen, someone at my hometown church left me with the parting encouragement, “Whatever you do, don’t let them turn you Catholic.”
It had become clear that the spiritual family who had shepherded my faith journey so far could not share in this new thing God was doing in my life. And this new thing was wild. The only way I know to describe the shock of conversion was that I got too close to grace. I got too close to the goodness of God to know what to do with it. It burned. I could not handle the realization that love without fear could exist on this side of heaven, and it prevented me from being able to fully claim a new, fuller expression of Christ (much less Christianity) for several years. Although I have now come out more or less clean on the other side, I sometimes still find myself unable to stop thinking about one particular night in the kitchen.
It was winter—Lent—about halfway through my volunteer year. By then, my trips to church had become less frequent, and I was feeling the combined weight of many things—religious disillusionment, seasonal affective disorder, emerging adulthood, living in Chicago. That tumultuous season helped me connect with our guests in a more human way. The guests in the kitchen had in some sense become my surrogate family, but they could not exist for me beyond the walls of the kitchen, and I felt a sort of chasm open between us. As the overarching narrative for my life shifted, I was quickly losing the ability to connect to other people.
One of the regular guests was a Polish man named John. Most nights, he would limp into a room, somber and quiet. I think all I’d ever heard him say was his name. But that night, as I checked people in and kept the peace, John wobbled into the lobby with a wide grin. And he wouldn’t stop talking. He refused to go into the dining hall and eat but instead spent the greater part of an hour in the lobby, slurring in Polish and calling out to our Hispanic guests in Spanglish: “¿Cómo estás? ¡Señor! Hey you! ¿Cómo estaaaas? ¡Bien, bien bien! I am good!”
He wouldn’t eat. He insisted he was already full. At every pause in the general lobby conversation, John drew me back in with strings of Polish phrases that seemed joyfully urgent. He smiled, laughed, and yelled my name, purring the s into a z, imploring me to agree with him. His head bobbed on his neck like a fishing lure. His eyes shone like crystals. We tried to sober him up with some coffee, but he left the cup sitting two-thirds full and disappeared.
I’d never seen John like that before. I never saw him quite like that again.
After dinner, some of my housemates and I walked a few blocks to a nearby parish in Bucktown for a Stations of the Cross service. Reading the program was a surprise—it was trilingual: English, Spanish, and Polish. The priest had us alternate languages with each station.
As I knelt in front of the altar and listened to the stations proceed, I was struck by how mechanical and hollow it all sounded. One woman behind me spoke faster than everyone else, rattling off the reflections like she had every line memorized. Very few people looked up at the images of Jesus’s journey to the cross. I recognized some of the words that John had tried to tell me that night, and I wondered where he was going to end up by morning. I asked myself what I was doing in a church where I didn’t belong—a question I could not stop asking wherever I went in those days. I started memorizing the Hail Mary just to give my brain a centering point.
Then during the station when Jesus finally gives up the ghost, the priest ended the reading with a passage by Josemaría Escrivá: “Love sacrifice; it is a fountain of interior life. Love the Cross, which is an altar of sacrifice. Love pain, until you drink, as Christ did, the very dregs of the chalice.” I can’t remember now, but I like to believe it was spoken in Polish. And I like to believe it was for John. And for me.
Later that night, I looked outside my third-story window to find John cooing to himself on the church steps next door. He was quieter by then, gazing at the streetlights with nowhere to go.
 Escrivá, The Way of the Cross, https://www.escrivaworks.org/book/the_way_of_the_cross-point-12.htm.