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COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: Amid grief at death in blizzard, a renewed promise at St. Luke's

Amy Betros could not shake the email from her mind. It came Friday from a friend she loves and admires, and Betros pulled it up at her desk at St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy in Buffalo, in a room that acts as a high-energy nerve center for an operation that serves hundreds of people each day in need of housing, food or clothing.

Her office, attached to a landmark church, is across a driveway from the warm hall that St. Luke’s uses as a shelter during times of Code Blue. Those are freezing periods of such intensity that outreach workers fan out in greater Buffalo, trying to protect anyone in danger due to living on the streets.

A handful of weary men, with nowhere to go in bitter temperatures, remained at St. Luke's Friday, glad for the food, warm boots and clothing provided by the staff. Yet the email spoke to the precarious, life-or-death nature of that effort: Filled with grief, it was written by Joyelle Tedeschi, co-founder of Code Blue and a program director at Catholic Charities of Buffalo.

Tedeschi knew Lawrence Bierl, a community fixture for years in Williamsville, who was found dead Thursday in a bus shelter on Main Street. She remembers him as a gentle guy “who just sat there with his coffee and smiled,” and it was unbearable to imagine he died in such a way. She wrote of how outreach workers, over the years, made repeated efforts to convince Bierl to accept protection from the elements.

She described his death as a heartbreaking example of the core challenge for Code Blue, and she shared one line that particularly stayed with Betros.

“He had a hidden site,” Tedeschi wrote, “that no one could reach.”

Williamsville mourns Larry, a man with no home but many ties to the village

To Betros, co-founder of St. Luke's, that spoke to both a physical and emotional destination. She knows there are people who want to find someone to blame for Bierl’s death, but Betros said blame is a human reflex that began when Adam turned on Eve.

The urgent challenge, for Betros – and a point to which Tedeschi dedicates her life, as well – lies in a renewed focus on the bonds you try to build with those wanderers, long before the cold puts them at risk.

Amy Betros talks about the good being done at St. Luke's on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Charlene Mallory, a missionary at St. Luke’s, paused in Betros’ office after spending the morning with the homeless men in the shelter. Mallory had heard about Bierl, and she wept in describing another man who became ill this week with what seemed to be opioid withdrawal symptoms as he sought warmth at the mission.

The staff called an ambulance, but the man insisted on leaving with friends. It was painful to witness for Mallory, who stepped away years ago from a life of struggle to embrace a code of service at St. Luke’s.

She understands the challenge and mystery of what the mission was created to do: Every day, the staff tries to offer bottomless love and support, but lives don’t change without some bridge to those hidden places.

“We reach out,” Mallory said, “but so many of these guys are so hurt and so wounded. This young guy was sick and nauseous and refused to go to the hospital. You can’t judge, and you can’t give up on them.”

Tedeschi said Friday that every life on the street represents a complicated chain of potential factors: Abuse. Neglect. Mental illness. Post-traumatic stress. That is often combined, she said, with drugs or alcohol that serve as “self-medication.”

The death of Bierl, and the sorrow amid outreach workers and the community that tried to protect him, only intensifies the search for answers and greater resources, Tedeschi said – especially for recruiting and training a new wave of committed workers.

Betros read the email and immediately thought of Norm Paolini Jr. – her co-founder at St. Luke’s and a close friend who died last spring after treatment for brain cancer and Parkinson's Disease – and a homeless man they both knew as “Tent Billy.” For a long time, she and Paolini would see the guy on Walden Avenue, near the Kensington Expressway, holding a sign and seeking money from motorists.

Paolini built a code into the heart of the mission: Nothing changes until you truly become friends with those who suffer. So Betros pulled over every day to give the guy a dollar and to speak with him, and Paolini started doing the same thing.

They both kept asking if he would stop by the mission for some friendship and a meal. For months, he declined. Still, the man gradually came to recognize them, to offer a little trust.

One day – out of nowhere – there he was, at the mission.

Sean Kirst: St. Luke's mission co-founder recalled as 'example of Christ'

It was a step, a monumental one, but Betros knew she could not push too hard. Mike Taheri, an associate missionary at St. Luke’s, said the immediate task is to simply offer comfort and community, to put the focus on serving people “who have nowhere else to go.”

So Betros and Paolini kept talking to Billy, who declined all offers to spend his nights inside four walls. Instead, associate missionary Sue Kretz took him to the store for a new tent, which he embraced. The staff loved him despite wishing he would not put himself at risk, and the tent led to the nickname they still use to describe him.

This is the point, Betros said: At any moment, during that period, his fate could have matched Bierl’s. Gradually, as time went past, Tent Billy began to speak more openly. One day Betros asked the question she had asked for years – would he move in if the mission provided him with housing? – and Billy looked at her, then explained.

When he was a child, there was a fire in his house. Billy was in a room without windows. He managed to get out, but the terror and pain of being trapped stayed with him.

Better to be outside, solitary, in a world that has no walls.

Betros, listening, had a revelation.

“Billy,” she said, “what if you had a room with lots of windows?”

Charlene Mallory, an associate missionary at St. Luke's, stocks shelves in the pantry. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

She does not know if her suggestion made a difference, but he grew agreeable to help from different programs. That allowed him to travel to the mission less and less, until he stopped coming altogether.

One day, unexpectedly, Billy showed up in the office. He told Betros and Paolini he had his own place.

That tale, to Betros, is not some magic solution. Of the times it happens, more often it does not. But she also thinks every day of Paolini, of his endless faith in people scarred by many terrors, and she and all the others at St. Luke’s build their purpose around his lesson, and his promise:

Hope lies in true relationships, real friendships, which take endless patience and humility. It is a philosophy shared by Tedeschi and those who join her in responding to the suffering in Western New York, and Betros believes many people made that effort, for years, with Larry Bierl.

What step forward does him honor, Betros said, except rededicating ourselves to that same quest with countless others? Each of them, in their own way, has some hidden place. Betros respects it, and challenges herself to always see one thing:

They are outside, invisible, from any room that has no windows.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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