By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Two men looked at each other and saw Jesus.
Friar Benjamin, of the Fraternity of the Poor of Jesus Christ, went straight for Larry when he and lay volunteers stopped near the intersection of Independence and Topping avenues on their Saturday rounds to feed the homeless.
Larry, 60, wasn’t doing so well that day. It had been quite some time since he had a change of clothing, and two days since he had eaten. The rains that day left Larry soaked to the skin on top of hungry and cold.
Friar Benjamin pulled a clean shirt and socks from the plastic bins of donated clothing that the volunteers brought, but no pants or shoes in Larry’s size.
As Larry ate his meal of a ham sandwich, a banana, cookies and bottled water, Friar Benjamin, armed with the credit card of lay volunteer driver Jairo Conchas, he dashed across the street to a discount store and bought Larry new pants and new shoes.
God sent Friar Benjamin to him, Larry said.
“The man upstairs, he’s the only reason I’m still around, and I don’t know why,” he said.
God sent Larry to Friar Benjamin, the friar said.
“We believe the person of Jesus is in the poor,” he said, citing the famous verse from Matthew 25: “What you did for these, the least brothers of mine, you did to me.”
“They are the children of God. They are his favorites. We don’t meet them by judging them. We want to be with the poor, so we search for them on the streets, we go to the jails, we find women living in prostitution because that is what Jesus did. Then we show respect for them, just as Jesus did,” Friar Benjamin said.
“Many of those encounters are not pleasant, a man without a chance to take a shower for 30 days — it’s hard to imagine that smell,” he said.
“Our sisters in Brazil, they found a woman in a dumpster. She had a head wound. Somebody had beaten her and put her in with the garbage,” he said.
“They took her to a hospital, but the hospital wouldn’t accept her because she was in such bad condition,” he said. “So they took her to their convent. They cleaned her up and even pulled the maggots out of her wound. That’s what we do. We have to get close.”
The Fraternity of the Poor in Jesus is itself an infant order, founded in 2001 as an institute of consecrated men and women religious by Father Gilson Sobriero and Sister Serva das Chagas.
Father Gilson and Sister Serva established the order in the Franciscan tradition to serve “the poorest of the poor” in his native Brazil, where many of its members, including Friar Benjamin, are from. Since then they have grown to more than 543 consecrated religious serving from 66 houses in Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia — and the United States of America.
“We don’t decide where we are going,” Friar Benjamin said. “We are here because God brought us here.”
In 2012, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann invited sisters from the Poor of Jesus Christ to the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, who then took residence in the then-empty convent at Blessed Sacrament Parish.
In February, Bishop Robert W. Finn invited three friars — Friar Benjamin, Friar Miguel and Friar Gabriel — to extend their mission and charism to the Missouri side from the rectory at Our Lady of Peace Parish in Kansas City’s northeast side.
The sisters and the friars hit the streets of Kansas City on both sides of the state line looking for the hungry to feed, to provide clean clothes, and to pray.
And they do this with absolutely nothing to live on themselves except the generosity of others who freely give to them. They do make and sell unique rosaries and crucifixes, but they will always depend on God touching the hearts of those who will give to them so that they can give to the poor, Friar Benjamin said.
“We want to be with the poor, so we try to live the life of the poor,” he said. “It is the only way we can understand who they are and who we are.”
They also know that the “poorest of the poor” — the outcasts, the dirty, the beaten — won’t come to them, or to the church. So they hit the streets — in full brown Franciscan habits.
“We try to be the bridge for those people who cannot come to the church,” Friar Benjamin said. “We find all kinds of reactions. Some make fun of us, but some recognize us (by the brown habit) and know we are from the Franciscan tree. Then we have a way to talk about Jesus.”
They talk about Jesus in the Franciscan way, he said — Preach always, use words only when necessary.
“People are tired of words. People are tired of politics and promises,” Friar Benjamin said.
“When we talk about Jesus we have to be sincere. We have to show them that we care about them. On an empty belly, you can’t hear that,” Friar Benjamin said.
At every stop they invite, but do not require, anybody who they have served to pray with them, and even to offer their own special intentions.
Friar Benjamin recalled a man who turned down the invitation to prayer, not out of spite, because “God will not listen to me.”
“I said to him, ‘Have you read the Gospels?’ Then I told him of the story of the two men who went to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and one was a tax collector,” Friar Benjamin said.
The man knew the rest of the story.
“I know at that moment God was saying something to him because his eyes began filling with tears,” Friar Benjamin said.
“I told him to just say, ‘Lord, I am a sinner and I need you,’ and just see what would happen,” Friar Benjamin said.
He knows he did nothing other than be there at that moment to witness the presence of God.
“Who am I? I’m just an instrument of God,” he said.
“Something happened in this man’s past that made a slave out of him to sin and the devil,” Friar Benjamin said. “That is when the healing power of the word of God comes in. It’s wasn’t me. It was God. But those who are enslaved by the devil and their sins, how will they come back to God if we are not the bridge?”
In addition to a radical life of service, it also requires a radical life of prayer — daily Mass, Eucharistic adoration, the rosary, penance for their own sins, Scripture reading and meditation, all to know Jesus more deeply so that they can serve even better.
“If you don’t know Jesus and can’t be with Jesus, then you can’t bring Jesus to others. You can’t bring what you don’t have,” Friar Benjamin said.
The Fraternity of the Poor of Jesus Christ prays to bring all its programs to Kansas City over time, and in God’s time.
These include special programs for the imprisoned, for women trapped in prostitution, for men and women trapped in addiction, and always by going out to find them, even if that means going into the most dangerous, violent places.
“In some way or another, we all have fear. There is nothing wrong to be afraid,” Friar Benjamin said.
“But we are not afraid because of the presence of God. When we go into these terrible places, we are only able to go there because God is with us. His presence makes the difference,” he said.
It doesn’t sound like an easy life, but Friar Benjamin said it is the only life that would bring him joy.
Just seven years ago, he was well on his way to becoming a real estate millionaire. Then a friend in Boston, where he was living, invited him to a Mass being celebrated by the visiting Father Gilson.
Nothing spectacular happened at that Mass, except for an overwhelming feeling that God was reaching out directly to him. Friar Benjamin recalled crying his way through Mass, and then for the next several days.
He knew what he had to do. He walked away from his real estate business and joined Father Gilson.
“I know people who live in palaces, and they tell you their life is great, but they have miserable lives,” Friar Benjamin said.
“I say, ‘I have a great life because I have Jesus,’” he said.
Information about donation and volunteer opportunities with the Fraternity of the Poor of Jesus Christ can be found online at www.franciscanspjc.org. Donations can be sent to the friars at 1029 Bennington Ave., Kansas City, MO 64126; or to the sisters at 2226 Troup Ave., Kansas City, KS 66104.