(Photo by Christina Gray/Catholic San Francisco)
Michael Riddle discovered St. Boniface Church as a shelter from living on the street but it ended up opening his eyes to the beauty of the Catholic faith.
Homeless man awaits Easter baptism
April 9th, 2014
By Christina Gray
Finds faith after taking refuge in Tenderloin church
When Michael Riddle is baptized and confirmed Easter Sunday at St. Boniface Church, there will be no family members watching from the pews behind him. His mother and brother are both dead and the stepfather he was close to died two weeks ago.
But the 41-year-old Florida native who has wrestled with manic depression and drugs and spent much of his adult life living on the streets said that he “feels like he is part of a family” since starting the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program two years ago at the church in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood.
“When you are homeless, your days revolve around searching,” said Riddle, whose polite speech and demeanor belie his rugged daily existence. “You search for food for the day. You search for a safe place to lie down at night. You search for peace.”
Unemployed since 2012, he lost the Tenderloin walkup that he said cost him 90 percent of the income he made at a lighting retailer in Oakland. He is now on a yearlong waiting list for another single-room occupancy unit that will cost him a third of his monthly $1,000 disability check.
Like dozens of other homeless city dwellers each day, Riddle entered St. Boniface for the first time for one reason: to close his eyes. The church’s Gubbio Project invites the homeless to sleep on its back pews between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m. In the process his eyes were opened to the beauty of the Mass and the Catholic Church.
“I spent a few months just coming in to the church and resting and then stayed for the Mass,” Riddle said in an interview with Catholic San Francisco at St. Boniface where he attends daily Mass. A scapular is visible under his “Captain America” T-shirt as he tucks a well-worn, rubber-band-bound prayer book into the canvas pack that holds all his earthly belongings. All except a bike locked up across the street.
The Gospel often brought him to tears, he said. But it made him laugh sometimes, too. “It wasn’t that much of a stretch to see my own life in some of the readings.”
Riddle’s childhood was hardly perfect. His mother and stepfather abused alcohol, he said, but kept him “under an umbrella of love.” They sent him to a Christian Sunday school and planted a few seeds of faith.
Nothing “really terrible” happened at home, he said, until the family moved from the tiny town of Palm City, Fla., to San Francisco, where he said some combination of “culture shock” and his escalating mental illness manifested in truancy problems in school, an increasing sense of isolation and the start of a drug habit.
He dropped out of both high school and a local trade school and discovered the professional roller speed skating circuit in Golden Gate Park.
“I did well in the skating scene,” he said. He toured the country and was a national competitor in the sport. “For a while, the city was my playground,” he said.
That playground turned dangerous with a drug habit that started first with crack and then escalated to speed, heroin and, finally, prescription drugs. Riddle said his drug problem coincided with the progression of his mental illness, which by then was marked by unpredictable waves of darkness lasting six months or longer.
“The drugs actually caused the same symptoms as manic depression but I felt at the time that at least with drugs, those symptoms were in my control,” he said.
After what Riddle calls a “deep, dark decade” between the ages of 25 and 35, he weaned himself off his drug habit and changed his eating habits as well as his friends. He began doing what he describes as “more virtuous things,” like exercising and spending time in nature.
Riddle approached a nun after Mass at St. Boniface to help answer a question he had about a reading in the missal. When she learned that he was not Catholic and had been receiving the Eucharist, she corrected him and referred him to the RCIA program.
“I didn’t know what was involved or what a sacrament was,” he said. On Sunday, April 20, he will receive both the sacraments of baptism and Communion.
St. Boniface pastor Franciscan Father Tommy King said Riddle’s sincerity, gratitude and spiritual focus is impressive considering the daily burdens of being homeless.
“Maybe it’s his 40 days in the desert,” said Father King. “He’s been able to turn something incredibly difficult around to find his faith.”
When asked what it was about the Catholic Church that drew him in, Riddle said that some things stand the test of time without losing anything and the Catholic Church has done that. He also credited the Franciscans he met at St. Boniface.
Riddle speaks with conviction when he says his homelessness is temporary and that life on the streets now is not as bad as it is for most other people.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “I suffer physically in much the same way they do, but my spirit is in a different place now.”
From April 11, 2014 issue of Catholic San Francisco.