St Joseph’s Church in New York 

By Edoardo Giribaldi

Nov 14 2023

As winter sets in, St Joseph’s Church in New York’s Greenwich Village increasingly becomes a point of reference for many of the city’s homeless.

Among the several duties Fr Jonah Teller carries on at St Joseph’s Church in Greenwich Village, New York City, the most curious and offbeat started with his arrival in the city in June and the simple intention to take a walk every day.

“For the purpose of just putting myself in front of other people in case they want to talk to a priest. I look kind of odd in these robes, so they might want to have a conversation,” he said in an interview with Vatican News. “I thought of it as like going fishing.”

Washington Square Park

The beginning point was Washington Square Park, nestled in the heart of New York City. The park is a melting pot of tourists, locals, jazz musicians, vendors, police officers, and homeless people, an eclectic microcosm of the city’s bustling life. As Fr Jonah puts it, “It’s as if you could take the city and distil it down.”

From a first, “very profound” conversation with a man “thirsting from God and hurting in many ways,” Fr Jonah started making connections, offering a word of comfort to everyone burdened by life’s struggles. “I guess I’ve become the unofficial chaplain of Washington Square Park.”

Remarkably, Fr Jonah rarely had to initiate conversations himself. People from all walks of life approached him, seeking blessings, prayers, or simply a chat.

The consistency of his visits forged lasting connections with Washington Square Park’s regulars. “You don’t have to have a very intense conversation immediately; you can just get to know people,” he said.

Dialogues, therefore, are varied, “both in sort of length of time and their profundity.”

Someone willing to listen

Fr Jonah has heard the condensed life stories of those he met: the struggles of homelessness, addiction, and the heartache of separated families. “They’ll often want to talk about what they’re going through with someone willing to listen.”

Washington Square Park and the Greenwich Village neighbourhood have long been hubs for artists and intellectuals. That’s why it was no surprise for Fr Jonah to meet a man and engage in a conversation about Plato and his Theory of Forms. “A very long, long conversation,” he remembered, smiling.

In more challenging encounters or occasional hostilities, humour became Fr Jonah’s shield. Once again, consistency and familiarity are beneficial, as his figure doesn’t merely “represent something they disagree with, I’m a person they know. And I think it’s harder to be confrontational if it’s somebody you see and chat with every day.”

An initial ideological clash might lead to a strong friendship, as in the case of a man who, upon seeing Fr Jonah walking down the sidewalk, started quoting Karl Marx and his theories about religion being “the opiate of the masses.” “I just looked at him and said, ‘Really? With me standing right here?'” They both laughed, bridging the gap.

In giving something to others, there is a lot that a person can receive. Fr Jonah received the gift of “seeing the dignity of each human life, even if people’s concrete situations are very hard or even in some ways repulsive to you.”

Desire for God

What also struck him was people’s desire for God. 

“People have moved away from organized religion, but there’s still a desire for some spiritual connection with God. That is good and we need to guide into the Church.”

He noted that yearning specifically in younger people, usually university students, perceiving a disinterest in organized religion contraposed to a sense of animosity and “anger with the Church” that might have characterized earlier generations.

Fr Jonah’s role as the “unofficial chaplain” continues to evolve. He now meets with a small group of people every Friday, sharing a walk through the park and offering a slice of pizza or a bottle of water to those in need.

Nights of Charity

For that, he took inspiration from a period of study in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where a group of young lay people would meet at a local church run by Dominican friars to prepare and distribute food, walking the same route in the city every week. They called it “Noche de la Caridad,” the “Nights of Charity.”

“They got to the point where the homeless people were expecting them,” he remembered. “They even knew when their birthdays were.”

“There was such joy in both the young people and other people in the streets. Seeing each other and talking was so easy and natural, and I wanted to make that happen here, and that’s a hope I have for large numbers of people.”

Fr Jonah doesn’t know where all of this will lead.

“If I could do this full time, I would go to three or four parks a day,” without a clear and delineated agenda about what will happen, “but just go there and meet people.” – Vatican News