Pop-Tart Prayer Walk

CLEM MURRAY / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER The Rev. William Murphy , with Pop-Tarts nearby, celebrates Mass.

THE MAN'S VOICE comes out of the darkness at the corner of Kensington and Allegheny: "You're dead! You're dead!"

This is the congregation of the Rev. William Murphy, and from a distance, I can hear the wheels of his small, black, rolling luggage, filled with Pop-Tarts and juice. It's for the Saturday morning Pop-Tart Prayer Walk he has participated in since he and the Rev. Joseph Devlin opened Mother of Mercy House in an old bar.

With him is Sam Lufi, a young father who lives nearby. He joins a revolving group of believers who for the past three years have met every Saturday to walk up and down Kensington Avenue offering the hungry, homeless and addicted a bite to eat and a prayer.

As we chat, neither man acknowledges the continued yelling until finally, I ask, "Am I the only one who hears that and wonders if we should maybe be concerned?"

They laugh. There is a change in tone that marks the difference between typical street noise and real trouble. So far, we're good.

The week before it was some guy screaming at a woman that she cost him money and she better go make it before he rearranged her face. But when they asked her if she needed help, she was more interested in asking them what they were doing.

Someone's always yelling out here. But it's not everyday you see a priest rolling luggage full of Pop-Tarts.

The prayer walk was an idea of Doug Black, a pastor from Destiny Church. It came to him one day. It also occurred to him that he might be making himself a target walking alone in such a tough neighborhood, so he wrote a blog about his plans to post first thing on the first morning he went out - just in case he didn't come back and somebody needed to find his body. He laughs now, but he was serious.

But then more people joined him. Anna Batten, a former addict whose idea it was to offer people a much-needed sugar rush with Pop-Tarts. Other people who come and go. And today Lufi and Father Murphy.

The street, usually a blur of noise and movement and constant hustle, is quiet as they make their way toward Harrowgate Park, past ubiquitous appliance stores and piles of tossed tires and a nail salon with a sign advertising a $5 special for hair or nails.

The duo doesn't get far before they cross paths with a couple of men.

"We're out here praying for people," Lufi says. The men barely break stride as one says, "I pray for myself." Fair enough.

Not too far down, they come across Sam Koehler who - unlike others out here - offers his full name and looks as though he could be heading to the El for an early morning construction shift. He says he's been in Kensington from Jersey for a few days, but he's not sure how many. "What's today?" he says as he tries to calculate how many days he's lost to a haze of drugs.

He prays with them and then takes the Pop-Tarts and peppers Murphy with questions.

"So where's your church?"

"You guys are there all the time?"

"I can go by there if I want?"

"I'm not a Catholic or nothing . . . "

Murphy tells him it's OK. "We can all use a little prayer, right?"

Murphy wasn't sure what to expect when he started to come out on Saturday mornings. He was surprised at how open people were to a little prayer, and how brutally honest most were.

"They know where they're at," he said. "They are very aware. They're at the bottom and they know it, so for many the thought is, what are they going to hide? I think, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' No one ever tempted me with heroin, but they say you just have to try it once and it has a hold on you."

The hold is evident here.

In the hour that Murphy and Lufi are out, they come across people who don't so much stop, as teeter, held up by some invisible puppet master who seems to pull the strings tight just as they're about crumble onto the street.

A man who says his name is Eric is one of them.

His eyes are barely open but he says yes to prayer and Pop-Tarts and then thanks the pair.

"I'm tired," he says to no one in particular. A lot of people say that, and even when they don't say it out loud, their faces say plenty.

"Maybe sit down and rest a while," Murphy says before saying something else I can't hear.

When I ask, he says: "I was just thinking, maybe we need to open our place at 5 a.m., so he could have a place to rest. I mean, here I am saying he should get some rest, but I'm thinking, I wonder where one sits and rests out here at 5 a.m.? Because I always wonder that, where's he going?"

It's quiet at Harrowgate Park. Usually addicts or people who are homeless are sleeping on the blue benches, but today most are empty. Maybe the cops have come through already, Murphy and Lufi say.

But there under a big tree, near a playscape where during the day parents bring their kids, there's a young couple. The woman's voice is hoarse when she asks Murphy if he's a priest.

"We've been going a little hard tonight," her fiance says. "I didn't even realize the sun was about to come out."

Murphy asks if they could say a little prayer for them, but just before he starts, the woman asks him to pray for her son. It's a request many of the young women out here make. Don't pray for me, Father. Pray for my kids.

This young woman's son was born just a few days ago; he's in the intensive-care unit.

"But born best-case scenario for anyone who uses opiates," her fiance adds.

She nods her head. "Yeah, he has minimal withdrawal symptoms. I just want him to be over it as safely and quickly as possible."

As the sun starts to rise, Father Murphy and Lufi are heading out of the park when the young father calls after them.

If they ever need anything, he says, they shouldn't hesitate to come to him.

"I mean . . . besides money because I'm usually broke," he says, making everyone laugh.

"Hey, you gave me a Pop-Tart and a prayer," the young father says, disappearing behind a tree. "You have my loyalty. God bless you."

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