Thy Will Be Done

Some days are better than others. The last Wednesday in August of 2016 was one of them.
A friend, John DiPietro, had promised that a stint volunteering at the St. John’s Food for the Poor Program on Temple St. in Worcester would be a transformative experience. Rewarding enough to make a grown man cry, as it had him the first time he visited the St. Francis Xavier Center.
John was right of course, proving, as I’d known for many years, that he is not only a great motivational speaker but a man who understands the value of giving back.
John would have had no way of knowing how special the 31st would turn out to be, though, beyond the exhilaration that came from preparing salads side by side for the less fortunate and seeing the perpetual smiles on the faces of the other worker bees as they went about their assigned duties.
John was aware, then, of how the day began, several hundred people queued up in a long line for a virtual feast: chicken parmesan, hot dogs, French toast,sa lad, spinach, donuts, fresh-cut fruit,milk, cake. As the food pantry’s irrepressible director Billy Riley put it, “for some of them, their only meal of the day.”
The way it ended, though? That, as fatewo uld have it, was mere coincidence: a sudden decision to watch the Tennessee bluegrass/country duo “Joey & Rory” (Feek) sing hymns as guest performers with Bill and Gloria Gaither’s “Precious Memories” gospel series on the Inspiration channel.
So it didn’t really matter what happened in between those hours. The start and finish cast a glow that couldn’t be diminished.
More Joey (Martin) Feeks, Fr. John Maddens and Billy Rileys in the world and the good would far outweigh the bad.
About Billy Riley, whose exuberance drives an efficient, high octane operation. Mr. Riley—”No. 8” in a family of sixteen (16!) children—appreciates as much as anyone the competition that can materialize for enough to eat (although “we never went hungry,” he says, ofh is years growing up in a three decker on Paine St.,
off Lincoln St.).
A once-promising ballplayer, brother of Eddie Riley who did realize success in the game, Mr. Riley has found his calling at the St. John’s food pantry. The two mostf requently spoken words as he meanders—giving to ours, raiding the freezers, checking on people’s wellbeing—are where’s Billy?” After that, maybe, “Bill, do you have any dog food?” Or, when asked “you got anything sweet?” he beckons the inquisitor forward and says “come into the Sweet Department!”
His compassion is genuine. His enthusiasm never wanes. His warm humor is readily apparent. “That hot dog’s almost as good as you’d get at Coney Island!” Mr. Riley says, while looking on with approval when a man sliding a tray past loads up his frankfurter with ketchup, mustard and relish. Moments later, addressing a helper in jest, Mr. Riley says “your pay depends on how much you sell!”
“Billy’s a good guy but you got to root for Toronto or you go to the end of the line!” one of Mr. Riley’s assistants said.
The St. Francis Xavier Center, about three years old, and a recently struck partnership with Stop & Shop (which has made possible expanded outreach to families in need), unde rscores the reality that the St. John’s food pantry “is notyour typical soup kitchen,” as Mr. Riley says, noting that “70% of what we do isfor the working
poor.” But it’s more than the functionality of the space. It is the goodwill that permeates the building daily from 6:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.
“This is a vibrant place,” Mr. Riley says. It is also a place where reverence prevails(only occasionally does Officer Sean Lovely have to exert his authority).
“When Fr. Madden offers the morning prayer, everyone stands or sits still and is silent,” Mr. Riley said. “Out of respect.”
Mr. Riley is held in the same regard. “Those homeless folks who hold up the signs along the road?  They flip them over when I go by,” he said. “Out of respect.” Is life filled with dark passages, unforeseen tragedies?  Yes.
Joey Feek died earlier this year at the age of forty, from Stage 4 cervical cancer—not long after giving birth to a daughter, Indiana, who has Down syndrome (a movie, To Joey,With Love, will be in theaters in limited release later this month).
Still the angels, the saints and the Samaritans remind us that amid despair there is hope.
“Billy, has anyone told you that they love you?” a woman says over her shoulder as she heads for the door.
Sure they have. All the time.

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