By Diane Holloway
Todd FitzGerald’s history with Trinity Center goes way back – beginning, for all practical purposes, with the Center’s birth. After graduating from seminary in Chicago, the Louisiana native came to St. David’s Episcopal Church as curate and served from 1998 to 2000.
“During that time, I was in charge of the services in Bethell Hall and got to know Doug and Diana Bell,” FitzGerald recalled recently. “I remember Doug talking about wanting to work more with the population of Caritas and the ARCH and what that might look like. That was my first introduction to that kind of ministry – listening to Doug and Diana dream. So I was around when they were laying the foundation, knew the players and was inspired by them all.”
As Trinity Center celebrates its 20th year of serving downtown Austin’s homeless “neighbors,” FitzGerald, chaplain since 2012 at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, will be accepting the prestigious Pat Hazel Award at the Barbara Jordan Celebration (April 24th ) on behalf of the school. The award is named after the beloved St. David’s priest who was Trinity’s spiritual soul from the Center’s birth until his death in 2011.
“I knew Father Pat but didn’t know him well,” FitzGerald said. “I remember him being gentle and thoughtful.”
After occasionally serving at Trinity with St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, which his wife and daughters attend, FitzGerald was encouraged by Caroline Kibler (an original Trinity Center supporter and another Pat Hazel Award winner) to bring his St. Stephen’s students into the Streets program as a separate group in 2014. About eight students come with FitzGerald to host the afternoon worship service and meal for 40 to 60 people. St. Stephen’s currently hosts more Sunday Streets services than any other participant in the rotation of schools and churches.
“We have great privilege at our school, with many students coming from wealthy families,” FitzGerald said. “It was important to me as chaplain to invite them into the margins of society, where people do not have privilege. I think that helps you to hold your privilege differently, be more humble. I always tell them the greatest gift you can bring to the neighbors is to look them in the eye and ask how they’re doing. You’re helping restore dignity by saying hello and shaking their hand and looking them in the eye. We can’t understand their experience, but we can try to connect with them.”
Besides Trinity Center, FitzGerald’s students also serve brunch and play board games with residents of Community First Village once a month. Homelessness clearly has become a focus of St. Stephen’s service learning, and FitzGerald believes the impact is already being felt.
“I think my boys and girls move from an abstract concept of homelessness to meeting a human being with a story,” he said. “That’s a very important transition for them. When we leave this pastoral setting overlooking the lake in West Austin and drive to where people are living hard lives, we always park in the parking lot and walk to 7th Street. In that short walk, we see where some people really live. It’s important to have boots on the ground and walk where people are trying to survive.”
Not surprisingly, the students at St. Stephen’s aren’t the only beneficiaries of this heartfelt service.
“I’ve been a priest for 20 years, and in the past few years God has helped me grow to more and more of an understanding of the Matthew 25 Gospel,” FitzGerald said. “Serving the most vulnerable was what Jesus pointed to when he said ‘when you do it to the least of them, you do it to me.’ What’s really beautiful about that is service can be a form of worship or contemplation. When we interact in a meaningful way with humans who are broken, it’s a form of encountering the living Christ. We are the hands and feet of Christ in that moment, and the person we’re interacting with is also the hands and feet of Christ.”
Like Father Pat Hazel before him, FitzGerald especially treasures celebrating Eucharist with the neighbors.
“One of the most profound moments is to put the sacraments into the hands of those seeking the love of God in Christ,” he said. “When I’m able to do that at Trinity, the hands show great vulnerability and struggle. That has become increasingly important to my own understanding of myself as a priest. It’s transformational and deepening me in my priesthood.”
An astute neighbor said one Sunday after worship: “He likes being here with us, doesn’t he? I can tell. So do the kids, I think.”