At the corner of Highland Ave. and Hollywood Blvd., an LAPD black-and-white blasted its high-pitched siren, followed by the vehicle’s driver proclaiming, “You cannot cross here. Thank you” over the patrol car’s loudspeaker. A Eucharistic procession, led by a ramrod-straight seminarian name David Allen holding up a pole topped with a gold crucifix, came to a halt on the wide sidewalk.
A man in a lime-green vest clearing the way in front, rushed over to a guy squatting on the sidewalk wrapped in a filthy red blanket. He said in an upbeat voice, “How you doing?” holding out a Marian holy card. The guy in the blanket turned away, muttering something.
A block later, the procession went by a group of Hari Krishna disciples in their saffron robes, chanting and dancing to the beat of a bongo drum. Then they passed a man beating hard and fast on turned-over plastic buckets. And then by a tall, skinny young man wearing a basketball uniform with “Jordan” on the back, twirling a basketball on his right index finger.
A little later at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, a man in pirate garb grinned a devilish Johnny Depp quarter grin while brushing a hand across his waxed mustache. Spiderman and Batman hovered nearby. Girls still in their teens, dressed in scoop-neck blouses and mini-skirts, strolled by.
Along the way, the aptly named “Hollywood Beloved” procession drew plenty of looks and comments. Gawking, a man wearing a cap asked, “What is this for?” But the most stares and queries happened farther down the moving column, passed the bell ringer, two candleholders and a dozen priests and deacons wearing long black cassocks and white surplices. There, under a canopy held up by four serious-looking guys in dark suits and ties, was a robed priest holding up a gold monstrance with the Eucharist encased in glass.
For the most part, people going the other way were pretty respectful, parting like the Red Sea for Moses and the Israelites to pass through.
Hollywood Boulevard procession
The Holy Father has repeatedly stressed that the Church has a sacred duty to reach out to those individuals living on the margins of society. “We must go to the peripheries because that’s where God truly wants us” being one of his common laments.
Pope Francis has also famously urged priests and bishops to spend less time in their comfortable rectories and more time with the poor, like “shepherds living with the smell of their sheep.”
So it was no big surprise when he called for a World Day of the Poor on the 33rd Sunday of ordinary time in the Church’s liturgical year. And on Nov. 19, the pope celebrated a morning Mass with Rome’s poor and the people who assist them. After, he sat down with some 500 individuals to have lunch at the Vatican’s audience hall — formally kicking off the special day.
For the initial celebration, the pontiff quoted St. John Chrysostom, a fifth-century theologian, who advised, “If you want to honor the body of Christ, do not scorn when it is naked. Do not honor the Eucharistic Christ with silk vestments and then, leaving the church, neglect the other Christ suffering from cold and nakedness.”
Here in Los Angeles, FAMILY, The Flying Squad, The Center and other organizations and individuals came together to put on “Hollywood Beloved,” a play on the street name “Hollywood Blvd.,” to join with the pope’s call to do more than just “help” the homeless — but, in his descriptive words, to “draw near to the poor, to encounter them, to meet their gaze, to embrace them and let them feel the warmth of love that breaks through their solitude.”
Locally, the first World Day of the Poor featuring the Eucharistic procession up and down Hollywood Blvd. got an early start the evening of Nov. 18. And it was certainly a demonstrable way to show solidarity with homeless people and those who feel “inner homelessness” for spiritual, emotional, psychological or whatever reasons.
Before the procession, many attended the 6 p.m. vigil Mass at Blessed Sacrament Church on Sunset Blvd. After the hour-long procession, people testified about their own journeys of living on the street. Others spoke about befriending someone who was homeless, and how that personal encounter changed their perspective on the troubling, ongoing issue in L.A. The city and county have been called the “homeless capital” of the nation.
‘My soul was dead’
Like Diane Corlett, who returned to Hollywood after surviving on its mean streets as a prostitute and drug addict. When the procession made its way back to Blessed Sacrament’s parking lot, the woman with straight dark hair down to her shoulders was the first to tell her story.
At 16, she ran away from an abusive home like her brother, who became a male prostitute and heroin addict, contracted AIDS and “died a horrible death at age 19,” she reported on a raised stage facing more than 1,000 people. She joined a gang, experimented with drugs and got arrested.
“And if it couldn’t get any worse than that, one of the gang members took the last bit of innocence that I had and he raped me,” she confided. “I was completely broken and completely wounded. And I was angry, and I didn’t care anymore. So, as time went by, I found myself falling into the same trap that my brother fell into.
“So instead of coming to seek my dreams in Hollywood, I came to live out my nightmares. I became an escort and I sold myself. Hollywood did a number on me, and I was wounded deeper than I’ve ever been wounded before. But at this point I was numb.”
When Corlett couldn’t take the demeaning and dangerous lifestyle any longer, she left the streets of Hollywood. But her wounds stayed with her, and she became a drug addict for the next four years, abusing OxyContin and any other drug she could get her hands on. “My soul was dead, and my body was dying. So finally I hit my rock bottom. I fell on my knees and I begged God to save me. Because if he didn’t, I was going to die,” she explained in a breaking voice.
But three months later, she was still alive. In bed, a single word came across her mind: grace!
“I wanted to know what that word meant, because I never in my life thought to look up what grace meant,” she recalled. “And when I found out, I fell to my knees again. Because it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. So that night I went to bed with that. It warmed my heart, even though I was still wounded.
“I woke up the next morning in a complete state of grace. My beloved had come and saved me with love. And I was completely healed in one night. The drugs gone. The wounds united to Christ on the cross. And since that day, I have been so in love with Jesus and completely healed. Five years it’s been — clean, free. I’m not alone, and I always felt alone.
“But,” she continued, “he’s always been with me.”
Deacon Spencer Lewerenz, a seminarian who helped organize Hollywood Beloved, told Angelus News Pope Francis calling for a World Day of the Poor added a whole new dimension to the annual procession, which started informally in 2010. “It’s not just taking the Eucharist out, but trying to embody what the Eucharist means to people we encounter along the way,” he said. “I mean, Pope Francis says that we need to go from a throwaway culture to a culture of encounter.
“So I think the pope is saying that the only solution is to learn how to reach out and have a real encounter with the poor, and share with them. But, you know, we need to first encounter Christ in our hearts where we recognize our own poverty. So that we have something in common with those people on the street.
“And so we’re not just imposing something on them, but having a person-to-person sharing where we’re both on the same level. And that’s not easy. It’s hard. But that’s what Pope Francis is asking of us.”
Parking lot Benediction
Back in the parking lot behind Blessed Sacrament Church by 8:30 p.m., the monstrance was placed on a small altar on the raised stage. The crowd knelt for the outdoor Benediction. In silence and semi-darkness, worshippers stayed kneeling for a meditation coming over the sound system with words of adoration, like, “Thank you for calling us together to be loved” and “You know us each by name.” Hymns were sung.
At almost 9 p.m., Father Ethan Southard from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Santa Clarita carried the monstrance through the crowd of kneelers. Worshippers made signs of the cross or simply bowed. And the Blessed Sacrament was taken back into Blessed Sacrament Church.
For a related interview with filmmaker Ted Landreth on helping the poor and homeless in L.A. click here.