This past June 20th marked my 42nd consecutive year working with homeless and at-risk teenagers and young adults.
This is not what I ever thought I would be doing with my life.
I was a finance major in college. I finished near the top of my class. I had a job on Madison Avenue with a very promising business career ahead of me. I had a beautiful studio apartment in Manhattan on 62nd Street between Park and Lexington Avenues.
And then I met Marge.
It was 1980, and I was back at the Catholic university from which I had graduated a year earlier, Villanova, to visit a classmate. She convinced me to attend a Campus Ministry function at the university at which representatives from different nonprofit organizations would present. I agreed to go. What was one hour out of an entire weekend?
It would be the hour that changed my life because that is where I met Marge Crawford, a septuagenarian widow who was a full-time volunteer at Covenant House in Times Square. She showed a film about Covenant House’s work with homeless youth and talked about their need for volunteers. She looked like a suburban grandmother, with perfectly coiffed white hair, Lily Pulitzer pants and Pappagallo shoes, hardly someone working with the homeless.
I approached her afterwards and explained that I was living in New York City and would like to come by some time to see Covenant House and learn about volunteering there one night a week after work. We exchanged phone numbers.
I went to Covenant House a few weeks later. Times Square at that time was, as Rolling Stone magazine then proclaimed it, “the sleaziest block in America.” There is no doubt it was, since it was filled with strip clubs and porn shops, drugs, gangs and violence. And also homeless teens, which is why Covenant House was there.
Marge gave me a tour of their shelter, and we then sat in her small office. As I talked about which nights of the week I might be able to come by, she stated, “Sure, you can do that, but I think you should consider joining the Faith Community here. It’s a one year commitment, you live here and work full-time helping our kids, and you receive $12 a week. We pray the Divine Office together every morning, evening prayer and Mass at 5pm, and then night prayer at 9pm. You first have to come on a one-week orientation, and I have an opening in May. I will put you down.”
Besides wondering what the Divine Office was, I literally broke into a sweat as I sat there thinking, “What the hey lady? What are you talking about? There’s a world of difference between me coming here one night a week to hand out snacks to homeless kids versus completely upending my life and career by joining your Faith Community or whatever it is you call it.”
I calmed myself down by rationalizing that all it would take would be one phone call to this woman at a later date to cancel the orientation for which she had scheduled me. “Just humor her,” I thought. “Let her put your name down. I can get out of this easily.”
But I did start volunteering one night a week. I’d play basketball with the kids there in the gym and hand out snacks before bedtime. I’d take groups of kids to off-Broadway plays.
And doing this, week after week, month after month, I began to gradually realize something.
I liked it, a lot, and that this is what God was calling me to do with my life.
So I did go on that orientation. And then I quit my job. I gave up the studio apartment. I donated my suits and ties to Goodwill. I think my younger brother got my car.
And I moved into a hovel of a room in the Covenant House Faith Community, across the street from a crack house and a strip club, earning $12 a week.
I couldn’t have been happier. I found out what the Divine Office was and how to pray it. I met some incredible people with whom I went on retreat twice a year.
And I got to know Marge Crawford. Her late husband had been a New York State Supreme Court Justice. She came from money and privilege. Most people in her position would be retired, out on the golf course a few times a week, relaxing at a country club. Not her. Not Marge. She had dedicated her senior years to serving the poor.
She was also a peace activist, serving stints in prison with the likes of Fr. Daniel Berrigan and even actor Martin Sheen. One day she invited me to, “a little gathering for peace,” and the next thing I knew I was standing in front of a nuclear weapons research lab holding a sign that said, “You can’t hug a child with nuclear arms.” This was in midtown Manhattan, and I was absolutely petrified that one of my former business peers would walk by and see me. Another time she told me she was heading to Washington D.C. to protest the Reagan administration’s funding of death squads in El Salvador and other South American countries. She told me she would likely be arrested, which is exactly what happened. She came back a week later and I asked her, “How bad was it?”
She smiled and replied, “They put me in the female prison. Most of the women there were in for prostitution, and I taught them how to say the Rosary.”
I signed up for one year with the Faith Community but ended up staying for over two. I stayed in close touch with Marge afterwards, seeing her at least once a year. I’d meet her at a peace witness or for dinner somewhere.
Over the next decade her health declined. She had been going for weekly dialysis treatments ever since I had met her. Then she had cancer and beat that. She fell and broke her hip. It was one injury or malady after another.
In 1991 I received a phone call, “Marge is near death. If you want to go and say goodbye to her, now’s the time.” I was living in Brooklyn so the next night I took the subway to Times Square and entered the very same Faith Community building where I had started ten years earlier. There was a long line leading up to her room. It was like being at a wake except this time the person was still alive.
When it was finally my turn to go in and see her, I was advised, “She’s very weak. Please keep it short.” I went in and Marge was lying on a hospital bed, pillows propped up under her head. She saw me and smiled. She looked very tired but also very much at peace.
She asked how I was, and I told her that I had recently been named director of a shelter for homeless teens in Brooklyn that was run by a Catholic nonprofit organization.
“Good for you,” she said, “I’m so glad you are still doing God’s work.”
“Well don’t forget,” I replied, “you were the one who got me started in this racket!”
She laughed and said, “Don’t blame me! I think it had more to do with the Holy Spirit!”
We talked for a few more minutes, but I knew I had to keep it short, so I thanked her for all she done for me, for basically changing my life, and gave her a kiss goodbye.
A few days later the call came, “Marge passed away last night. She wasn’t in any pain. A priest was at her side and administered the sacraments.” The funeral was held in the Faith Community chapel, a place where she had prayed for literally thousands of hours. Hundreds of former community members showed up along with her family and other friends. Her casket was a simple unvarnished pine box; I’m sure she specified that. At a certain point people were asked to share their most fond memories of Marge. Person after person attested to her faith, how she helped people, and how she brought people to a clearer and deeper understanding of God’s love, especially God’s love for the poor.
At the end of the funeral the casket was wheeled out of the chapel onto the very streets of Times Square where Marge had ministered to homeless youth for so many years. A saxophone player in the back of the chapel did a long and slow version of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I learned that Marge’s son had hired him, so afterwards I asked him, “Where’d you find the sax player?”
“I took the subway here this morning, and he was playing on the platform, so I went and offered him $40 to come play at my mother’s funeral,” he replied.
I cracked up when I heard that and said, “Marge must have loved that.”
“I’m sure she did,” he said.
Fifteen years later I was working in Burlington, Vermont as the newly-hired director of the state’s largest program for homeless youth, Spectrum Youth and Family Services. A local lawyer had donated a substantial amount to us so I called and invited him in so I could meet him and offer a tour. He came in a few weeks later, and taking him through our shelter he said, “I can tell from your accent that you are not from Vermont.”
I laughed and said, “That’s right, I’m not. I’m from New Yawk.”
“Did you do this type of work there?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “I started over 20 years ago at this place called Covenant House.”
“Really?” he said. “Covenant House? Did you happen to know my aunt, who was also my Godmother? Her name was Marge Crawford.”
I stood there for a moment in stunned silence. I finally replied, “Yes I did. I did know your aunt, who was your Godmother. In fact I would not be standing here now, doing the work I am doing, having worked with thousands of homeless kids over the decades, if not for Marge Crawford.”
I was taught by Augustinian priests and brothers, and according to St. Augustine, “You are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you.”
That is who Marge Crawford was and is for me.
Mark Redmond is the author of Called: A Memoir.
Image provided by the author
Mark Redmond has worked in the field of caring for homeless and at-risk youth for over 42 years, starting as a member of the Covenant House faith community in 1981. He is presently executive director of Spectrum Youth & Family Services in Burlington, Vermont.
He has published columns in Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Commonweal, The National Catholic Reporter and America. He is also a storyteller. His story “This Church” was on The Moth Radio Hour and podcast, and he has had stories on other podcasts such as The Lapse, Family Secrets, The Goodness Exchange, Outside the Walls and Risk! A story he told for WGBH’s Stories from the Stage played on most public television stations around the United States, and his one-person show on Broadway, So Shines a Good Deed, premiered in October 2019. Six days later his one-person show The Moustache Diaries premiered at The Flynn Space in Burlington. He has performed on stage in Boston, Brooklyn, Montreal and Burlington.
His first book, The Goodness Within: Reaching out to Troubled Teens with Love and Compassion (Paulist Press) was published in 2003 and his latest book, Called: A Memoir (Onion River Press) came out in May 2021.
Mark graduated from Villanova University in 1979 and from New York University with a masters in 1986.
Mark lives in Essex, Vermont with his wife Marybeth and son Liam who is a junior at the University of Notre Dame.