Brother Ron Fender said when he “saw Christ eating out of a garbage can,” his life was changed.
At that point more than a decade ago, the sometime teacher, sometime director, sometime actor, who had entered a Massachusetts monastery to discern his future, knew what he should do for the rest of his life.
Fender, now outreach case manager with the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, recently collected into a book a number of pieces he’d written in the year before taking his final vows with the Brotherhood of St. Gregory.
That book, published by Chattanooga’s WonderPress, is called “These Things I Have Seen (One Brother’s Journey Into the American Jungle).”
Fender, 57, who was raised in Asheville, N.C., said the book is “sort of a valentine to my brothers” and to other people he has known.
He said he talks honestly in the book about attending college in the early 1970s and some of the things he did in a time of “chaos and exuberance.”
People may be surprised to learn, Fender said, that “I have a past, that I am very much just a person, that I came from a [cultural] place that surprises them.”
Yet in doing the writing, he said, he learned “how deeply and truly I love and respect these [homeless] people” with whom he works daily.
Those people include the homeless Christ figure with whom Fender had the encounter in Massachusetts and a homeless man who hung himself in a tree not far from the Community Kitchen.
Sometimes, he said, in looking at how people end up hanging on trees, “we cannot do anything but be present.”
Fender said that, as he was growing up, his heroes were men such as Robert F. Kennedy, César Chávez and Martin Luther King Jr., men who spoke of helping the poor. And, yet, he said, when he turned 40, he found himself wanting to drive a nice car, to own things and to earn money.
“There was not a whole lot to bring healing to the world,” he said.
In deciding to enter a monastery, Fender said, he wanted to pray and discern what to do.
“I wanted to bring healing to myself,” he said.
Once in the monastery, Fender said, he wanted to live out his life there, “praying and meditating and being in that holy place.”
“The last thing I wanted to do,” he said, “was to end up on the streets with homeless people.”
However, the man at the garbage can emboldened Fender to pledge the rest of his life to live in the American jungle — the streets — referred to in the subtitle of his book.
Of the 4 million homeless people in the United States, nearly 2 million are children, the St. Gregory brother said.
“We don’t talk about that,” Fender said. “We don’t hear it debated. In America, there is a widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots.”
As such, the jungle he walks daily takes him under bridges, inside abandoned buildings and in the woods.
“That it’s a jungle out there is very true,” Fender said, “and it’s eat or be eaten. It’s a national disgrace, and we’re ashamed of it, so we don’t talk about it.”
The $10 book, the proceeds from which go to the Community Kitchen, is available at the Kitchen and at some church bookstores.
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...