July 14, 2006

A call to serve the poor: ‘I’m going to keep doing this until God calls me to heaven’

By John Shaughnessy

At 90, Lucious Newsom hitches up his blue bib overalls and climbs into his white van, preparing to continue his work as “the Lord’s beggar for the poor”—a role he has served for 18 years in Indianapolis.

Pulling the van away from the curb, the retired Baptist minister-turned-Catholic waves goodbye to some of the 89 Hispanic families who have just spent the last 30 minutes filling their laundry baskets and milk crates with free tomatoes, onions, peppers and other vegetables—produce that Newsom begged for and collected from an Indianapolis company shortly after he awakened at 4:15 a.m. on this sunny, steamy morning.

Now, as a gold crucifix bounces around his neck—a gift from the families he has just helped—Newsom weaves the van through the city’s near-westside, heading toward a place that he views as a beacon of hope and promise in an area scarred by poverty, crime and drugs.

The place is called “Anna’s House,” a clinic and learning center that will offer food, dental care, medical help and educational services, including tutoring and computer training for children.

Scheduled to open on July 29, Anna’s House is Newsom’s dream to make a lasting difference in the lives of people who struggle against the odds. The house is named in honor of Anna Molloy, a 10-year-old blond-haired, brown-eyed member of St. Jude Parish in Indianapolis, who helps Newsom feed the poor from her wheelchair.

“I named it for her because of her hard work and her love of Jesus,” Newsom says. “She’s on oxygen all the time, and she still keeps coming out to help me.”

Newsom parks the van and walks across the street toward Anna’s House.

“People have come together,” he says, his face beaming. “They said, ‘I’ll pay for the siding. I’ll pay for the plumbing. I’ll pay for this and that.’ It’s more than what I hoped for. It’s more than what I dreamed.”

A need to give more

The story of Newsom’s dream overflows with long hours, complete faith, tireless energy and inspiring anecdotes.

Start with the Thanksgiving nearly 20 years ago when he arrived in Indianapolis from Tennessee to serve meals of turkey, potatoes and vegetables for the poor.

Newsom loved helping, and he loved seeing the grateful looks on people’s faces, so he excitedly asked the other ministers, “What are we going to do tomorrow?” When they told him the event was just once a year, Newsom didn’t understand. He wanted to do more. He had to do more.

He now helps the poor at several locations across the city. He and his volunteers set up tables and stock them with the fruits, vegetables, salads, breads and meats he has collected—so it looks like a grocery store; so it gives the people a choice and a sense of dignity.

Today, people of different faiths contribute to his efforts, but Catholics were the only ones who helped him when he started, he says. He gives special credit to Father Steven Schwab—now the pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Indianapolis—for leading him to the faith.

“That’s the first person who ever helped me,” Newsom says, recalling when he met the priest at St. Luke Parish in Indianapolis. “I’ll be forever grateful.”

Father Schwab downplays his role: “Lucious is Catholic in his bones. He has a sense of the sacramental. He has a great sense of devotion to the saints. He’s been fascinated with St. Jude for a while. The idea that there’s a patron saint for impossible causes caught his attention.

“Lucious has a sense of a very specific call to serve the poor in a ministry that is completely ‘hands on.’ There is something of St. Vincent de Paul, Dorothy Day and St. Katharine Drexel in Lucious.”

Salvation on the streets

As Newsom stands outside Anna’s House, a man from the neighborhood approaches him. The man tells Newsom his electricity has been disconnected and he needs help paying the bill for $149.

“If I get you part of it, how much can you come up with?” Newsom asks.

The man says he needs $60. Newsom gives him the money as the man tells him, “I get upset sometimes, but then I go back and talk to God.”

“That’s your only hope, man,” says Newsom, a member of Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ Parish in Indianapolis. “I want you to go one time with me to church. I’ll take you to Mass.”

The man says he’ll consider the offer, thanks Newsom again and walks back toward his house.

A minute later, a homeless man pushes a shopping cart past Anna’s House, a shopping cart that contains crushed cans and a ragged copy of the New Testament. Newsom greets the man like a friend and listens to his story. Newsom promises to return later in the day to help the man get into a shelter. He also gives him $20. The two men hug in the middle of the street.

Two minutes later, a mother walks from her home toward Newsom. The skyline of Indianapolis—about a mile from where he stands—can be seen in the distance.

“I’ve known Lucious for nine years,” says Laura Butcher, 33. “He’s done a lot for this neighborhood. The kids around here don’t have nothing but the streets. We haven’t had a community center since I was a teenager.”

She then asks Newsom for a favor.

Watching Newsom in these situations, there is a temptation to believe he is “a soft touch.” That image is deceiving, says Bill Bahler, a volunteer who has worked with Newsom for eight years.

Bahler shares the story of a man who told him he needed $180 to pay a fine so his wife wouldn’t go to jail. After collecting the money from friends, Bahler phoned Newsom to tell him he was giving the money to the man. Newsom told Bahler to hold onto the money for a while, that he would handle the situation.

Newsom phoned Bahler back and told him the man confessed that he didn’t need the money. When Bahler asked Newsom how he gained that confession from the man, Newsom said, “I told him I was going to represent them before the judge.”

“He’s taught me discernment,” Bahler says. “You don’t always give people what they want. You don’t always say yes. He expects people to take care of themselves.”

God’s touch of life

Bahler wishes he would have kept a book of the blessed moments that seem to surround Newsom.

“The miracles I’ve seen are uncanny,” says Bahler, a member of Holy Spirit Parish in Fishers, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese.

He shares the story of stopping by Holy Spirit one Saturday morning on the way to help Newsom feed the hungry. A fellow parishioner approached him and said, “We’ve got a stove and a refrigerator that have been donated. Ask Lucious if he knows anybody who needs it.”

When Bahler pulled into the parking area where Newsom gives food to the needy, 300 people were already waiting that day. Bahler hadn’t yet talked to Newsom when a young man walked toward him and said, “My wife and I just moved here. We don’t have anything, not even a bed, but what I really need is a refrigerator and stove so my wife can cook. Can you help me?”

“It floored me,” Bahler said. “In my eight years, I’ve only been told about a refrigerator and a stove being donated once. And only one time has anyone ever asked me for a stove and a refrigerator.”

He also recalls another situation when a mother and her 6-year-old daughter showed up one Saturday morning to take their place in line to get food. To help them through the line, they were randomly matched with two volunteers—who happened to be a mother and her 6-year-old daughter.

“The mother who was volunteering came back crying,” Bahler says. “She told me how the little girl of the other woman looked up at her mom and said, ‘Mom, does this mean we’re going to eat tonight?’

“Lucious tells me, ‘Anytime you’re doing something spiritual—for someone you don’t know and you’re not getting anything back either—God is present.’ That’s what I’ve learned to expect.”

Building a home for heaven

As Anna’s House has taken shape in the past year, Pete Molloy has learned the power of faith from Newsom.

“I remember sitting down with Lucious and telling him we had to have a major fundraiser to raise $100,000 to help build the house,” says Molloy, the father of Anna. “He told me I didn’t have enough faith. He said what we needed, God will provide. He convinced me to start to reach out, to ask people for what I needed. So many people responded.

“Lucious’ faith has taught me that when you pray and put God in your life, there’s no limit to what you can do.”

When his cell phone rings, Newsom reaches into a pocket of his bib overalls—the overalls he wears each day “to remind me of what a nobody I am. I try to tell everybody about Jesus because he can meet their needs, he can save them.”

The caller wants help with her rent. Newsom offers to pay half, telling the woman she has to help herself. Two minutes later, he’s back in the white van, driving to pick up donated clothes that he will distribute to people at a federal housing project in the afternoon.

Before his 14-hour day of working for the poor ends, the temperature will reach near his age—90. He keeps going strong.

“I go to bed so thankful that God gave me this job,” he says. “I’m just thankful I can serve him, that he can use an old guy like me. I live by faith. I’m going to keep doing this until God calls me to heaven.”

(Anyone wanting to help Lucious Newsom’s mission—or needing help—can call him at 317-372-7323.) †


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