Give drink to the thirsty: Joe McCawley, quenching a thirst for the water of life

Joe McCawley said the people he serves at Paz de Cristo often feel invisible. "They are thirsting for more than water — they are thirsting for what is empty in their souls and for anyone to listen to them." (Joyce Coronel/CATHOLIC SUN)
Joe McCawley said the people he serves at Paz de Cristo often feel invisible. “They are thirsting for more than water — they are thirsting for what is empty in their souls and for anyone to listen to them.” (Joyce Coronel/CATHOLIC SUN)

On a sweltering hot July afternoon, Joe McCawley scoops up icy water bottles from a cooler and carries them across the parking lot to a group of men and women seeking shelter from the blistering sun.

Waiting for Paz de Cristo’s dining room to open, their faces light up when they glimpse McCawley headed their way with relief.

“Thank you,” one man says gratefully between gulps.

“You can only go so long without water,” McCawley told The Catholic Sun. “It’s a matter of life and death in Arizona with this extreme heat.”

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And the facts prove it: last year there were 84 heat-related deaths in Maricopa County. For those who live on the streets, staying hydrated becomes a matter of survival. Paz de Cristo, a community center in Mesa that provides a nightly meal and other services for the poor, maintains a large jug of water available for the thirsty people who venture past. Water bottles are distributed after the meal service which includes a choice of beverages such as milk, juice or water.

McCawley said that providing water to the homeless and poor is more than simply addressing physical thirst however. It’s also about healing broken hearts and quenching a thirst for love.

“They want to be heard, to be normal,” McCawley said. “They want to be acknowledged.” There’s a reason, he said, that they find themselves homeless or struggling to pay the bills.

“It’s ‘I’ve lost my husband’ or ‘I’ve lost my children’ or ‘I am addicted to drugs or drinking and I’ve lost my way,’” McCawley said. “It’s about people trying to be there to help them find their way back. It means so much to me to serve here.”

He’s known his own share of heartache in life, McCawley said, losing his father when he was 9 years old. Eight years ago, his wife divorced him.

In recognition of the Jubilee Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis, every month The Catholic Sun will feature a “Missionary of Mercy” who ­exemplifies one of the corporal or spiritual works of mercy.

Practical ways to give drink to the thirsty:

➤ Offer water bottles to contractors, painters, landscapers or people on the street.

➤ Donate water bottles, juice and sports drinks to Paz de Cristo and the Society of St. Vincent
de Paul.

➤ Donate water bottles and portable fans to the Maricopa Association of Governments.

“You lose sight of God the Father. Recently I’ve started to understand that I’ve always had a Father,” McCawley said. “I was a very bitter person after the divorce. ‘Woe is me’ and my family was destroyed. I was really sad about that.”

And yet, he said, all that pain led him to rediscover his faith. Since then, he feels he has a calling from God to serve.

Last month, McCawley became a Third Order Franciscan following three years of formation, prayer and study at St. Mary’s Basilica. His
voicemail message announces that he is a “disciple of Jesus Christ following in the way of St. Francis.”

“I wanted to fully work in the Kingdom of God here and not be on the sidelines,” McCawley said. Over the years, he’s volunteered at André House, St. Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army. Staff at Paz de Cristo took notice of his efforts and recently offered him a job on the kitchen staff. Each night anywhere from 130-230 men, women and children show up at the Mesa center for hot meal along with a generous serving of kindness.

“People are not only hungry for food — food they can almost get anytime — but they hunger for what is empty in their souls and their spirits,” McCawley said. “They feel nobody listens to them. I want to bring compassion. I see the face of Christ in them.”

He said some of the guests have opened up and shared their struggles with him. “You can go all your life and be middle class and fall so far you’re out on the streets. This could happen to anybody,” McCawley said of the guests at Paz de Cristo. “I want to be the face of Jesus for someone else but it’s both the giver and the taker that are Jesus. We are Jesus for each other.”