The Least of These

“…inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ 

Matt. 37



        Rusty, the managing editor of the paper, called me into his office one morning.

        “I need you to set up an interview with Brother Benno.”

        Brother Benno Garrity was a Benedictine monk revered for his work to feed the hungry and homeless in northern San Diego County over 30 years. Brother Benno, who inspired a center named after him that provided meals and other services to people who were homeless, lived at the Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside, Calif. At 81, he was gravely ill with Parkinson’s Disease, a brain disorder that leads to shaking, stiffness, and difficulty with walking, balance and coordination. He wasn’t expected to live much longer.

        “They’ve administered his last rites several times over the past year,” Rusty said. Brother Benno would not be ready to go until later that year.

        It was February 1992 and I was a reporter for the Blade-Citizen. I loved my job, which involved covering a local city hall and homelessness. I was 24 and was just starting my journalism career. Having moved from Texas the year before, I fell in love with the milder temperatures, the Pacific Ocean, and writing about issues that mattered. The newspaper offices were a quick walk to the beach. My business card featured a blue ocean wave. I wanted to ride it as far as possible.

        I had never seen anyone experiencing homelessness until I went to college in Austin. There, I regularly saw people who panhandled on the strip of shops and restaurants next to campus. Most of us just walked by. Homelessness became a major issue at that time, in the late 1980s despite a thriving economy. The number of homeless people with serious mental illnesses reached a critical mass. Many used to live in state psychiatric institutions, but those facilities were scaling down. Because of civil rights legislation, thousands of people with disabling mental illnesses no longer could be held against their will in institutions. Even those who wanted to stay were sent to live independently, without the level of help needed. In Southern California, you couldn’t not see homelessness. It was everywhere — on the beaches, along the riverbeds and creeks, in the canyons below affluent neighborhoods filled with Spanish-tiled roofs. Oceanside, like many southern California cities, had thousands of people who were homeless. 

        With homelessness comes complaints about homeless people’s presence. Brother Benno, on the other hand, was the embodiment of unconditional love. Born in Kentucky in 1910 as Thomas Garrity, Brother Benno came of age at a drastically different time, the beginning of the Great Depression. He worked on his father’s farm, a steel mill and for a debt collection agency before entering monastic life in 1933. In 1962, he was sent to Oceanside, which had a new abbey. There, he cooked for his fellow monks and invented his “wonder” bread touched with a drop of holy water. Brother Benno eventually was baking 350 loaves of bread every week, which he delivered to the poor or bartered for other things they needed. I’d seen Brother Benno’s photo at Brother Benno’s Center. He was bald, wore wire-framed glasses, his long monk’s robe, and had a kind, genuine smile. Brother Benno’s Center’s mission is “to carry on the ministry of Brother Benno by living out the gospel according to Matthew 25:31-45 with love and compassion.” Matthew 25:31-45 examines how we treat those in need, “the least of these.” 

        On the day of my interview with Brother Benno, I drove to the Abbey, which was on a hill two miles inland and had a panoramic view that includes the ocean to the west and Camp Pendleton to the north. Inside, an assistant led me to a room where I waited for Brother Benno. I remember high ceilings and spare furnishings. A few minutes later, the door opened. Brother Benno sat in wheelchair, and another monk, Brother Raphael, pushed the wheelchair into the room and brought him next to me. Brother Benno spoke in a soft, quiet voice that was difficult to understand at times.  He took a sip from a glass of water, his hands shaking, a symptom of Parkinson’s Disease. In people with Parkinson’s, the nerve cells in the basal ganglia, an area of the brain that controls movement, become impaired or die. Some days, all Brother Benno could do was lie in bed. Fortunately that day was one of his better days.

        As Brother Benno took a sip of his coffee, some dribbled down his chin.

        “I have a drinking problem,” he joked.

        At first, I thought I had misunderstood. Then I saw his smile and the twinkle in his eyes. In addition to his generosity, Brother Benno was known for his sense of humor. He made the photographer and me laugh as he posed for photos.

        “Is my slip showing?” he said. “Is my hair straight?”

        I still keep a small book of Brother Benno’s jokes. They were silly but had a common thread of acknowledging our shared humanity.

        A man fell off of a cliff, but caught hold of a tree limb on the way down. He was pretty frightened, and he began to pray. 

        “Lord, if you help me, I’ll be your man. I’ll go to church. I’ll pray. I’ll do anything you want…just save me!” A voice said in the reply, “OK, I’ll help you, but first let go of the branch.” The man thought about it and said, “Is there anyone else I can talk to up there?”


        The previous year, Brother Benno’s Center had moved to a larger facility in an industrial park. Neighboring business owners were complaining about homeless people urinating, panhandling, loitering and scaring employees in the area. Brother Benno’s officials worked to resolve the issue but said the real problem was that the government was not providing adequate treatment for people with serious mental illnesses. 

        As I wrote my article about Brother Benno, how he coped with his illness, how he had inspired so many, I struggled to understand how the concept of unconditional love could play out in real life. There’s a story about the time Brother Benno was robbed. Three men had come to the abbey, asking for work. The monk offered to pay each of them $5 to hoe weeds for an hour. When they finished, Brother Benno opened his wallet to pay them. The men grabbed his wallet, which included his license and phone numbers, and ran away. However, as the story goes, the monk was not angry, saying: “The money in my wallet was given to me to help the poor and they were certainly poor people who needed help.” I had no idea how to incorporate those values without getting crushed. I had a boyfriend I thought I loved unconditionally, despite concerns about his drinking, which I played down because I drank too. I loved him despite him being so irresponsible that his car was repossessed. I loved him, even when he gave little in return. One night, after we’d been together about a year, my boyfriend called and said he needed to tell me something. I could tell from his voice that something was seriously wrong. I drove to his house, stomach in knots, heart ready to implode. His roommate answered the door and greeted me with that strange heavy air of someone straining to sound casual, like the awkward stillness before a tornado rips a neighborhood inside out. My boyfriend and I went into his room and sat on his bed as he told me that he had had sex with a woman at his work and that she was pregnant. That he didn’t want to be with her; that he wanted us to stay together. All I remember was how much it hurt, how I had been robbed.

        I drove back to my apartment, got in bed, tears dripping on my notebooks as I wrote about what happened. I ripped up the pages in journal many years ago, knowing that I would never want to relive that pain. If they could be pieced back together, those pages were drenched in hurt, humiliation, shame. They would show someone who hated themself for not being worth a boyfriend who would treat her better and for getting involved with someone who would treat them that way. They would show someone who felt like this was proof indeed, of what they had suspected all along, that they were unlovable as they felt. Later that night, my friend and roommate , Tina, came home and found me in tears. I told her what had happened and cried until there were no tears left as she tried to comfort me. That night, I couldn’t sleep as my mind replayed what had happened. I hated myself for getting into a relationship with someone who would treat me so poorly. I hated myself for being so unworthy of the happy relationships other people seemed to have. I hated myself for feeling sorry for myself. 

        The next morning, I went to work, not sure how I was going to get through the day. I felt shaky, unable to concentrate, and on the verge of crying. As soon as I got to the office, I found out that Brother Benno had died. I needed to write a story for the next day’s paper. I headed to Brother Benno’s Center to interview people who knew the monk and those who benefitted from his kind spirit. As I tried to focus on my story, I thought about how covering Brother Benno’s death forced me to focus on something besides my own pain, something outside myself. All that day, people I interviewed talked about Brother Benno’s message of unconditional love. I could only feel hate, for my ex, for myself. Writing about Brother Benno’s legacy, hearing stories all day about his goodness, somehow brought comfort. I remember telling a friend at work that I felt that writing about Brother Benno’s death was meaningful to me in that moment. I’m sure my point was confusing because I barely understood it. All I knew was that writing about Brother Benno’s legacy brought me out of my misery for a short time when I needed it and reminded me that, although it was hard to find, unconditional love existed, at least in Brother Benno.

        The next week, I went to Brother Benno’s funeral and graveside burial. In his eulogy, Harold Kutler, who founded Brother Benno’s Center with his wife, Kaye, called Brother Benno “the personification of unconditional love.” Kutler said “unconditional love is the impossible dream, the unreachable star because it is the gift that sets us free, the gift that empowers us to become the person God has created us to be.” Kutler told the story of a homeless man who defiantly told Brother Benno “Are you here to change me?” and Brother Benno said. “No, I’m here to love you.”

        After the memorial, we walked to the Abbey’s cemetery, where Brother Benno was buried. After the Abbott Claude took a shovel full of dirt and released it into the grave. Then, everyone took turns doing the same. I drove back to the office to write my story for the next morning’s paper. As the weeks and months passed, I became more and more depressed. Finally, after a nudge from my roommate, I made a long-overdue appointment to see a therapist. It was the beginning of a long journey that taught me that my depression wasn’t just about the breakup. The pain I felt forced me to confront a problem that went much deeper. I had never thought about giving unconditional love to the person who needed it most. I had never considered giving it to myself.

Kim Horner

Kim Horner is author of Probably Someday Cancer: Genetic Risk and Preventative Mastectomy (The University of North Texas Press, 2019). Her work has appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Seventeen, Minnow Literary Magazine, 805, and Parhelion. She has an MFA in creative writing from The University of Arkansas at Monticello.

Transcendance through Divine Storytelling